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The City Journals

Creative STEM program entertains students after school

Oct 31, 2016 10:36AM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

West Jordan, Utah - Students at Joel P. Jensen Middle School spend their afternoons battling robots, building with marshmallows and programming computer games. The fun is part of their popular after-school STEM program.

Principal Bryan Leggat said he is thrilled with the success of the program, now in its second year. Two days a week, the focus is on computer programming; the other two days on robotics. There are also various problem-solving and creative activities to keep the students challenged. The 40–60 participants each day are from all grades and all academic levels.  

“We have special needs to advanced students all doing programming,” said Heather Woffinden, who instructs on computer programming days. 

Darion Johnson has been attending since the program began last year. 

“Right now I’m learning basics. Later, I’ll probably program a game because I’m a big gamer,” the eighth-grader said. 

Along with programming, students are getting familiar with binary code. Madison Gailey, a ninth-grader, enjoyed making binary necklaces, spelling her name in code using black and white beads. On another day, Dustin Plott, who used to work as a programmer but now teaches History at the middle school, created a scavenger hunt with clues written in binary code for the students to decipher.

 All four teachers involved with the program enjoy it as much as the kids.

“I grew up participating in STEM activities as a kid (but it wasn’t called that back then),” said Alisha Lyman, one of the robotics teachers.

 “This is what brought me to this school,” said Woffinden. “I love computers and getting kids excited about computers.” 

Spencer Larsen, who teaches Spanish, doesn’t have a background in robotics, but he enjoys being part of the program.

“I’m just learning along with the kids,” he said.

One kind of robot the students use is Mindstorm LEGO robots, purchased with grant money awarded to the school last year. Students program their robots to complete an assigned task. But the after-school program is less structured than daytime classes and some students spread out into the hallway, pitting their robots against others in “Sumo-Bots.” One group of inventive 7seventh-graders, including Eric Garcia, Jonathan Conreras and Omar Valadez, customized their robots with long drills and spinning weapons in hopes of overpowering contending robots.

 “I just get out of these kids’ way and let them create,” said Larsen.

When they do ask for help, students are encouraged to do their own problem-solving. That is what Rozanne Morgan (ninth-grader) and her brother Sethro (seventh-grader) did when they had trouble with the color sensor on their Mindstorm Robot. Brainstorming solutions is part of the fun. Larsen says it’s these kinds of experiences that build resilience.

Lyman agrees. Last year she coached a group of students in a LEGO League competition. 

“There was a lot of problem solving involved, and even though they couldn’t get the robot to do exactly what they wanted in the competition, they still had a great time,” Lyman said.

Each day, the students can expect a new challenge. Sometimes they work with electric circuits to turn anything--Play-Doh, cups of water or even their fingers—into game controllers. Other days, they build towers out of unexpected building materials—marshmallows, paper clips or spaghetti noodles. 

The variety of fun and challenging activities is what keeps the students coming back four times a week. 

“This opportunity for self-discovery is one of my favorite things about STEM,” said Lyman. “We have students who participate and love it, but we also have students who sign up and after a while realize robotics is not their thing, and that’s OK. STEM gives them an opportunity to try something they might never have considered, and it’s awesome to see them try something new.”