A strong STEM begins with good roots

The planting began at NB middle school

By MaryHelen Swanson

Something sci-fi was happening at the North Branch Middle School last week. There were robots everywhere in Mrs. Moeller’s classroom, swinging their arms, tossing little balls, moving along the floor and across desk tops, and offering clever quips upon completion of assignments.

NBAEF members Donna Hubbard, center, and Kitty Eichholz learn about programming from one of the students. Photo by MaryHelen Swanson

And the students? Why they were having a great time showing off their robotics projects to several members of the North Branch Area Education Foundation (NBAEF), an organization that provided grant funds for the middle school robotics program to be started.

According to Mrs. Lisa Moeller, 6th-grade teacher at the school, “The LEGO Mindstorms Education NXT Robotics program provides an opportunity for students to participate in hands-on learning tasks incorporating engineering, science, math, and technology skills.

“Students build and program robots to perform specific functions.  They use computers to write basic to complex programs that will operate the robot with various motors and light, sound, touch, and ultrasonic sensors.

“In addition, it allows for flexibility in final products that will meet the individual needs of the diverse learners in North Branch Middle School.”

The 16-week program involved a lot of math, but often the students didn’t realize that math was the lesson being learned.

In addition to team work, the students learned time management and responsibility, especially if you were the one responsible for making sure the battery was charged.

Mrs. Moeller explained why the sixth-grade science department chose to seek the NBAEF grant to help fund the robotics program.

“Our science book was already seven years old. We struggled to find current experiments and activities to help present abstract science concepts for our students,” she said.

In addition, finding funds to buy the materials required for the experiments allowed all students, regardless of their economic backgrounds, to participate in a proven and effective engaged hands-on learning situation.

“The LEGO Mindstorms Education NXT Robotics would provide a thorough and ideal way to connect all of our new STEM standards and Minnesota engineering standards,” she added.

The Robotics program was four weeks (16 days) this school year because of just receiving the grant materials on March 16.

Moeller said,  “We wanted all current sixth graders to have an opportunity to use the program, so the materials were rotated among the science teachers.  It will be incorporated throughout the school year in longer durations in the future.”

After the presentation that day, the students eagerly dismantled their robots so other classes could use the kits. There were no sad faces, however, as it appeared it was as much fun to take down their creations as it was to build them.

The class had videotaped messages of thanks to the NBAEF earlier and they were played for the foundation members before they left the room.

Comments ranged from it was the “most funnest” to “my favorite thing was everything.”

Many of the students noted that a favorite part of the project was working together with friends and getting to do whatever they wanted as far as design and operation of their robot. It was a chance to be creative, they said,

A number of the students liked the programming part of the project, others the testing and trying to get their projects to work.

Finally, one young man closed with a simple comment, “You don’t get any homework.”

All said Thank You loud and clear.

The North Branch Area Education Foundation (NBAEF) funds projects that are innovative and enrich or supplement teaching efforts/learning activities that directly benefit students.

The grant develops learning opportunities not usually possible within the normal school budget and enhances the learning experience for larger numbers of students.

The NBAEF granted the sixth-grade science department’s wish at a little under $10,000 (each kit was $370) and the robotics program will reach countless North Branch Area students for years to come.

The NBAEF members listened carefully to Principal Todd Tetzlaff as they left the school that day, about the exciting plans for the future of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies in the NB schools.

Next year, Tetzlaff said, the program will extend to the 7th and 8th grade and will need $38,000 to implement. Ahead, the STEM programs will reach to the high school and students will be able to get college credit for participation.

The NBAEF members listened carefully, you could almost see idea bulbs popping up over their heads. NBAEF will present its third annual spectacular fall fundraising event this year.

The fundraiser has been quite successful so far and grants have provided such things as Smartboards and Kindles for the schools. NBAEF president Rob Sanvik said it’s wonderful to be able to provide funds for the things NB students might otherwise have to do without.

up arrow