Tech workshop

COOPER JAEKE (left) and Zach Cordner assemble a Makey-Makey to use a controller to play Pac-Man during an activity with ESU 8 at the middle school on Monday morning.

Monday at the Norfolk Middle School, drones were flying and music was made.

It was all thanks to STEM education.

Fifth- and sixth-grade students participated in workshops hosted by Educational Service Unit 8 that focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics during their keyboard and technology classes.

The school won the free sessions after participating in Hour of Code in the fall and as a result, being entered in a drawing with ESU 8.

Hour of Code is an introduction to computer science, designed to illustrate how coding works and to teach students the basics. Monday's sessions were meant to be an expansion of the program.

Norfolk was one of two schools selected to participate in the workshops. The O'Neill Public School eighth-graders will get the same opportunity.

"It gives them an experience that can be a lot of fun, and it's a lot of thinking," said Nancy Polodna, the keyboarding and technology teacher at the middle school. "It's fun to watch them go, 'Oh, I got it. I figured it out.' ”

During the workshops, students learned how to program drones and got the chance to experiment with Makey-Makeys — which allow students to control a computer using electrical circuits as opposed to a keyboard.

"It helps for the kids to visualize electrical circuits," said Heidi Rethmeier, the staff developer at ESU 8 who led the Makey-Makey workshop. "Electricity is a hard concept because it's not something you can see really, so this makes it very visual for them because their bodies become part of the circuits."

Once students figured out to control the circuit board using not only themselves, but items such as nails, they could play with music apps and games like Pac-Man.

In the other workshops, students gave commands to drones using block programming. Block programming allows students to choose commands, such as "move forward for two seconds," to control drones.

"They're actually going to control it with their own thinking, with their own series of commands," said Katie Morrow, technology instruction facilitator for ESU 8 who led the drone workshop.

Morrow said workshops like the ones taught Monday were especially good at sparking interest with disengaged students.

"They don't see the connection when it's math problems on paper," she said. "But iPads and programmable toys are their world, so when they see that 'Oh, I can have an impact,' or 'Oh, I can make that work,' that's a lot different.

“It shows them that learning has a purpose, and then hopefully they can follow that career path."

It's a career path that's constantly growing.

That's why Polodna said it was important for students to be exposed to STEM education early. It's also why she chose to participate in Hour of Code and why she was excited to have ESU 8 conduct STEM workshops with her students.

The other goal with the extra STEM exposure in classrooms is to encourage minorities and females, who are typically underrepresented in the field, to become interested in the topic.

"The more exposure the better, especially with girls who seem to not be as encouraged to go into that type of field," Polodna said.

Schools interested in doing more with STEM can check out drones and Makey-Makeys from ESU 8. Schools also may request an ESU staff member to conduct a workshop, similar to what was hosted in Norfolk, with its students if teachers aren't comfortable in leading the sessions themselves, Rathmeier said.

Hopefully, it leads to some meaningful learning in the end.

"My job is to make sure what the kids are learning about technology in schools is purposeful," Morrow said. "It isn't just fluff or extra because, unfortunately, some adults that haven't grown up with technology, they see it as the fun video games. Yes, it's fun, but it's not just for fun. It has a real educational value to it."

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