Full STEAM Ahead at Oregon Middle School
August 25th, 2016 by Lori Russell
From left, Tanner, Zoe and Hunter secure their rescue litter with their injured “person” to a helicopter for its final test in a backcountry rescue project. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Paris

From left, Tanner, Zoe and Hunter secure their rescue litter with their injured “person” to a helicopter for its final test in a backcountry rescue project. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Paris

Jocelyn Paris is a self-described mad scientist in training, technology guru wanna-be, engi-nerd and math believer—and she is changing things up at The Dalles Middle School in The Dalles, Oregon.

Given the excitement of her students and the waiting list for her STEAM classes, her efforts appear to be working.

“The old way to teach was to talk at them, and we know that doesn’t work,” says Jocelyn. “How do we acquire knowledge? It is through hands-on doing. For every two minutes of me talking, there are seven to 10 minutes of doing.”

When developing her curriculum, Jocelyn meets with social studies, math, science and language arts teachers to learn what they are covering.

“I try to hit every grade level and content, and then pick STEAM projects that fit those,” she says.

Students work in teams on four major projects that build in complexity and require less teacher involvement as the semester progresses.

Jocelyn’s STEAM students have developed early-warning systems for natural disasters, created prosthetic devices for animals and built Roman aqueducts to move water from place to place.

During a backcountry rescue project, teams used math, science, language arts and design concepts to create a device to evacuate a person who suffered a spinal injury.

They began by creating models of the spine, studied the effect of spinal injuries on the body and researched evacuation devices called litters.

Next, they created blueprints of their prototype on the computer, incorporating specific design criteria and constraints (supplies).

Each team built a three-dimensional rescue litter that could immobilize an “injured” potato person and be carried by the team to a helipad across the classroom, where it was clipped to a toy helicopter and sustained 10 seconds of turbulence (shaking) during liftoff.

Supplies were simple: a few straws, duct tape, a sheet of paper and two Popsicle sticks.

Each group also created a map to locate the injured hiker using math equations and the square classroom floor tiles as graph paper.

After testing their litter, students used critical-thinking and writing skills to answer questions, suggest adaptations and reflect on the project.

During the testing phase of each project, community partners—including local Google employees—act as judges.

“It’s good for the kids to present to outside people and show what they know,” Jocelyn says.

It also builds community support as the adults experience STEAM learning.

“A lot of people look at STEAM and see technology,” says Jocelyn. “What we are teaching are 21st-century workplace skills: How are we working together, how can we adapt, how can we look at a project and break it into smaller, manageable parts.”