At Eagle Peak Middle School, teachers are bringing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into core classes and electives, and offering students a more hands-on, project-based approach to learning.
As a STEM magnet school, Eagle Peak Middle School is working to prepare students for the highly technical demands of future education, and to expand career opportunities in the growing fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Students in Elizabeth DeVinny’s Advanced Digital Media class seem well on their way to bright futures. At a recent lunch meeting, eighth graders who have been enrolled in DeVinny’s digital media class since the sixth grade shared their pride and enthusiasm about the work they do in the class.
Student McKensie Caine said she and her classmates who have been in the program for several years have grown with the program. “In sixth grade, we had to learn everything and it took a long time to get anything done. In seventh grade, we could do way cooler stuff, and now we’re super-fast.”
Advanced Digital Media students are responsible for producing the school’s yearbook, and they have reason to be proud. Last year’s yearbook won the National Yearbook Program of Excellence Award for creation and distribution. It is a well-designed album with high quality images, well-written copy, and little blue triangles that can be scanned with mobile devices to display videos associated with the events pictured.
In Advanced Digital Media, students learn digital photography and photo editing, videography, interviewing skills, story-telling, as well as the production side of managing a complicated, long-term project using proprietary software and uncompromising deadlines.
The students shared their love of the class without any mention of the hours they invest to succeed. Student Sara Garcia said, “I like the freedom of this class. It helps me make memories with my friends, and I like that I get to create something from scratch. This is our school. This is what we do,” she said as she inclined her head toward the yearbook.
While students may have a passion for a particular part of the process, “everyone does everything,” according to DeVinny. All students are expected to participate in each piece of the project, whether it means learning to use GoPros and Canon Rebel T5i and T6i cameras, translating an interview into a cohesive story, or coordinating and planning with classmates. Throughout the process, they figure out how to use new technology to create the design or effect they want to create.
The students work together to overcome challenges, and say they appreciate the autonomy DeVinny allows them. Student Kassidy Galloway said, “We get to vote on the theme. Mrs. DeVinny lets us choose.”
Classmate Narytza Flores agreed. “It’s fun. We take pictures of everything,” she said, explaining that it is the students and not DeVinny who decide what to put in the yearbook. Student Giselle Gallegos shared the value of this autonomy. “We get to express ourselves through our pictures,” she said.
The students noted that, in addition to feeling more invested in the project and enjoying the learning process, allowing them to have creative freedom made the yearbook one that fellow students really appreciate. The contents reflect their experiences, not those of teachers and administrators.
DeVinny received her degree in art from the University of California at Berkeley, then taught outside the area for several years before joining the staff at Eagle Peak. She said, “[Principal] Dan Stearns has been so supportive. When I came, I really wanted to start a yearbook program. Mr. Stearns has provided the materials and allowed me to develop the classes to make that happen.” DeVinny began teaching at Eagle Peak three years ago, so the current eighth graders are her first students who will graduate having taken her digital media class all three years. “I’m going to miss them so much when they go,” she said.
Just a short walk from DeVinny’s classroom is the STEM Lab where teacher Josh Reeder also incorporates a hands-on, project-based teaching style. Reeder is passionate about teaching STEM: he not only develops lessons for his own STEM elective classes, but supports teachers of core subjects like Language Arts and Social Studies with ideas for STEM lessons that can be incorporated into their classes.
In his classroom, students sit on tall stools at long tables, each with a computer in front of them. At the front of the classroom is a large, interactive white board where Reeder projects a Google classroom screen and sometimes asks students to demonstrate their answers to STEM-related questions.
Recently, Reeder challenged students to investigate the best way to launch a rocket. Students entered values for mass, thrust, and duration of thrust into a launch simulator program on their individual computers, so they could begin to understand the relationship among these variables. The students have already built straw rockets, and are preparing to build bottle rockets. They are using the computer simulation to figure out the balance between thrust and mass, so they can be successful when they launch their bottle rockets on the school field.
Students enjoy a friendly competition to see who can launch their virtual rocket the farthest, with the most successful students getting their rockets past the Earth’s atmosphere and into space. The students are animated, and the volume rises quickly in the classroom, but Reeder only quiets the students when he needs their attention.
“I believe students need the freedom to collaborate and make a little noise in a creative space like the STEM Lab,” he said.
Reeder and the rest of the faculty seem to have embraced the energy that comes with allowing middle school students to express themselves. While the conversion of Eagle Peak Middle School into a STEM magnet school is an ongoing process, Principal Dan Stearns is proud of the faculty’s efforts.
“There’s been an incredible amount of work done by staff to get the STEM program launched, and I’m really proud of everyone’s efforts in this endeavor. For me, one of the most rewarding parts has been working with fifth grade teachers and students to learn basic coding. Our goal is to build our own video game by the end of October. Wish us luck! Actually, wish me luck building my video game. The students will be fine,” he said.