Engaging middle schoolers in STEM
Dylan James has built a solar-powered windmill and an airplane.
The Crook County Middle School seventh-grader says he wants to be an engineer when he grows up so he can keep building things.
You can credit CCMS woodshop and STEM engineering teacher Jim Crouch for James' career aspirations.
Interest in the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) classes is growing at the middle school.
Not only that, but the CCMS woodshop class is back after taking a one-year hiatus — and it's as popular as ever.
Kids are on waiting lists to get into Crouch's classes.
"Dr. Johnson really started a conversation in our community and began to create an emphasis a couple weeks ago with her presentation at 'What's Brewing?' around CTE," said CCMS Principal Kurt Sloper about a public forum that highlighted Career and Technical Education.
Over the summer, Crouch was asked to switch from teaching math to woodshop. He readily agreed and took the required exam, received the necessary license, and became the woodshop teacher this fall.
He had taught one period of engineering to seventh-graders for three years, but this year, he took on eighth-grade as well.
"I would say the highlight of this class is it is so kid-engaging. All the kids, they just love it," Crouch said. "You've got your hands-on things, they get to build things, create things."
When preparing to take on his new role as shop teacher, he toyed with the idea of switching up the projects.
But after talking to folks around town, he realized the projects had become a CCMS tradition, and he decided to stick with them.
The sixth-graders in his woodshop class make carousels, and seventh-graders build pine boxes. Eighth-graders create more complex Adirondack chairs.
Students then customize their projects by staining, painting or beveling the edges. If time allows, the students can make other projects, such as birdhouses and candle holders.
Or, they can cut out wooden mustang horse templates.
"One thing I'm pretty happy about is the elementary school asked us to make some horse templates that they can put on their fences," Crouch said.
The students are cutting out 650 wooden horses, which will represent Crooked River Elementary students.
"Every student is going to paint their own horse, and they're all going to be on the fence along Combs Flat Road," explained CRE Principal Kimberly Bonner, adding that when the students move on to middle school, they will take their horse with them, leaving room for new students' horses.
"It actually works out really well because we only have so much equipment, so students are often waiting for something, so it gives them an extra project to do as they're waiting," Crouch added.
But using saws and sanders isn't all the woodshop students are learning in Crouch's class. He also takes his students on field trips to a local mill and a cabinet shop.
"We're tying it with the CTE stuff and talking about potential career opportunities. I'm trying to encapsulate some of the ideas about how the lumber industry works," Crouch said, noting that he worked in the lumber industry for 16 years before becoming a teacher. "We talk about how a log becomes boards, how plywood is made, how fiber board is made, and so on."
Aside from three classes of woodshop, Crouch also teaches one seventh-grade and one eighth-grade STEM class. His wife, Tammy Crouch, a sixth-grade social studies teacher, has taken on the sixth-grade STEM elective class.
At the sixth-grade level, students learn about structures, such as bridges, towers and catapults. They may even get to toy with crash cars and talk about crumple zones. Seventh-graders learn about electricity, open circuits, closed circuits, fuses, solar power and gears.
At these levels, they start out with a LEGO or LEGO-type kits and go over the basic ideas and vocabulary.
"Then, they have to go design something on their own," Crouch said. "That's the best part in my eyes. They take a concept that they learn, and then they put it to practice, and seeing the things that they come up with, I think is really good."
Students then are required to do a write-up on their project, explaining the materials and strategies they used and also what they could do to improve their project.
Crouch said the projects are very basic, but they're fun.
"Kids find them very engaging," he said.
Students in the eighth-grade STEM elective class learn coding and robotics. They use more advanced LEGO Mindstorms kits and learn to program the robots as well as Ozobots.
In addition to these classes, Crouch also oversees the after-school STEM Club. Here, the budding engineers work with hands-on mechanical items such as car kits and learn to design gears, catapults and propellers.
Crouch said these classes are hands-on and career-driven.
"It's semi-technical, but it's still not too technical that they can't do it, and it's so engaging," he said. "I like that it gives them a variety of different methods, and all are super engaging."
Sloper said they are looking at some scheduling changes in order to allow more students to take the woodshop and STEM classes.
"The demand on these engineering classes is extremely high," he said.