Cool Schools: Students practice exploratory learning through new STEM lab

Cool Schools: Students practice exploratory learning through new STEM lab


For nearly three years, F.C. Reed Middle School has been designing, fundraising, and constructing a new STEM Lab. The lab was finally ready to go with the start of this school year, and administrators say it’s taking exploratory learning to the next level.

“They’re always working on something. They’re always helping each other out. They want to go and investigate,” said Kerri DeBest, who is teaching the STEM class.

She says she encourages her students to work together and investigate. Every student in the school takes the class.

“What I think makes us unique is we don’t identify kids who need to go to a facility. We don’t have it as part of our Core curriculum. We offer it as our Oncore curriculum, something that supports the core,” said Sam Stine, who came up with the idea of incorporating a STEM class into the school's curriculum. 

The class has more than 300 projects for students to choose from.

“The engineering, the science, the computer and robotics, they love that,” said DeBest.

Those are just some of the topics covered in the STEM lab, but students can branch out in almost any way they can imagine.

From making music videos in the video lab, using circuit boards to power video games, to creating custom ringtones or home designs.

It’s all about encouraging students to research and find a passion.

“Me and Caleb both have an interest in listening to music and we actually wanted to make our own beat,” said Tanner Peters, a 7th grade student in the class.

He and his partner developed their own ringtone.

“My favorite thing is probably the Turkish Spice. That’s one of our beats that we made,” he said.

Stine originally came up with the idea when he was serving as the middle school principal. He says he was looking for “the next big idea.”

“I was looking for something where kids would actually interact with one another and create something that they wanted to research on and had that intrinsic motivation, where they were really energized and engaged,” said Stine.

That idea started the ball rolling.

“Through research we found a company called Creative Learning Systems and they had done this throughout the country,” he said.

Administrators did a site visit in Chicago to see what the program would look like, and said they were blown away with the engagement of the students.

The site visit sealed the deal. The school would move forward with the project. And Stine says the community played a huge role in the STEM lab’s success.

“We had community members that did some of the painting inside the facility. We had individuals that were willing to go out and through their businesses and community organizations, donate money to the cause,” he said.

When the lab was finally ready to go at the start of this school year, DeBest says students were somewhat timid to use some of the equipment.

“When they first came in they were worried,” she said. “They didn’t want to touch things, they didn’t want to break things.”

But after encouraging her students to try new things, and with a whole semester of experience under their belt, DeBest says her students are realizing what they’re capable of.

Now, they don’t want to leave.

“The biggest problem I have in here is telling them you have to go to your next class,” said DeBest. “I don’t have behavior issues, because they want to work on their project, I love that.”

And just as those student projects are constantly developing and improving, so is the STEM lab.

“It’s not done yet. Because the interesting thing there’s a lot of aspects of the STEM lab that you’re going to need more money in the future with things like the 3D printer and other items,” said Stine. “And as kids become more interested there’s always add-ons to this particular facility.”

DeBest already has several add-ons in mind.

“The kids love bridges, and they like to make towers,” she said. “Well one of the things that’s key for them is testing the strength of it. So you’ve built a really pretty tower but how stable is it? So there is a strength tester that I want to get for them so they can see really how high quality is their bridge.”

She says the class allows authentic learning that just isn’t available in a traditional classroom.

“Learning is very different in the STEM lab. It’s loud and it can be a little intimidating for people, but I wouldn’t do it any other way,” said DeBest.

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