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Hands-on learning: Bemidji Middle School increasing STEM choices

A lot of variables can be found in a simple catapult, including lessons in physics, levers and fulcrums. Five teams in the Middle School STEM Lab constructed a trebuchet and, using different variables, students used their laptops to graph their progress. Shown above are sixth-graders Chloe Clark, left, and Tia Hickman as they conduct a test using their trebuchet. Not pictured is teammate Thomas Oster. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer 1 / 2
Bemidji Middle School sixth-grader Wyatt Sorensen launches his plane, “Big Guy,” during Stan Bauman’s technology class Wednesday morning. Students altered the rudder to change the plane’s paths. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI – Interested in dissecting a sheep brain? Or finding the germiest place on campus?

Bemidji Middle School in recent years has been increasing the number of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – courses available to its students.

“We’re trying to change them to become more hands-on, pumping a few more dollars into the classes to make them, as a seventh-grader might say, fun or cool,” said Drew Hildenbrand, BMS principal.

Two years ago, BMS introduced a new seventh-grade course, Grossology, for students interested in science. Kids learn about the human body, animal anatomy and behavior, ecology and the scientific method. They study leech behaviors, edible insects and bacteria. They dissect sheep brains, scout out the germiest places in the school and tour the Bemidji Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Grossology initially had 25 openings; 144 students registered.

“It was a good problem to have,” Hildenbrand said Monday during a presentation to the Bemidji school board.

Another new course offering includes Forestry, in which students learn about forest management, forestry economics and forest ecosystems. They learn to identify trees and understory species, conduct forest stand inventories and calculate stand volumes.

STEM courses, such as Math and Science in Space, Everyday Engineering and Gateway to Technology, aim to expose middle-schoolers to multiple STEM study areas at once.

“We’re trying to work with students in taking a project from beginning to end,” Hildenbrand said.

The middle school takes part in the Peer Alliance for Gender Equity leadership program through the Science Museum of Minnesota. PAGE is dedicated to addressing gender, racial and class-based achievement gaps in STEM education in the Upper Midwest.

“With PAGE, they continue to push us,” said Hildenbrand, explaining that it’s not just about planning fun activities but aligning the curriculum.

“Where the praise has to be given is not only with the kids’ interest, but with the teachers who take the extra time to develop the classes.”

In Communication Technology, students study the evolution of technology and learn programs such as PowerPoint and how to make a podcast. In Energy in Motion, they learn about robotics, physics, energy and data analysis. They study wind turbines, rocketry and magnetism.

Students also can opt to take part in Project Lead the Way, an engineering program that is a collaboration between the middle school and high school.

The first phase is offered in eighth grade, guides students through the principals of engineering, including how to design and build a project, such as a fish house. Students are shown how to take a project from conception to reality, learning how to design on paper and by computer before being asked to build a model.

Later, they learn how to make, operate and program a robot.

“Anything to make science a hands-on and fun learning experience is wonderful,” said Ann Long Voelkner, chairwoman of the school board.

Future BMS STEM offerings might include Grossology 2 or a class that incorporates art and design into the curriculum, Hildenbrand said. The goal is to develop more class options at the middle school for students to choose from, much like the electives at the high school.

“I’m jealous,” said Bemidji High School senior Erik Sorensen, one of two student representatives on the school board, after the presentation. “There was none of this when I was there, Grossology and Forestry. A lot of this sounds like things I would be into.”