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Students Get a Diverse STEM Education at Thoreau

The STEM program at Thoreau Demonstration Academy is a great way for students to learn skills they will use in high school and beyond. Not only are students getting introduced to a wide variety of career paths, they are learning communication skills, presentation skills, and teamwork. Thoreau students have worked on everything from building earthquake-proof towers to hovercrafts to designing and framing model houses. STEM teacher Megan Phillips said the program gets students accustomed to project-based learning instead of the direct instruction they may be used to.

“Here’s your design brief, go for it,” she tells them.

Each grade level takes on a different aspect of STEM education. 6th graders get to explore several facets, including space flight, robotics, and design.

“I do little engineering activities with them to hopefully get them interested to stay [in STEM classes] in 7th and 8th grade,” said Megan.

For 7th and 8th graders, Megan gets to offer a different type of class depending on the semester. The classes are funded through Gateway, a Project Lead the Way (PLTW) program. PLTW offers training and curriculum for several different Gateway units, and Megan can select which one she teaches each semester to keep the classes fresh and keep the students engaged.

This year, 7th graders are doing App Creators, which allows the students to create their own mobile app that they can publish to the Google Play store.

“If they can figure it out, they can make it,” said Megan.

Throughout the class, students learn about making games, data-tracking apps, and storage apps. One student designed a study guide app with digital flashcards.

“They are learning the language that way when they go to high school or get a coding job or coding school, they’ll know the basic structure. It’s a good foundation,” said Megan.

8th graders are taking on a interesting new challenge – a Medical Detectives course. Students collect and analyze data to diagnose a disease. Through this class, they are learning how to take vitals, how to identify symptoms, and how to talk to patients.

“We have blood pressure cuffs. We have thermometers. We're going to take our blood sugar,” said Megan. “Everything is simulated from the real-world.”

In Medical Detectives, students are learning about human body systems, fingerprinting, blood typing, and DNA. In the third unit of the class, they have to use all the skills they have learned to control an outbreak.

Megan said these STEM classes in middle school prepare students for the responsibilities they will take on in high school, and it gets them thinking about what they may want to pursue as a career goal.

“If they really enjoy connecting wires, maybe they want to be an electrician. If they love these vital signs and learning patient lingo and talking to people, maybe they want to be a doctor. It is exposing them to those things that they might not have ever [thought about],” said Megan.

She said the hands-on learning is a great way to add some excitement to the school day and reach students who learn in different ways.

“Every single kid gets something out of it. Even if they are the shyest child in the world, and they are having to work in a group. If they like to learn from reading a piece of paper, I give them a piece of paper. If they like to learn kinesthetically and get up and do something, they learn that way. If they like to learn because they’re seeing something or seeing someone do something, they’re learning that way. It appeals to every single kid, and I think it reminds them how to learn and it makes learning fun,” she said.

For the students that thrive in these classes, they have the opportunity to pursue it outside of the school day through the Technology Student Association (TSA).

“If they are loving a career tech program, they get to go be in a club that highlights the best, most fun areas of career tech,” said Megan.

Through TSA, students can compete in everything from board game design to coding to forensic science. Thoreau students have had great success at TSA competitions, from earning six trophies at the state conference to placing 8th in the national conference this past summer.

Check out the photos below to see some of the projects Thoreau students have worked on in their STEM classes.