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STEM program going strong after five years

After five years in the district, West Fargo’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program — more commonly known as STEM — continues to increase its presence in area schools.

The STEM program is an optional line of coursework — with students deciding to take part when they register for classes — that sees students partake in project-based learning that utilizes the engineer design process, which calls for identifying a problem, exploring possible solutions and then refining those solutions.

“When we talk about project-based learning, people tend to think it is just hands-on stuff,” said Liberty Middle School Assistant Principal Michelle Weber, who leads the STEM program at the district’s newest school. “It is all that, but you also have an authentic, real-world problem that you are trying to solve. That is at the crux of what you are doing.”

For a real-world problem, Weber gave the example of eighth-grade geography students who looked at plate tectonics and earthquakes through the eyes of a West Coast insurance company. Students then decided on whether they would insure the construction of a building, taking into account cost analysis, seismic activity and risk.

Several area businesses have seen the merit of this form of learning as well, and have partnered with the school district to present problems they have and see how the students respond to it.

Weber and Adam Gehlhar, who heads up STEM at Cheney Middle School, claim that some people believe the program is simply for students interested in becoming an engineer, but that is not the case.

“STEM literacies are good preparation for the challenges of life, of which there are many,” Gehlhar said. “No matter what career a kid may be interested in, they are going to benefit from a STEM education.”

The program got its start simply as the STEM Center, which was held in the Lodoen Center for four years with Weber as its principal and Gehlhar as an assistant principal. Starting with the current school year, STEM has been integrated into both middle schools and both high schools.

Gehlhar attributes the growth of the program to the dedication of the district staff.

“From the start of the STEM center, our teams of teachers have become so much stronger,” Gehlhar said. “They work hard together and do a lot of professional learning on their own time. We all came in with the same vision, but the growth of the educators in the program has been phenomenal.”

The STEM coursework is not simply for science and math classes, however, as it has made its way into the humanities as well. Barb Metcalf teaches STEM U.S. history at West Fargo High School, and encourages her students to look into aspects like design and financial ramifications when looking into the past.

“Even in history books, you talk about how certain things were funded, so you can tie that together,” Metcalf said. “What we try to do — whether it’s in STEM U.S. history or STEM English or any other classes these kids have — is interconnect and diversify the type of activities we have.”

STEM students are continually asked to focus on the final step in the engineer design process, calling for them to refine and redesign their ideas.

“We live in that,” Weber said. “The project is never good enough. There is always something else we can add to it. You will always get the kid that asks ‘why is this important?’ With this, you can make it important and show them why it is important.”

In several instances, students are given tasks that the administration fears may prove too much for them, but that has not been the case yet.

“We challenge them with projects that are beyond their years, oftentimes, and they always amaze us with what they come up with and the amount of critical thinking they put into things,” Gehlhar said. “They are still learning the same content as other students, but they are doing it in a way that is meaningful to them and lets them explore their passions.”

After five years of growth and expansion, Weber said the STEM project is still in “constant redesign.” Next year, high school STEM students will be able to hold internships with local businesses and conduct capstone projects that will focus on an issue in the community. However, the changes will not stop there.

“We are creating the next generation of our workforce, and our economic development depends on it,” Weber said. “We need critical thinkers and problem-solvers, and we need people to be creative in how they solve those problems.”