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Maximum STEM: Range of offerings perfect for Las Vegas junior high

Published February 6, 2018
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It was an ambitious request. Educator John Walz was asked in 2016 to build a STEAM program for Silvestri Junior High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. The vision was multifaceted: expose students to a wide range of subjects to hook their interest while also exploring key areas in greater depth – and at the same time keep the program flexible to accommodate changes that might be needed. Walz had experience to draw from, having both led a middle school educational technology program and worked in a position helping elementary and middle school teachers integrate technology in their classrooms.

“I did some research looking at where the programs I used many moons before have evolved and the costs it would take to implement a program,” explains Walz. In the end, he proposed a program largely based on Pitsco resources. The convenience and array of offerings, both curriculum and one-off projects and kits, drew Walz to Pitsco.

Currently the program, taught by Walz and another teacher, Dr. Pregosin, includes 18 Pitsco middle-level curriculum titles and a new whole-class STEM Expedition®. These introduce students to numerous career paths they might pursue in high school and beyond.

Several three- and five-week units delve a bit deeper. These include units in digital photography, animation, engineering that utilizes Pitsco bridge-building kits; a robotics program based in TETRIX® that emphasizes 21st-century skills and higher-order thinking; and 3-D design and printing from Pitsco.

“Pitsco provided a foundation for us to launch our STEAM program. It provided curriculum supported by standards in a variety of areas. This reduced the amount of time needed to create our own,” says Walz.

The program has remained dynamic since its start, seeing one major expansion in the second year and continual growth through homegrown lesson plans developed by both teacher and, interestingly, students – the advanced classes’ writing lessons in PowerPoint and Google forms for the lower-level classes are based on experiments and activities they have conducted.

One significant factor shaping the program is the drive to make it keenly relevant to students’ lives by tailoring it to the economy of Nevada. For example, the state’s ever-growing tourism industry made Hotel Management a perfect pick for Silvestri students. And the important mining industry was a deciding factor in the purchase of the Mining Mechanics STEM Expedition. The state has also emphasized teaching students to code, and to this end, the TETRIX robotics, combined with the PULSE™ Robotics Controller, Arduino hardware, and a popular online coding resource library, was a perfect solution.

“It gives the students a firsthand experience completing online and hands-on activities in many different fields. For some of our students this is their first experience of taking charge of their own learning. . . . The STEAM program absolutely gives students exposure to careers and job possibilities. It also helps give students the knowledge they can look for programs and studies in high schools and magnet schools,” he said.

The program has been a rousing success, and the emphasis on STEAM in the school will only increase.

Walz explains: “Silvestri JHS will become Silvestri STEAM Academy next school year. Pitsco products are the front-runner to the programs driving this upcoming change. . . . We get tremendous responses from parents about the labs and the opportunities their children receive. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from parents, ‘I wish I had this opportunity when I was in junior high.’”

“The summer [professional development] session was critical because it took all of our teachers through every activity that they would face, every Expedition the kids would be doing. It was vitally important.”

– Darius McKay, principal, Girard Middle School, Dothan, Alabama

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