FarMaker Space

Metro East Montessori School in Granite City, IL, employs TETRIX® robots, 3-D printing in unique STEM projects

Published February 6, 2017

GRANITE CITY, IL – At Metro East Montessori School, students aren’t taught to think outside the box. Nope, their minds naturally wander into more obscure spaces. They think inside the chicken coop, around the beehive, and under the topsoil.

You might say everything about the school that serves students in Grades 1-8 is different from what you’d find just 10 miles away in the schools of East St. Louis, IL. For example, instead of setting up a regular makerspace, teacher Carrie Herndon has established a FarMaker Space and encourages students to explore STEM through farm- and environment-based activities of their choosing.

To outfit the FarMaker Space, Herndon needed durable and engaging STEM materials and robotics solutions, so she worked with Pitsco Education Representative Alan Kirby to find the exact tools and materials her students would need to conduct experiments and brainstorm solutions to natural challenges encountered on a farm.

Teaching at a Montessori school, Herndon had to be resourceful when funding her dream program, so she began applying for grants and crossing her fingers. A 13-year veteran of teaching science and STEM, she targeted the Innovative Technology Education Fund that supports schools in the St. Louis, MO, area. Her efforts paid off in 2016 when Metro East was awarded a grant for $41,000 to fund the STEM program and activities she envisioned.

Among the primary aims detailed in her grant application were: using CAD, woodworking, and 3-D printers to improve beehives and track honey bees; using robots and sensors to study soil; connecting with area scientists and engineers from biotech companies and universities; developing business and financial literacy; acquiring digital film and photography skills; and increasing natural resource awareness and appreciation.


How could a small private school in an aging industrial area of a former steel-mill town pull off such grand plans for students to become one with nature? For Metro East, a partnership with an organic horse farm 20 minutes away was the ticket. Herndon takes her students to Red Fox Paso Finos farm one day each week to work with horses, bees, crops, outdoor conservation, and anything else Mother Nature puts in front of them. On top of that, the school received a variance from Granite City to set up a small chicken coop on their campus.

“Montessori is very much about environmental awareness, so our kids do a lot of water sampling. There is a state park nearby where they go hiking and camping, they have a long recess, things like that,” Herndon said. “It’s very important for the kids to be out and connected with nature so they can understand it. If they don’t connect with nature when they’re younger, they’re not going to protect it when they’re older.”

Instead of assigning projects, Herndon challenges students as young as upper elementary age to identify needs on the farm and come up with technology-based solutions. That’s where Pitsco’s TETRIX® PRIME building system, sensors, and 3-D printing come into play. With such powerful educational materials at their disposal, students brainstorm unique solutions and go about building, testing, and tweaking them using the engineering design process.

“The students will come to me, ‘The chickens don’t like the robots.’ So, I’m like, ‘OK, what are you going to do about that?’” Herndon said. “And they look at me. I never give them an answer. I just give them a question back to think about. And they’ll start discussing, ‘Oh, we have a 3-D printer. Oh, we can make a cover for it,’ or ‘Oh, we could make a plastic chicken.’”

Before turning her students loose with the technology, Herndon led them through activities in the TETRIX builder’s guides and Remote Control Logbook. “They got the basics through how to put the pieces together, what the different pieces are, how to put the gears together, and so forth through the curriculum.”

Among the projects students have conducted:

  • Milena is working on a robot that collects eggs. Figuring out how to adjust the gripper so it doesn’t smash the eggs has been a challenge, and she’s even worked on a scoop appendage to do the job.
  • Braiden, Johnny, and Luke are building a robot that will transmit video data and plant seeds. “The boys are doing great research,” Herndon said. “Precision Planting, a company in northern Illinois, has invited us to attend their winter workshop. They are willing to teach my students about automating agricultural systems like planting, injecting fertilizers, and such. It is a great opportunity for my students to talk to the engineers that develop commercial robotic systems.”
  • Robert is working on a chicken feeder that he hopes to perfect to the point of offering it for sale. “He could do it. Because they’re doing real work – they aren’t playing with toys – they’re more engaged. And it’s their product. They aren’t waiting for someone else to come up with the idea,” Herndon said.
  • Several students are working on ways to discover what is negatively impacting a beehive. “One colony is coming into our beehive and stealing the honey, and our beehive is not strong enough to defend itself,” Herndon said. “Maybe we can get a robot that can shoot video if we can get a motion sensor going. This is a problem we’re trying to figure out.”

As part of the grant, an engineer with nearby Boeing Co. has been visiting the school to lend expertise and help students – and Herndon. “He’s a software engineer, and he comes on Fridays after school once or twice a month. . . . Not only is he working with the kids, he’s also working with me, especially with writing code and figuring what kind of hardware we need.”

Several of the students have experience with FIRST® LEGO® League robotics, but TETRIX has enabled them to take their interests to a higher level where collaboration is cultivated and every student has increased responsibility.

“What I’ve seen now that the kids are doing their own individual projects is they’ve found something that they want to fix and they’re all involved, whereas before when we were doing the competition, I saw two or three kids kind of fall back and they weren’t as engaged,” Herndon explained. “But now they are engaged because now they need to have their own final project. . . . They aren’t competing against each other like in the LEGO competition.”

“Our Pitsco STEM lab provides real-world, hands-on experience that enables students the opportunities to think critically, problem solve, collaborate, and be responsible for their success, while learning new skills.”

– Jennifer Rivenbark, CTE teacher, Wallace Elementary School, Wallace, North Carolina

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