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Why STEM works

In Cleora, OK, student failure begets perseverance, which spawns success

Published February 17, 2020

CLEORA, OK – Superintendent Kenny Guthrie shakes his head knowingly and tries in vain to make sense of an education system that instills a fear of failure in students, which is the opposite of what business and industry leaders want in their employees.

Guthrie isn’t sitting by idly though. Instead of focusing only on state-mandated and standardized testing where students grow anxious not knowing whether their selection of A, B, C, or D was correct, Guthrie and others at Cleora Public School have been interspersing hands-on STEM experiences. The new approach began five years ago with what has become a vibrant robotics program, and it continues this school year with engaging STEM Units from Pitsco Education.

The MidAmerica STEM Alliance in nearby Pryor, Oklahoma, awarded a $25,000 grant for Pitsco materials to Cleora and each of seven other single-school K-8 districts throughout the MidAmerica Industrial Park labor shed. The plan is to educate a curious and technically astute future workforce of lifelong learners who welcome the opportunity to fail and grow from their mistakes.

Guthrie leads by example and points out his own shortcomings. “I think we all probably in some aspect of our life fear failing. The more you can get kids to realize and deal with that positively at a younger age, it might help them to be more successful later on,” he said. “Even as I consider myself successful and blessed, there are still times I find myself questioning my decisions. I think we all face that on a daily basis. And the more you get kids comfortable with that, the better off they’ll be.”


It’s no surprise that Cleora teachers fall in line behind Guthrie and echo his message to students, who then realize it’s OK – even preferable – to fail early and often in formal education. Teachers Angie Bacon and Marty Matzenbacher hear their superintendent’s message loud and clear, giving students more freedom to explore, work together, and experience STEM activities – without fear of a failing grade if they happen to steer off course yet work diligently to reach the finish line.

“I’ve learned that at about a fourth-grade age, you’re either liking science or you’re losing it, girls in particular. I mean they don’t want to do it,” said Matzenbacher, a science teacher. “So by adding these interesting STEM projects that we can do, it just keeps them more interested. . . . Some of them, they’re going to go to college and that’s fine. College is amazing, but it’s not for everybody. Some people are more technical, and learning a career through a technical school, it’s just so much better. And being able to get their hands on things. It’s not just ‘I wish we could do this.’ We are doing this stuff, and that makes a big difference.”

While Matzenbacher’s students were working recently on AP bottle racers, 3-D printing, and CAD design, Bacon’s students were getting charged up building circuits in a STEM Unit about electricity. “Before, I mean honestly the only thing that I had were textbooks. That’s the cool thing about this grant. It has allowed these kids to be exposed to so much more that we just couldn’t expose them to.

“And it’s highly motivating because they love it,” Bacon added. “They love to work with their hands. They love to build things. It’s just the excitement of doing something fun and interesting. I mean, how many kids get to work with electricity? When’s the last time I got to work with electricity and do things like that?”

A ripple effect has occurred, much to Bacon’s delight, as students eagerly finish their other assignments to earn the privilege of doing STEM on Fridays. “Let me just tell you, our work production has gone up as well. Some of us that were not getting our stuff done are suddenly getting it all done, and we’re good to go on Friday. So, it’s win-win-win for everyone.”


Katelin, an eighth grader at Cleora, prefers working with her hands and having a partner over the traditional lecture/book approach she knew from previous years. “I love this so much more because we have a lot of hands on. It’s just a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s much better than class. It’s hands on and you can figure it out yourself instead of just reading about it and not being able to experience it.”

Plus, Katelin added, “If you make mistakes, then you’ll learn better. So, if you do that, then you have more chances to learn about the topic.”

Another eighth grader, Raven, was using Tinkercad® to create a personalized 3-D printing design – a signature smiley face that he draws on everything. “It takes a lot of time and mistakes and redoing to get it right.”

Fortunately, Raven has the freedom to start over and improve his design, learning more options in Tinkercad and mastering the nuances of the 3-D printer – and considering career options as he goes. “I feel like it’s helping us sort out our future because it makes us involved with more things and gets us used to more things that we’re going to be exposed to.”

Guthrie, other educators, and employers across the northeast Oklahoma region are excited to see today’s students taking chances and experimenting. “With this, they can try something. If it doesn’t work, they can come back, reevaluate it, maybe even partner with somebody and get some ideas, change something, try it again,” Guthrie said. “Because they can instantly see the results, they’re not as afraid of failure because they know they can immediately do something about it.”

“The units have a really heavy engineering focus. My kindergartners build animal homes. My second graders build park rides. Right now, my second graders are building containers to protect four cookies and give them as a gift. . . . I really love that at the K-2 level, the kids get to think and create and engineer stuff.”

– Debra Rouse, K-6 STEM specialist, North Cedar Community School District, Lowden, Iowa

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