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STEM Synergy: What Happens When Two Schools Team Up

on Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Mark Westlake, Trustey Fellows Cohort 4 - St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, MN

STEMSynergy

The room looked exactly as I had pictured it in my mind. The brightly colored walls were covered with student work, the corner had a small art area, and behind a partition were little cubbies filled with jackets and boots. The room was obviously dedicated to student learning. It had been more than 20 years since I had been in an elementary school classroom, and the first thing that came to my mind was, “How in the world will I squeeze 15 high school senior boys in here?” Natalie Hager, the fifth-grade teacher at Community of Saints Regional Catholic School, didn’t seem as worried…..

Last spring when the fifth cohort of Trustey STEM Teaching Fellows was announced, I really didn’t give it much thought. I’m not really sure what ultimately made me look at the new Trustey class, but when I did, I was surprised to see another Minnesota school listed. The amazing thing was that it was a school I had never heard of, and it was only ten minutes from Saint Thomas Academy! My immediate hope was that our schools could find a way to work together, but I feared my complete lack of knowledge about elementary students would preclude that from happening. (This is especially funny because I have five children of my own!) I suppose at that point I should have sent a message over to our new Notre Dame neighbors, but I really wasn’t sure how to start. Instead, valuable months passed before we met face-to-face at the summer institute on campus at Notre Dame. 

“Perhaps we could work on a project together?” I said, the words spilling out of my mouth. I’m sure that the team from Community of Saints would have preferred a “Hello” or a “Hi, my name is Mark” introduction, but as usual, I made it as awkward as possible right from the beginning.

Westlake2Over the next eight days, I was able to convince Natalie that I wasn’t a crazy person, and we set up a meeting for the end of the summer. Like most of the projects I work on, I went with the “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach and suggested that our high school seniors and the Community of Saints fifth graders could work together. I had absolutely no idea what we would do.

Fast forward a month and Natalie made the short drive to Saint Thomas Academy so we could brainstorm some potential projects for our teams of junior engineers. With the engineering design process as our guide, we wanted a project that would be hands-on, required iteration, and challenged students from both schools. This was a difficult set of design requirements!

Armed with a better idea of what fifth graders were capable of, we developed the framework for our interschool cooperation. The general idea was that the students at Community of Saints would take on the role of “product designers” and the 12th-grade Capstone Engineering students at Saint Thomas Academy would be the “senior project managers.” The desired end product was to be a laser-cut, rubber-band powered vehicle. The senior project managers set the design criteria: The entire vehicle had to be cut from a single 12”x 12” piece of 1/8” thick plywood. The vehicle should be able to be assembled without glue. All of the energy for motion must come from one rubber band. 

With the design criteria in place and an example vehicle built, the seniors made name tags for their fifth-grade partners and waited anxiously for the preliminary drawings. Natalie went through the process with her students and dropped off the student sketches and descriptions at STA the following week. The next day the senior project managers made design recommendations, wrote clarifying questions, and provided encouraging feedback to their younger partners.

Westlake3Back to the fifth graders the drawings went. The product designers made numerous changes to their vehicle drawings and sent them back over to STA for final review. With the latest iteration in hand and all of the design criteria met, the seniors set about the work of converting the student sketches into 2D CAD drawings. Within days, all of the vehicles had been laser cut and test-assembled by the senior project managers. It was time to have the two groups meet face-to-face for the first time!

When we arrived at Community of Saints, you could tell that this group of big brave 17- and 18-year-olds were out of their comfort zones! The full-size “man-boys” were about to confront their kryptonite...10-year-olds. With zip-lock bags full of parts and bottles of wood glue, the brave team that were only months from graduating entered Ms. Hager’s tiny classroom. Watching the 6’4”, 250-pound captain of the football team sit down on one of those mini chairs in his school uniform made me chuckle. Luckily the fifth graders enjoyed the home court advantage and quickly made their much larger partners feel welcome. It was time to start building!

The hour passed quickly as the teams of product designers and senior project managers assembled the plywood parts. The fifth graders carried the conversations with questions about the senior’s uniforms, what sports they play, and what they want to be when they grow up. Both Natalie and I laughed at the connection that was forming between our young charges. Neither group wanted it to end! Natalie cleared a corner of her tiny room and managed to get everyone together and still enough to take a picture. The fifth graders yelled their good-byes out the window as the older cadets left. Everyone agreed it would be something they wanted to do again.

Westlake5As I was returning supplies to the bins in the Innovation Center, I reflected on the project and the value it had for both the fifth graders at Community of Saints and the seniors at Saint Thomas Academy. I learned:

  • Natalie Hager is a passionate, hardworking teacher that wants to see her students succeed.
  • Fifth graders are capable of far more than I realized.
  • Big, strong 18-year old boys are not as brave as they think they are.
  • There is a powerful synergy when two teachers team up! The whole was definitely better than any of the individual parts.
  • Community of Saints and their Trustey team are working very hard to make a difference. Thank you for welcoming the Cadets with open arms!
  • The Notre Dame Trustey Fellowship provided us with the scaffolding to make this collaborative project possible.

As every teacher knows, spring is a crazy time of year. I’m hoping we can carve out time to develop a second project with our new friends!

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