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Small school, big results

STEM Learning Ecosystem funds Pitsco materials, fuels students’ dreams

Published February 17, 2020
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BLUEJACKET, OK – A tiny town in northeastern Oklahoma with fewer than 350 residents, Bluejacket is the kind of community that gets lost in the shuffle when educational resources are doled out. The local tax base isn’t going to generate enough funding to give students the latest and greatest curriculum and materials every year.

A couple of factors, though, have played in Bluejacket Public School’s favor recently, giving students like Gracee and John an inside track for learning about regional STEM careers and what it takes to find and fill these coveted jobs.

Gracee is a freshman and John is a seventh grader, but don’t let their young ages mislead you. Their sights are already peering beyond the walls of school to the businesses that fill the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor, 50 miles away.

The two factors that have made such a big difference for these and other Bluejacket students?

  1. Their science teacher, Shawn Martin, is a former pipe welder who took a substantial pay cut when he returned to college to do something he now loves – impart practical knowledge on hungry young minds.
  2. The MidAmerica STEM Alliance, a regional STEM Learning Ecosystem based out of the Pryor industrial park, provided a $25,000 grant for Martin and other teachers to purchase a variety of hands-on STEM materials and equipment from Pitsco Education.

“That grant took our STEM lab to the next level. Before that, I’d gotten some small grants, $3,000 or $4,000 here and there, doing little things. But that $25,000 loaded up this room with 3-D printers and laser cutters and the rocket projects,” Martin said. “We have solar cars, we have wind generators, a lot of renewable energy resources that the kids can experience.”

For example, Gracee and John joined their classmates on the football field last fall, not to toss the ball around but to set up and launch water rockets they had researched, designed, and built. Confidence showed on their faces as their rockets flew higher and straighter than those their classmates sent skyward from the AquaPort II launchpad.

“We tried to do it as close to step-by-step as what it told us – where the fins needed to be, what needed to be placed where,” Gracee explained. “As for the water and the amount of pressure we put on it, we tried to do it as close to 50/50 as we could. That seemed to work really good.”

John said one of the secrets to his two-person team’s success was applying what they learned previously when creating and launching straw rockets to the more-challenging water rocket activity using one-liter bottles. “That was like a learning step, and then we took the straw rockets to the bottle rockets, like how to get our wings the correct shape and how to make it aerodynamic.”

While competing to create the best water rocket in their respective classes, Gracee and John tweaked their custom designs and builds in a continuous improvement loop that is part of the engineering design process. But one thing they share in common is that they prefer to work with their hands and troubleshoot along the way.

“Book work doesn’t really make me learn. Let me figure out how to do something,” John said.

Added Gracee, “When we do STEM, I learn how to build, and I like to use my hands on all these projects. It’s just kind of a break from having to do the book work in the classroom. I really like it.”

Martin takes every opportunity he can to share examples of the real world where he worked as a welder for 20 years. Students in such a small community don’t often realize what lies beyond the city limits, he says.

“They don’t always connect that Pryor is less than an hour away from us, and it’s a huge opportunity and all these factories are there. So, we literally went and found where can they go and apply,” Martin said. “We’re gonna start taking some of our seniors and kids that have graduated in the last year or two down there. . . . They don’t think about these opportunities, or they are overwhelmed when they go look at MidAmerica. It’s this huge place, and I think it kind of intimidates some of them.”

Thanks to the MidAmerica STEM Alliance’s financial support of 18 school districts in the region, Gracee, John, and others are learning at an early age that their future can be bright, even if they opt to remain in their small towns. “Being able to stay in the area and have a good career would mean a lot to me because I would be able to stay close to my family and still have a good job,” Gracee said. “So, I can have both family and a good career.”

“When I saw it, it took me about 20 seconds to buy in. I understood it. It was hands-on science, it was high-tech, it was student responsibility. It was all the skills that we’ve talked about teaching but traditional labs will not allow.”

– Pat Taylor, headmaster, Jackson Academy, Jackson, Mississippi

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