Hands-on learning for local middle school students.
Hands-on learning for local middle school students.

You may have heard the acronym STEM once or twice in the last few years. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs represent one of the fastest-growing opportunities in our economy, leaping past other careers.

In keeping with this new direction in education, Nissitissit Middle School in Pepperell, held a school-wide STEM week that captivated the students’ minds and imaginations.

With the goal of keeping our youth competitive in the future, Nissitissit Middle School’s Principal Diane Gleason and Assistant Principal Lauren Young felt it was important to introduce STEM activities that engaged and inspired students to experiment with different activities that used all of the skills that researchers are increasingly finding to be relevant to careers in the ensuing years. All grades at Nissitissit participated in this week-long event.

Eight-grade students participated in hands-on dissections and they were able to feel what it is really like to be a physician or surgeon. Students investigated how the body works by participating in a range of hands-on activities, such as dissections and construction of life- sized physiological system maps (skeletal, nervous, circulatory, immune). They also conducted simulated surgeries, performed biopsies, and learned how to suture.

Seventh-grade students were shown the key concepts and skills of kinetic and potential energy, including balance, gearing, energy sources and design-oriented thinking. As part of their program, they were creating kinetic sculptures and were introduced to the work of Alexander Calder, George Rhodes, Anne Lilly and Arthur Ganson as examples of various forms of moving sculpture.

The 6th-grade focused on coming up with solutions if humans continue to deplete our natural resources here on Earth if there comes a time when we need to create a settlement somewhere else in our solar system. The students explored what it might take to set up a Moon colony – what materials they will need to bring, how the very different lunar environment might impact the way they live, and what challenges they would face to survive on the Moon.

Fifth-grade students addressed a simulated problem that they had to then provide a solution. They were given the task of dealing with a decline in certain local animals, for no obvious reason. The students had to figure out how to prevent a looming catastrophe. As they did so, they learned about the real-world tools and techniques environmental scientists use to solve such mysteries and gained a deeper understanding of how all the separate components of an ecosystem work together.

Nissitissit Middle School partnered with i2Stem to facilitate this week-long set of instructional activities. The school was transferred into STEM learning labs where regularly scheduled course periods were replaced by hands-on curriculum developed by MIT and a number of other leading STEM organizations. Over the five days, teachers and students worked in teams to solve real-world problems in a classroom where hands-on experimentation, critical thinking, and collaboration were the focus.

Young said that STEM jobs’ rapid growth is why it’s so vital that young people have a strong grasp of the STEM skills needed to fill these jobs and thrive in their adult lives. “The earlier that we introduce students to these skills, the more likely they are to pursue this avenue of education in the future,” said Young. Statistics show that jobs in the science, technology, engineering and math fields often pay better than other jobs for workers with the same level of education, and there is a shortage of young people pursuing these paths.

And kids themselves regularly wrote in feedback forms, “This is awesome” and “i2STEM was the best!”