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The City Journals

North Star students thrive in choose-your-own-adventure classes

May 03, 2019 09:29AM ● By Jet Burnham

Demonstrating a practical application of forensics science, middle school students fingerprint their peers for an emergency identification card. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Imagine a class where the assignment for the day is to sample chocolate from around the world. 

At North Star Academy, students participate in clusters classes, meeting with like-minded peers once a week to study a topic that interests them. Students who chose the Chocolates of the World cluster tasted a variety of chocolates, including surprising Japanese flavors such as grape, strawberry, and a peanut and ketchup combo.

“The weirdest flavor was avocado,” said fourth-grader Elinor Eggertsen.

In addition to tasting, students learned the history of chocolate and how the Japanese originally used it as medicine for the wealthy. They learned about techniques French chocolatiers use to make the darkest chocolate in the world. They explored the various uses of chocolate, including making a chocolate mud cake recipe and hot chocolate.

Field trips to local candy factories allowed them to see the process of candy making.

Noah Hansen, a fourth-grader in the cluster, said while he enjoyed tasting the grape-flavored Kit Kat from Japan, his favorite sample was chocolate button from Mrs. Cavanaugh’s.

“It just tasted really good,” he said.

Cluster classes are grouped by grade and focus on a specific topic. They often include field trips and community service projects. The cluster classes learning culminated in a Cluster Carnival Showcase held in March.

“This is an event where students share with each other what they've been working on for the past several months,” said Jamie VanLeuven, Enrichment Specialist at NSA. More than 30 clusters showcased their topic of study, which included cake decorating, shadow puppets, magic tricks, holiday crafts, cinematography, world dance, art, playwriting and cake decorating.

Sidney Warnick taught the Marine Life cluster. For the showcase, her students created models of the ocean zones in a water bottle and invited parents and students to put their hand in ice water for a demonstration of the insulating properties of blubber.

Warnick said the hands-on activities are the best way her students, who ranged from grades 1–3, learn.

“Getting the kids engaged at this age helps them remember what they learn,” she said.

Helzyon Singleton, a first-grader, said they also learned how they can help marine animals by not littering. After a field trip to the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, students decided to raise money for the aquarium’s expansion. They earned $140 by selling treats after school.

“They earned enough to buy a brick at the aquarium so they can go and see that they earned that money to support the aquarium,” said Warnick.

Sixteen boys in 1–3 grade signed up for the Natural Disasters cluster. Melanie Densley, a kindergarten teacher, planned engaging projects every week for students to explore natural disasters.

First-grader Austin Gee said his favorite subject was tornadoes. The class created their own tiny twisters with two plastic pop bottles filled with water. They also made snow and put it into ornaments for a Christmas craft. 

“Most of what we did was hands-on activities,” said Densley. While learning about earthquakes, the boys built structures and placed them on top of Jell-O for a seismic simulation. They explored the destructive force of water by building flood barriers out of blocks and Legos and the dumping buckets of water on them.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Densley. “We learned a lot, all of us, even myself.”

She incorporated topics of emergency preparedness with a visit to the local fire department. Students also compiled a personal 72- hour kit and created emergency ID cards. Their homework was to make an emergency plan with their families.

In a student-led study of world wars, students chose to focus on World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Michelle Stewart taught the cluster, facilitating discussions of events that led to each war and the U.S.’s involvement. Her brother, Todd M. Bair, retired 1st sergeant for the U.S. Army, shared his experiences from Desert Storm and Afghanistan with the class. 

Students explored specific details about the weapons and vehicles used in warfare. Michael Burton, a fifth-grader, made models of airplanes, ships and tanks out of Legos. Others made helicopter models out of Play-Doh.

“The students completed their projects through hard work and a lot of research,” said Stewart. “Many students designed their models and kept adding or taking away materials to make it more accurate.”

Stewart felt that her students were able to gain a new perspective of the relationship between the military and their freedoms.

“It's important for them to understand cause and effects of the wars and what those wars meant to the U.S.—how they impacted us,” she said. “I feel that kids need to learn our history and the importance that is had and still has in creating our country. Our military and their families sacrifice so much for us to have our freedoms. I feel it is important that kids understand this.”

Middle school clusters included topics such as world dance, 3-D art and forensic science.

“We learned about the different types of forensic science and how important they are to crime investigation,” said eighth-grader Wyatt Sorenson of his Forensic Science cluster. The group learned about various fields that use forensics and visited a lab at UVU to see the equipment and techniques used in crime scene investigations.

“It was really cool about the powders that they would use to see where the blood was and different types of liquids,” said Sorenson.

For the Cluster Showcase, the older students in the cluster helped younger students put their fingerprint on an emergency card ID card. Landen Hiatt, a seventh-grader, said it was interesting learning about different types of fingerprints (whirl, left and right loops, tented arch) and the various tools police use to find people.

One cluster focused on fundraising for cancer patients. Together, they tied three blankets, stuffed 20 teddy bears, made 48 ornaments, created 35 cards, filled 75 coloring kits, prepared 200 bracelet kits and knitted three hats. They also baked cookies and painted friendship rocks. The items they made were either donated or sold to raise $200 for cancer research.

Mad Scientist was a popular cluster for first-third graders. Computer teacher Kelli Olsen, assisted by two middle school students who signed up for the cluster, used everyday objects to set up a variety of fun science experiments.

“I had an $80 budget, and I was under that for most of what we did,” said Olsen. “A lot of it was just stuff around the house.”

The students watched videos to collect ideas for experiments they wanted to try. Making slime was their No. 1 choice.

“The clusters are more based off of what the students have an interest in so these are students who showed an interest in doing science experiments,” said Olsen. “I just based my lessons off of what their highest interests were.”

She said when she teaches clusters, which vary in subject every year, she tries to relate real-world applications to the topic of study. She talked with her group about various scientific careers.

“I think, outside of the things that they learn in a school environment, this shows them an outside interest of something they could actually do as a job or a career,” she said. “It gives them more of an insight into what the career looks like.”