Indiana Schools Excel in STEM, Thanks to State Support

A six-year strategic plan released by the state’s Department of Education last year calls for STEM curriculum to be implemented in all Indiana schools by 2025, as well as for all K-12 teachers to be trained by the same time.

by Carley Lanich, The Times (Munster, Ind.). / March 21, 2019

(TNS) — The modern classroom looks a lot different today than it did even five or 10 years ago.

In some Region schools, chalkboards have been replaced by interactive smartboards, notebooks with Chromebooks and iPads, libraries with media centers and innovation labs.

As schools double down on bringing new technology into the classroom, teachers’ ability to shape STEM-based learning has grown exponentially.

Through community-supported grants and state initiatives, the science, technology, engineering and math-centric curriculum is seemingly finding its way into every class — kindergarten through senior year.

And, with Northwest Indiana’s strong industrial history and Lake Michigan backdrop, it’s no surprise that school districts in the Region have in many ways emerged as leaders in the growing education initiatives.

Among its many diverse programs, Northwest Indiana boasts one of the country’s oldest and winningest Robotics teams, the only school community to receive state STEM certification throughout its entire district and the state’s only Museum of Science and Industry partner schools.

"It's helping kids really solve problems based on the real world," said Shelley Deutscher, STEM coordinator at Lake Hills Elementary. "It's a lot of working with teamwork, collaboration between each other, and always letting them share with peers and other colleagues."

Michigan City High School Project Lead the Way instructor Ralph Gee, right, helps robotics students Dontrell Maitland, center, and Josh Cummings work an x-carve machine Feb. 15 at the A.K. Smith Area Career Center.

A state priority

The Indiana Department of Education has expressed its commitment to growing STEM education as one of its strategic goals emphasizing greater exposure for students to careers in science and technology through industry partnerships.

A six-year strategic plan released by the DOE last year calls for STEM curriculum to be implemented in all Indiana schools by 2025, as well as for all K-12 teachers to be trained in inquiry-based education by the same time.

Indianapolis-based TechPoint Foundation for Youth seeks to help the state meet these goals through introducing robotics team starter kits. TechPoint’s goal is to put a robotics team in every Indiana school.

Through its Robotics Start-Up Grant program open to all elementary and middle schools, TechPoint has helped bring VEX IQ Robotics brand teams to more than 800 schools in the last three years, including several schools in the Region.

Today, Indiana has more VEX IQ Robotics teams than any other state in the country, said George Giltner, vice president of STEM education at TechPoint, which serves as an important complement to classroom STEM education.

“Robotics teaches the things we wish we could teach in the classroom — how to problem-solve, how to think critically,” Giltner said. “It teaches students how to be young professionals.”

Area Career Center sophomore Xavier Ontiveros works on Team Hammond's robot that will be in competition later this year.

The Region difference

In his work with TechPoint, Giltner travels the state helping schools launch their own robotics teams. He said of the different regions he works with in the state, the teachers and team advisers in Northwest Indiana stand out most.

“There’s really good, ambitious teachers in the Region,” Giltner said. “You have a lot of teachers raising their hands and saying ‘I want to be a robotics coach.’ ”

The Region is home to one of the state’s first robotics teams — Team Hammond — which has constantly competed in state and world championships since its inception in 1996. In fact, Team Hammond is the only team in the world to win World Championships four times.

“It’s their teamwork,” Team Hammond coach April Brown O’Brien said of the team’s success. “As long as they put their hearts into it, they’ll go far.”

Northwest Indiana also is home to two districts with schools certified in STEM education by the state at the School City of Hobart and Michigan City Area Schools.

Eight of the state’s 60 total STEM-certified schools are in the Region. Munster High School is also the only Indiana school certified by national accreditation agency, AdvancED, for its STEM programs.

At Lake Hills Elementary in the Michigan City Area Schools district, classes take advantage of their proximity to Lake Michigan and walk to the shore regularly for environmental sciences study.

The school is also one of two Museum of Science and Industry partner schools in the state and helped pilot the first Project Lead The Way curriculum offered by the national STEM-based nonprofit five years ago.

At Joan Martin Elementary, a state-certified STEM school in the School City of Hobart, elementary classes take regular field trips to the Dunes Learning Center and to Lake George for canoeing and environmental studies.

School City of Hobart Superintendent Peggy Buffington said local partnerships like those created by READY NWI, a coalition of local businesses, educators, other community partners, are exclusive to the Region and help build STEM-specific connections between students, higher education and industry professionals.

“We’ve had plenty of people from engineering to manufacturing which is huge in Northwest Indiana,” Buffington said. “They do a really good job of helping us connect.”

Taking part in the Project Lead the Way STEM feeder program at Bishop Noll Institute, St. Casimir eighth-grader Kimberly Perez works on a color sorter Lego device.

Early learning

At Lake Hills Elementary, Michigan City Area Schools’ K-6 STEM Magnet School, STEM education begins early — so early even kindergarten classes are exposed to STEM from day one, said Deutscher, the school’s STEM coordinator.

In Michigan City Area Schools, curriculum places an emphasis on STEM in all areas of education from engineering and coding classes to English and social studies courses.

Third-graders go on an annual downtown walking tour, visiting more than a dozen local businesses and asking employees how they use STEM in their day-to-day work.

Younger classes engage in STEM take-home projects, working with their families to create a wearable object or build a bridge, and the school plans a series of its own community-focused events, including Lunch and Learn clubs featuring invited speakers and regular STEM Celebration of Learning family nights exploring hands-on activities in a selected STEM field.

“We feel our kids respond best to those hands-on experiences and getting involved in the real world,” Deutscher said. “It’s a lot of working with teamwork, collaborating between each other, and always letting them share with peers and other colleagues.”

At Hobart’s Early Learning center at George Earle, all kindergartners take advantage of daily time dedicated to STEM boxes — colorful kits of legos and wood blocks that students use to build different objects like a train or a bridge based off of a provided set of idea cards. These youngsters, only 5 and 6 years old, are even learning basic coding.

Buffington, the Hobart superintendent, said early introductions to engineering design and computer science have become a priority for the district, setting the building blocks for deeper education as students grow older.

“It’s setting that expectation so that when they’re moving up to the middle school and high school that this is not something that sounds so hard, because you already know how to do this,” Buffington said. “We’re just going to challenge you a little bit more.”

Crown Point senior Jami Pryde, 17, watches as the school’s CNC Plasma Table cuts a student-designed piece designed by the high school’s FIRST Robotics team out of a 3/16 inch aluminum sheet. The school’s precision machining classes and FIRST Robotics team often collaborate during the FIRST team’s six-week build period to create pieces used on the team’s competition-ready robots.

Community investments

Complete with everything from 3-D printers to computer-aided design software, STEM classrooms and lab spaces open up access to hands-on educational opportunities students wouldn’t encounter in your average classroom.

The investments in STEM education don’t come cheap.

In the Crown Point Community School Corp., the high school recently purchased a $20,000 CNC Plasma Table with the support of multiple Perkins grants, supporting Career and Technical Education.

Students in Crown Point High School’s precision machining and principles of engineering classes, as well as the school’s FIRST Robotics team, benefit from the table, which allows students to design and cut their own custom creations, including parts used to build the school’s FIRST team robot, made out of sheet metal, like aluminum.

“We want our kids to have their fingerprint on every part of what they’re building,” said Crown Point mechanics teacher Brian Trapp.

Bishop Noll Institute is breaking ground this spring on a $1 million-plus facility, funded primarily through the school’s Ignite & Inspire campaign.

The school hopes its forthcoming STREAM Lab and Innovation Center will position the private Catholic institute to become Indiana’s first elite STREAM school, adding Religion and Arts to the typical science and technology focus of STEM education.

“We like to say we’re STEM with heart,” Bishop Noll Principal Lorenza Jara Pastrick said, raising examples of ethical discussions of advances in science being taught in biology classes.

“We’re teaching the ethics of how to use the products we’re creating.”

The state-of-the-art lab, scheduled to open in time for the 2019-20 school year, will transform the school’s former natatorium, which was filled in nine years ago and converted to the Whelan Activity Center used by the school’s wrestling team. The space, when finished, will include a prototyping studio, a kiln, a biology-based wet lab and more.

“It’s really an empty canvas,” Pastrick said of the current Whelan Activity Center. “We’ve been very deliberate in design because education is cyclical.”

Bishop Noll Institute principal Lorenza Pastrick shows the Whelan Activity Center which will be converted into the school's STREAM facility. The room was formerly the school's natatorium.

Entrepreneurial efforts

Afterschool programs can carry a heavy price tag as well. Building up and maintaining a school robotics team can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars depending on the robotics league a team chooses to enter.

Community support from large industrial partners like ArcelorMittal to smaller local school foundations has become key for many student organizations. It’s also led many to integrate business and marketing strategies into their STEM teachings.

Students in Hobart High School’s first afterschool kart club — working to build a race-able electric go kart to compete in a global competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — helped develop a presentation to the Hammond Education Foundation to secure funding to start up their club, and a designated marketing arm of the club continues to meet to draw up support for their May 15 trip to Indianapolis.

The Team 3936 Robo Blitz team in Michigan City developed a one-of-a-kind partnership with LaPorte Wastewater Treatment, putting their robotics skills to use by wiring panels for the plant in exchange for a stipend that can be used to help cover travel costs associated with robotics competitions.

“It’s applied to actual jobs you can do,” said Braden Tepper, a Michigan City junior who participated in the program and competed in the FIRST Robotics World Championship last year.

“You learn more about electrical work rather than just building a robot, even though there is electrical work in building a robot.”

Members of the Hobart Kart Club talk about their racing go kart they are building for upcoming competitions.

Real world applications

At Munster High School, educators have embraced real-world, interdisciplinary study — two of the pillars of STEM — in a school-wide initiative called Project GREEN.

Project GREEN, which stands for Growing and Rewarding Educational Endeavors Naturally, is rooted in growing the school’s environmental advocacy through collaborative efforts to redesign the school’s two courtyards, incorporating student-designed and engineered rain gardens, and an orchard.

Students in classes from nearly every Munster High School department, including a few not typically considered STEM — art, business, botany, and family and consumer sciences, for example — will work to market the school’s project, host community dinner using foods from the courtyards’ garden and sell some of this produce in community farmers markets.

Hobart High School seniors in Daniel Schultz’s Engineering Design and Development class work to engineer and market their own real-world innovation. They spend weeks brainstorming and researching products already on the market, before engineering a product of their own original design.

At the end of the year, students present their products not only to their class, but also statewide business competitions like Innovate WithIN and DECA where they have opportunities to earn scholarships and funding.

One group of three Hobart seniors working to develop a casing for a bike sensor similar to as seen in automotive technology is planning patent their product with the hopes of improving bicycle safety and decreasing accidents typically caused by motorists approaching cyclists in their blindspot.

Using such a sensor, designed to be Bluetooth compatible, the students hope to increase bicyclists’ reaction time when riding on the road.

“They take what they’ve learned and they apply it to their own personal passions,” Buffington said of the class, just in its first year. “They’re still problem-solvers, they’re creative, they’re innovators, but it’s truly what they have a passion for.”

Munster High School sophomore Genavive Bacino waters tomato plants in the school's greenhouse.

©2019 The Times (Munster, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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