New District 47 classes aim to expose kids to science, tech fields

CRYSTAL LAKE – Clare Ryan and Emily Pikula were trying to make a bead.

The Richard Bernotas Middle School seventh-graders were working at one of the challenges set up around the classroom.

They had mixed the solution and labeled it carefully, but each time they tried to trace the edge of the mesh with the bright blue liquid, it would just drip straight through.

They had to be doing something wrong, the girls thought.

But questions directed at their teacher, Jennifer Liebenow, were just redirected: What did you try? Did you check your resources? Have you talked to other students?

“In other classes, you raise your hand, you ask a question and they give you an answer,” Ryan said.

“In this class, she says, ‘OK, you have to figure it out on your own,’ ” Pikula finished.

The bead challenge is the toughest one in Liebenow’s seventh-grade class, which uses curriculum and software developed by Northwestern University.

The kids also get to tackle 3-D design software and printing, robotics and electrical engineering

District 47 rolled out STEM programs – courses geared at exposing kids to the different areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – at its elementary and middle schools this year, adding it to the rotation of elective-style classes the district offers, said Charmian Fletcher, the district’s director of math and science.

“There’s a unique opportunity when kids are younger to get them excited about careers and college degrees in the STEM fields,” she said. “I think if you wait until they’re looking to select their own classes in high school, you’ve missed the boat. This is our chance to get them excited about using science, technology, engineering and math to solve problems, to solve human problems.”

The rollout of the program was a quick one.

District staffers decided they wanted an inquiry-based, more student-driven course aimed at these subjects – efforts being pushed as part of the Common Core standards that recently rolled out – in the spring and they immediately started looking at programs.

They settled on the FUSE program developed by researchers at Northwestern University for their middle schoolers and Project Lead the Way for the elementary kids, kicking the programs off just a few months later after a summer of training.

“The philosophy behind FUSE is that kids, young people, are really capable of learning in an informal way,” said program coordinator Henry Mann, who serves as the point person at Northwestern for District 47. “Kids do have interests that they can pursue and develop. Our theory is that kids can find the skills and follow their interests on their own without a teacher.”

The university’s researchers are using the data collected as students use the Web-based software to study how kids learn when it’s not a top-down process, he said.

And because the curriculum is Web-based, changes can be made quickly – putting the onus on the researchers and developers, instead of the teacher and student, to make sure their curriculum is working, Mann said.

Three challenges have already been added to the 25 that District 47 had at the beginning of the year, said Corey Holmer, one of the district’s technology integration coaches who aim to bridge the divide between teachers and the technology department. The challenges are divvied up among the different grades, but the students get to pick which of the challenges – and which of the increasingly difficult levels – they’re going to pursue.

“I didn’t think giving them choice was going to be that big of a deal,” Liebenow said. “I think that was surprising that they were like, ‘And I get to choose what I do? And how long I’m going to do it? And when I’m done, I can just walk away? Or I can continue if it intrigued me?’ That whole I-I-I statements, that was really big for them, far bigger than I thought it would be.”

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