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Congresswoman visits Highland Park to discuss STEAM-based concepts

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - During Friday's visit at Highland Park Middle School, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici observes students in Karen Nelson's seventh-grade science class as they engage in a project. When a Highland Park Middle School eighth-grader asked U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici how much “luck” played a role in her rise to congressional service, she instead credited the learning and life skills she picked up from years of schooling.

“I’m constantly learning,” Bonamici said during a question-and-answer session in the school library. “During my undergraduate studies and in law school, I didn’t learn all the facts and information, but I learned how to think, how to analyze, how to learn. It’s really a lifelong process of learning and asking questions.”

Bonamici (D-Beaverton), who represents Oregon’s 1st Congressional District in Washington, D.C., visited Highland Park on Friday. On the first of many school visits scheduled throughout the district, Bonamici met with Principal Ronda Haun and Assistant Principal David Nieslanik to talk federal education policy and chat with students about her role as a lawmaker.

A member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Bonamici is part of the 50-member federal STEAM caucus, which advocates incorporating arts education into the current emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM-based curriculum.

“We frequently discuss the importance of STEM education, but we can’t ignore the importance of engaging and educating both halves of the brain,” Bonamici said as the caucus was launched in February. “Creative, critical thinking leads to innovation. The integration of the arts into STEM curriculum will excite creativity in the minds of our future leaders.”

Discussing the policy with Haun and Nieslanik before she toured the school, Bonamici stressed the importance of finding new approaches to reach students who fall through the school system’s TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici listens to Highland Middle School administrators Brian Peerenboom, student manager, Assistant Principal David Nieslanik and Principal Ronda Haun discuss the school's progress in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education.

“There are too many kids dropping out and not engaging,” she said. “We need to understand that kids learn in different ways. I’ve never talked to a business owner looking for good test takers. They want people who can ask questions, who can learn.”

This is the first school year that Highland Park has incorporated the arts element into its STEM-based initiative, which is now in the second year of a five-year rollout.

Nieslanik told Bonamici the collaborative, critical-thinking approach is already connecting with children in the school’s sixth- through eighth-grade classrooms.

“It’s not as much ‘sit and get,’” he said of the old-school teaching methods. “It’s more inquiry- based. Kids are having doors opening for them. The classroom looks different than it did four or five years ago.”

Visiting a science classroom in which students experimented with floating foil “boats” by adding and subtracting hex nuts used as weights, Bonamici answered questions ranging from U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis to the growing potential for harvesting wave-based energy off the Oregon coast.

“There is a lot of innovation going on,” Bonamici said regarding wave-based generators. “In two weeks I’m going to speak at a wave energy conference. It’s very promising. We’re excited about it.”

In the library session for eighth-graders, Bonamici praised the students’ questions as “better than in my town hall meetings,” and responded to a question about the favorite part of her job as “whenever I’m able to feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives.”

After the tour, Bonamici said she was enthused to connect with students and administrators in her home district who were so enthusiastically embracing STEM- and STEAM-based concepts.

“I’m very inspired,” she said. “Listening to the students gives me great hope for the future. We need to talk about the good that is happening. I enjoyed meeting with engaged administrators and saw how their vision is engaging the students.”

Principal Haun said the congresswoman’s visit was an honor for her and Highland Park students and teachers.

“We’re glad to have her here,” she said. “It helps students understand her job.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici talks with students at Highland Park Middle School during Friday's visit.

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