OTTUMWA— A class at Evans Middle School is teaching students how the world around them works while learning important skills such as team work, problem-solving, and a don’t-give-up attitude.
Eighth graders have the opportunity to take Robotics and Automation, part of the district’s STEM effort. The course is one of several Project Lead The Way (PLTW) classes offered to students from elementary through high school.
Students learn about 11 mechanisms (assemblies that control motion) and how they are used. Mechanisms include chain drive, bevel gear, lead screw, rack and pinion, etc. “The mechanisms are used in every single project,” said Joe VandenBerg, PLTW teacher. A variety of projects throughout the semester-long course provide students hands-on opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. “We talk about where they are found in real life,” Vandenberg said. The latter half of the semester adds a programming component.
There is no text book. Instruction is computer-based, with student lessons provided on the Project Lead The Way website. Students learn through trial and error. “Students don’t just build it,” VandenBerg said. “It has a real world application so they can see where and how it is used.”
Four eighth graders recently talked about their experiences in the course. This is “not a class where the teacher gives you the answer,” said Chloe Schneckloth. “And he doesn’t fix it for you. He will tell you what is wrong. You have to do things over and over again” to finally work through the problem.
There is “no answer key,” said VandenBerg. “There are multiple ways to solve the problems.”
“The harder ways were more fun,” said Raven Keefe. She noted many students chose the more complicated solutions to their projects.
It could be frustrating too, according to Josie Lemonds. “I didn’t understand the programming, it was not my strongest area, but I could build the car,” she said. She learned to rely on the strengths of her teammates to successfully complete projects.
For one problem, “our team changed the gear ratio to get a faster car,” said Jesus Jaime.” They went from a 1:1 ratio to a 1:5 for more speed. VandenBerg was proud that the team realized how to get the result they wanted.
Projects completed included a windmill, car that drives, spinning signs, and a pull toy that moves. Students also completed a survival challenge. Assuming they are the last survivors on Earth, they completed four tasks, including converting a two-wheel into four wheel drive; moving something to the second floor without using stairs; turning a satellite dish; and chopping wood, pumping water, and grinding grain simultaneously.
The class appeals to a lot of different learning styles. “It is a whole different type of learning,” VandenBerg said. “It is more hands-on. It provides a positive experience for more kids.”
The students also noted the teacher makes the difference. VandenBerg has spent the past three years with this group of students and has built relationships with them. “You find ways to connect with kids,” he said.
The four have moved on to their second PLTW course, Design and Modeling. They will learn about architectural drawing and use CAD software. They are also in the process of setting up their educational plan for the next four years of school. While Jaime is undecided on his career path, Lemonds is planning to be a teacher and the other two are considering a medical field. Whatever their choice, lessons learned in PLTW such as creative thinking, collaboration, and perseverance will help them achieve success.
“I was sad to see it end,” said Schneckloth.