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News | Education

Legos, Marshmallow-Launchers Build Enthusiasm For STEM Curriculum

To an outsider, the recent scene at the Tualatin High School cafeteria might have looked a lot like speed dating: teachers from the Portland metro area’s public schools hovered over tables staffed by representatives from local tech firms, including Garmin and Intel.

It was all a part of a four-day event focused on STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The idea was to create ties between what students learn in the classroom and possible STEM career.

Sara Childers, a biology teacher at Tualatin High School, was one of the 45 educators who attended the STEM fair on earlier this month. For her, the fair was a chance to collaborate with industry leaders to create a richer curriculum.

The STEM fair, said Sara Childers, gives teachers time in an otherwise busy year to brush up on STEM education and collaborate with industry leaders.

The STEM fair, said Sara Childers, gives teachers time in an otherwise busy year to brush up on STEM education and collaborate with industry leaders.

Dahlia Bazzaz/OPB

“There has to be time and space for that collaboration and innovation. And if there isn’t, you run into a real danger of the material not mattering as much,” she said.

Oregon has been increasing its support of STEM efforts to keep up with the increasingly tech-driven job market here. Though the state ranks just 27th in the nation for science and math education quality, Intel remains Oregon’s largest private employer, with about 17,000 people on its payroll.

In addition, a recent state survey of Oregon public school teachers revealed that 66 percent felt they weren’t getting enough help integrating technology into the classroom.

“We need thinkers, doers, dreamers. We don’t need more rememberers,” said Mark Lewis, the STEM director for the Oregon Education Investment Board, which funds projects like the recent fair at Tualatin High School. He said the investment is a step toward doubling the number of Oregonians graduating from college with a science degree by the year 2025, a goal outlined by Oregon’s Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Educators hope that more hands-on learning — as opposed to just cramming for a test and forgetting the information afterward — will spark student interest in STEM-related topics.

A Budding Engineer’s Paradise

But some students aren’t waiting for education reform to get started. At the Montavilla Young Makers camp this summer, housed at Portland Community College’s southeast campus, middle school students took matters, and Legos, into their own hands.

It was a budding engineer’s paradise. Students dug through buckets of Lego pieces, attached a motor and programmed a robot’s movements using a computer. Large laptops were scattered around the classrooms, where students could enter code to design and control their creations.

Josue Corona-Solis, a 7th grader at Mt. Tabor Middle School, said that while coding can be challenging, seeing a final product is rewarding.

“It’s really fun to see your own invention work,” he said.

Photos from the Montavilla Young Makers Camp at PCC.

The program founder, Romanna Flores, is a Web designer for Intel. After helping out with after-school science programs at her son’s school, Flores was inspired to create more neighborhood opportunities for kids to explore STEM during the summer, an alternative to options like OMSI. After a daylong workshop in April was successful, the summer week-long program got the green light.

“It didn’t take that much of a recruitment to find 16 kids to say ‘I wanna come in for a week on a beautiful sunny day and work with programming, and learn about robotics [and engineering],” Flores said.

Taline Garris, a 6th grader at Vestal Elementary, preferred this camp to her school’s science classes.

“It’s way more fun because in science we just basically worked with plants this year,” she said.

The objective of a recent lesson was to build a robot that could launch a marshmallow over the walls of a plywood castle in the corner of the classroom. Eric Thomas, a camp leader and a 21-year-old engineering student at PCC, stood in front of the room, and concealed a large bag of marshmallows behind his back.

Camp leader Eric Thomas demonstrates a robot's launching mechanism.

Camp leader Eric Thomas demonstrates a robot’s launching mechanism.

Dahlia Bazzaz/OPB

“So, each group gets one marshmallow just to play with. Don’t eat it, please, because you’ll be launching it all over the ground that’s dirty. If you make the first wall, though, you will get your own marshmallow,” he said.

The campers also learned about HTML coding, laser scanning, and 3D printing. There wasn’t much structure, either; Romanna Flores told the students they were free to ask about and follow up on any topic that grabbed them.

Flores thinks proper STEM education will take a village.

“It’s not just teachers that have this challenge to work with. It’s also our community, our parents. It’s our industries,” she said. “We all have to come together and find ways of making opportunities available for kids that really want to do this.”

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