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Innovate Newberg's kickoff event a big hit with students, teachers and community members

The assigned task for 60 students, teachers and community members at Innovate Newberg's Make-a-thon event Saturday at Newberg High school was to work in small teams to create working models of chicken coops and greenhouses using microprocessors and circuit boards.SETH GORDON - Sixty Newberg students, teachers and community members learned the basics of coding and circuit boards and worked in small teams to build automated models of chicken coops and greenhouses as part of a 'Make-a-thon' event Saturday at Newberg High School. It was a kickoff for the 'Innovate Newberg' initiative, which includes a $50,000 grant to bring design instruction into local classrooms. 

And while fun was had by all, the overall goal of the event itself had little do with technology itself.

Rather, it was to plant the seeds of excitement and inspiration as Innovate Newberg kicks off its initiative to bring the community's schools and businesses together to collaboratively improve education and drive economic growth by fostering innovation.

Judging by the statements participants made during a reflection period at the end of the day, that mission was accomplished and then some.

"I'm seen as an untrustworthy teenager and adults have come to realize that I'm responsible and I'm respectful and I'm safe," eighth-grade student Serenity Slogowski said. "It's a really nice feeling just to know that not all adults see all teenagers like that. There are some safe ones in the world."

Carr Biggerstaff, who heads up Innovate Newberg and the Chehalem Valley Innovation Accelerator, organized the event, which was funded as part of a $50,000 grant the school district received from the Austin Family Foundation to implement design thinking and project-based learning at the middle and high school levels.

Biggerstaff has been involved in five Make-a-thons as part of Innovate Oregon initiatives in places like Dayton, which after a few short years has built a thriving high school program that is widely praised for its ingenuity and effectiveness in engaging students.

"I think the trick for Newberg will be a little different than for a school the size of Dayton, but (NHS principal Kyle Laier) has taken a lot of the right steps to get a different kind of education into those classrooms," Biggerstaff said.

The event was facilitated by Derek Runberg of SparkFun Electronics and Kelsey Giust of the Construct Foundation, which will provide professional development to Newberg teachers next month as part of the grant.

The duo spent the morning teaching participants how to code with the Arduino microprocessors and circuit boards, then unleashed them in small groups, each of which featured at least one student with teachers and various professionals in the community, to incorporate things like moving doors and automatic lights into their models.

"What I always want people to come away with is a curiosity to tinker with current technology," Runberg said. "I always think back to the '50s and '60s, where tinkering in your garage and working on your car was a normal thing for most people. How do we get that type of mental framework back to an average Joe person, but with the technology of our day?"

NHS freshman Marcus Bowers had some coding experience prior to the event and couldn't have been more excited about the tool kit each participant received, especially after he learned it would be his to keep.

"It's going to be really fun if they do something like this or robotics in the classroom," Bower said. "I know we have a separate robotics classroom, but adding this just as an assignment, or taking these kits home, it's like a free home science project."

Many of the adults reported being inspired by the students they worked with and encouraged about the direction the school is taking.

"I liked how the program emphasized idea making, troubleshooting, working together," 1999 NHS grad Paul Buckmaster said. "They're all real-life scenarios that no matter what field you go into will be applicable. Whether you work with your hands or with people, problem solving is something that you can take anywhere. I wonder what kind of field these students can take these skills to in the future."

Chehalem Valley Middle School eighth grade student Hannah Sommers said she saw the project bring out the inner child in her adult teammates, but mostly she enjoyed branching out a bit.

"I loved everything about it," she said. "It was really fun to try new things and make something that works. If the opportunity came, I'd like to do something like this again."

Thanks to the grant and similar, parallel efforts at NHS like its emerging Tiger Manufacturing student-run business and new Integrated Studio Design course, students like Sommers will get that chance later this year.

After participating in training next month, middle school and ninth grade teachers will create similar project-based design activities to use in their classrooms in the spring.

"This was focused around circuits and stuff like that, but that doesn't have to be part of it," Laier said. "It doesn't have to be about technology. We can do this with anything, so that's the direction we'd like to take. You could see that kids are extremely engaged when they do this."

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