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South Dakota School Expanding STEM Lab After ‘Huge Success’

With word-of-mouth among students fueling growing enrollment in a STEM lab at Chamberlain Middle and High School, Chamberlain School District is planning one for elementary students by 2024.

(TNS) — Walking into Sara Herman’s classroom at Chamberlain Middle School, you might wonder why so many sixth-graders are playing computer games instead of putting pencils to paper.

In reality, they aren’t playing games. They’re using computer programs to design houses, create three-dimensional printing models and create wood-carved or laser-engraved signs.

The students are chatty, but not in the way middle schoolers usually are — they’re hyper-focused on projects, bouncing ideas off each other and celebrating their classmates’ successes.

“How many other classrooms can you go to where sixth-graders are truly on their own tasks?” asked Jeff Steckelberg, principal of Chamberlain High School.

In Chamberlain Middle and High School’s STEM lab, immersive learning is the key. Using innovative computer programs, students begin to get a grip on deeper, applied learning skills to supplement their usual algebra, chemistry or English classes.

Short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM lab is only in its first year in the Chamberlain School District — and it’s already wildly popular.

“This year, we installed the STEM lab up at the high school and middle school, and that’s just been hit with huge success,” said Justin Zajic, superintendent of the Chamberlain School District. “Right now, we have over 120 students who see that lab. It’s designed with a max capacity of 125.”

Zajic said the first semester of STEM offerings had lower enrollment, but once students started talking about all the cool things included in the class, enrollment boomed, which got Zajic thinking.

“The natural progression to something like that is how do you do that on a larger scale?” Zajic asked. “How can we be more impactful with the curriculum?”

In Chamberlain, students become familiar with devices like laptops and tablets as early as kindergarten, so traditional typing lessons don’t garner much interest from young learners.

“What we did is we found this creative learning systems lab that has a K-5 aspect to it that introduces the same concepts (as middle and high school students) but at an age-appropriate level,” Zajic said.

According to SmartLab’s website, the learning system, through computer systems, teaches children to explore a topic, set goals, plan to accomplish those goals, work and reflect and share their new knowledge with others.

In addition to learning about complex topics, the SmartLab helps check the boxes on other general education standards set by the state.

“Every module incorporates science standards at a grade appropriate level, it incorporates math standards, English standards, that are all tied directly to SD state standards,” Zajic said. “It also begins to teach our students those soft skills, like communication and being able to work together.”

Though Zajic isn’t certain at what grade level the SmartLab — which will cost about $300,000 for the system, curriculum and staffing expenses — will be introduced to students, he firmly believes that earlier exposure is better for the eventual development of an educated and prepared graduate to head to college or enter the workforce.

“What the statistics show us in education is that if a student doesn’t know an opportunity exists before middle or high school, they most likely won’t pursue it,” Zajic said. “So we want to introduce the broad scope of what you can do with this.”

Local businesses — which are struggling to fill positions in fields such as manufacturing, healthcare, H/VAC and more — have jumped on board to the idea of training students in field-specific skills. Zajic said some are even creating a pipeline of sorts, offering to partially or fully pay for a high schooler’s tuition to Mitchell Technical College if they agree to return to Chamberlain and work with them after graduation.

Due to the wide variety of curriculum available in SmartLabs, Zajic said the school can tailor what units students are learning based on the needs and wants of the student, local businesses and how MTC’s programs will interact with the education.

“We take our high school students over to Mitchell Tech every year and introduce them to everything,” Zajic said, “and so we’re going to be very purposeful on which programs these students visit and why.”

Ultimately, Zajic said, it’s all about exposing young students to the plethora of fields available to their future.

“We want to grab those kids at a much younger age so they can build on those skills and have a purpose for learning math, for example,” Zajic said. “If you don’t give them a purpose for actually learning it, it’s just root memorization and they don’t see a point to it. Then education becomes a burden instead of fun, which is what it should be.”

Unfortunately for Chamberlain’s K-5 students, they’ll have to wait a few more years before they can utilize the STEM lab in their elementary school.

The STEM lab will be constructed and placed in the district’s new elementary school, which Zajic estimated will be open for classes in time for the 2024-25 school year.

©2022 The Daily Republic (Mitchell, S.D.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.