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Seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students are preparing to drop balls of clay out the windows on the second floor of La Crescent Montessori Academy.

On the surface, it sounds like a harmless middle school prank, but in fact, it's really the culmination of an experiment that was preceded by exacting measurements, student collaboration and a growing enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

It's a movement three years in the making at LMA, said the school's director, Lisa Walters, and is in response to numbers that show students in the United States falling behind those in other industrialized nations in the areas of science and math.

That's why in 2007, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Department of Education put out the call to get more students interested in STEM disciplines, one echoed by President Barack Obama two years later when he launched the "Educate to Innovate" campaign, which aims to improve participation and performance in STEM fields.

"The big push in the last few years was to say, ‘Let's look at those related fields,'" Walters said. "That's where all the jobs are ... and the United States is not preparing its children for them at all."

The STEM initiative is aimed mostly at high school levels but does include middle school curriculum like that used at Montessori. And plans are being finalized at LMA to expand it to the elementary ages. Walters describes it as a hands-on, inquiry-based type of learning.

"In order to really understand things, kids have to apply it, so it's applied science and applied math, which is even harder to do," she said. "How do we get them to get it? This is one way."

The program at La Crescent Montessori began three years ago when Walters and grade 7-9 teacher Tami Holtslander enrolled in a three-year, 12-credit graduate STEM certification at St. Catherine's University in St. Paul. The program required immediate integration of curriculum into the classroom, so the students learned the content in unison with the teachers.

In the first year, students studied earth science, and in year two, they focused on engineering. This year, students are learning the mathematical concepts and how they apply to the science and engineering fields.

During earth science, students studied a stream table, soil horizons and the make-up of a river. They learned how to measure the velocity of a stream through experiments, such as when they tested a stream with a straight-line flow, one that meanders and another with sentiment on the bottom.

"Although they know a straight stream moves as fast as a meandering stream, they also had to know a meandering stream was actually longer," Holtslander said. "So did it really take that much more time, or is it relative to the length of the stream?"

The stream tables helped illustrate water flow, erosion and deposition, and all of it integrated seamlessly with LMA's existing partnership with the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.

Last year, students were introduced to engineering, studying truss designs and the related concepts behind them. In the classroom, they designed their own trusses out of dried pasta and tested them with the goal of building one that supports the most weight before failing. Outside, they met with the president, a senior designer and a quality inspector from Truss Specialists in La Crescent, who allowed them to tour the facility and ask questions that reinforced what they learned.

"They were my favorite field trip of all time because they brought us through every aspect of it and allowed the students to be part of it," Holtslander said.

Earlier this month, students - using the applied math they're learning this year - were creating a resistance for the clay balls in order to make their fall from the windows as slow as possible. They used parachutes made of garbage bags - two different plies cut into four different shapes and attached to the clay using strings of various lengths. The experiment also factored in the length of the clay's drop and the winds outside.

"The cool people at ‘MythBusters' talk about having slow- motion cameras. We don't have that, but at least we can visibly see what's happening to the weight in the air," Holtslander said.

Results prove effectiveness

It has always been the goal of Montessori to get students into the field, but there came a point, Walters said, when there was some uncertainty about what to do next. But the STEM program, she said, created the push to put what students learn into effect.

And early on, it appears STEM is making a measurable difference. As math numbers from Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests come back from the state, 100 percent of students in grades 5-8 at LMA have shown high growth over the previous year, Walters said.

"Does (STEM) raise test scores around the nation? They're finding yes, absolutely," she said. "But it really helps kids not just find out the answer to the problems, but ... use a higher level of thinking, and that's hard to measure."

According to the school, 50 percent of the school's alumni who've graduated from high school are enrolled in STEM-related college fields, and some are now finished and looking for careers in those areas.

One of those alums is Kyle Holtslander. He graduated from LMA's sixth grade (the highest grade in the school at the time) in 2001 and is a recent graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he studied aerospace engineering - the design of aircraft and spacecraft.

From an early age, Holtslander, 23, has had an interest in airplanes.

"I liked airplanes, so I wanted to make them," he said.

Though he moved through the school before STEM was implemented, he said the freedom to study and learn at his own pace, though guided by the teachers, was a benefit and fostered his curiosity.

"From this, you get the skills to look up things on your own and develop the skills you need to help yourself learn," said Holtslander, who was at the school two weeks ago helping Tami, his mother, with STEM lessons.

In fact, the STEM program at La Crescent is so new within the Montessori approach that Walters and Holtslander were invited to present their lessons on incorporating engineering into the classroom at the 2010 American Montessori Society Fall Conference in San Diego. It was an honor, Walters said, to share what they're doing because it's working so well here and students are clamoring for it.

"They literally beg for it," she said. "They ask all the time.

"It's very high level things they're doing. We're asking them to do things most people learned in high school. But they want to do it. They will do more than what you ask them to do."

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