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Students get summer dose of science

Published 9:06am Wednesday, June 13, 2012

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What materials would you need to move a can of Spam five feet with little to no effort?

That’s what fourth- through sixth-graders asked themselves Tuesday when they got a little taste of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics courses at the fourth annual Gifted and Talented Symposium.

“We just thought it would be something really helpful for teachers to look at,” said Doug Paulson of the Minnesota Department of Education. “We thought we’d take a little different approach with the conference.”

The symposium, sponsored by Austin Public Schools and the Minnesota Department of Education, runs Monday through Thursday this week as local, state, national and international education experts come together to discuss how best to nurture bright young minds.

Students learned plenty about engineering Tuesday afternoon in the STEM lab, and for their part, they appeared pleased with the results. Many used pulleys to pull SPAM cans up ramps, though some had a few handicaps like turns they needed to put in their path, or steep inclines. Some creative solutions included a SPAM trolley system and a wench-driven SPAM moving system.

Teachers and experts sat in on the class, watching as students showed their solutions and noting what methods the instructors are using.

“I like the teamwork,” said Melinda Huntley, substitute teacher for Austin Public Schools. “I like the ability for [students] to think outside the box.”

Huntley didn’t have a lot of experience with STEM and said she’d like to see STEM instruction over a longer period so she can prepare for the new fifth- and sixth-grade intermediate school. Yet she’s impressed with what she saw Tuesday: students working together and building ramps, pulleys and levers.

“I like to see how much thought that these kids put into their projects,” she said.

That’s part of the reason district and state officials jumped at the chance to include a STEM camp this year.

“It gives other examples of how the STEM approach, the engineering approach can be used to engage students in problem solving,” said John Alberts, Austin’s educational services director.

Students will learn about things like volume and package engineering Wednesday and will continue to explore how to construct things throughout the symposium. Educators and experts will be busy discussing other topics, from the social and emotional needs of gifted students to matching student interest with complex lesson plans.

The STEM campers will be busy making more things out of materials like string, cardboard, wood and plastic.

“And duct tape,” said Samuel Keenan, STEM camp participant. “We used lots and lots of duct tape.”

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