A Teachable Moment

Lt. Gov. Matt Michels joins Jolley Elementary students Carson Smith and Ariana Georgescu in a science project held in the school’s new STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading/Writing, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) laboratory Monday in Vermillion.

VERMILLION — A room in Jolley Elementary School in Vermillion that once served as Lt. Gov. Matt Michels’ kindergarten classroom has been transformed into a state-of-the-art STREAM teaching laboratory.

Michels, along with leaders from the Vermillion community, the local school district and the University of South Dakota took part in a number of activities Monday to formally launch the new laboratory.

“Vermillion has always had an incredible energy to learn, and what I actually was taught, and it comes from health care right in this community, is you watch one, you do one, you teach one,” Michels said. “This is a real good example of hands-on, STREAM teaching and learning, and you can see it. You can see things come alive.”

STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading/Writing, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) education represents an experiential method of learning that is project and problem-based and requires the use of critical thinking skills. It also encourages children to discover that various elements of their curriculum are interconnected.

The new lab in Jolley Elementary is made possible by the school being chosen to receive more than $99,000 from the State of South Dakota’s Classroom Innovation Grant.

Students and schools officials alike made sure their guests knew they were aware of the significance of the funding and the laboratory. Michels, University of South Dakota President James Abbott and community representatives were greeted with a red carpet rolled out on the school hallway that helped lead their way to the new lab.

Jolley School second graders did their part, too. They flanked each side of the hallway, holding small American flags, and sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” for their guests as they walked by.

After entering the lab, the guests joined Jolley students in conducting a variety of projects ranging from robotics to experiments dealing with computers and electricity.

Michels said Gov. Dennis Daugaard has witnessed educational programs similar to this while visiting schools overseas.

“Some states have imported that in a big way, and he is a real apostle of that,” he said. “Both of us have a background in technical trades, and that process involves every aspect of science and technology, reading and math.

“I think sometimes what we’ve done and what our parents did for me is sort of channelize you and say, ‘If you want to do this, you’ve got to take these courses.’ Some of the brightest people I know are auto mechanics. They’re computer technicians and they have to be able to read and understand complex stuff. The best description of this place that I can see after, over the years, going to different places in the world such as high test research facilities to those facilities that take care of individual needs, is that it keeps all of the doors open. We’re one of those few nations where you can dream it, you can do it and you can pursue it.”

The new STREAM lab is the latest cooperative effort between the Vermillion School District and the USD School of Education to prepare new teachers. Classes from the university teacher preparation program will meet at Jolley Elementary next year and work with the school’s teachers to develop lessons in the STREAM lab and in classrooms.

The work has been described as cutting edge, with teacher candidates having access to materials while working side-by-side with veteran educators.

“The really important aspect of this lab is how we rely on our regular classroom teachers to be experts in this field,” said Jason Gault, the school district’s director of technology. “That’s daunting, but it’s also invigorating. We are hoping that, by providing this space and by providing these tools, teachers will buy into the idea that we need to provide our kids with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) based education, with a new way of learning how to do math and science and technology that allows them to be creative and solve problems.”

Michels, Abbott and Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks, dean of the USD School of Education, addressed students in a Monday afternoon assembly held in the school gymnasium.

The USD president told the students of a conversation he had with his teacher when he was in fifth grade. He shared that he wanted to go college, and hoped that she could tell him what he needed to know in order to take college classes.

“She said to me that in order to go to college and do well, you need to learn how to think,” Abbott said. “I was thinking about how to think today, and I saw one of your groups that was building a wall with small blocks … it seems to me that if you think about what you need to know, you ought to think about this thing we call STREAM.”

Each one of those letters, he told the assembly, stands for a building block.

“When you put all of those building blocks together, it seems to me that is how you figure out what you are going to do and what you are going to be,” Abbott said. “You take all of those blocks, and put them all together, and when you do that, then you have the power to be anything you want to be. Not only do you have the ambition and desire to be someone and something, but you also have the ability.”

Easton-Brooks told the students that the word “teach” is rooted in the word “learn.”

“So as your teachers are teaching, they’re also learning at the same time,” he said. “Now that you have this new STREAM lab, it’s an opportunity for you to learn together. How do we create, how do we develop? Think about that as you think about your teachers and they’re learning and you’re learning at the same time.”

He said it’s normal to feel nervous and intimidated when faced with something new, like the STREAM lab.

“Sometimes you may feel nervous about it, but it’s good to just keep going,” Easton-Brooks said, “and build up your confidence. If you see your friends being nervous about it, encourage them.”

Monday’s assembly ended with a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by Nate Welch, president of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company.

“A lot of times, we do these types of celebrations at the beginning of something,” Welch said, “and it kind of feels like the beginning of something new here at your school, too. You have this great, new STREAM lab, and you’re going to be able to work with that and get all of these great ideas over the next couple years right here in your school. That’s worthy of a celebration.”

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