Education is the backbone of America. We can claim it’s the automotive industry or the recent oil boom that’s driving this country, but without educated individuals none of those developments would take place. That’s why all summer long we’ve been celebrating education and all the benefits it brings to our society. However, there’s a crucial group of individuals that are often pushed into the corner, the educators themselves. Without those steadfast individuals who bend over backwards to propel today’s youth, we’d be at a standstill. So this week is dedicated to celebrating all those who taught us.
Five passionate teachers from the West Fargo school district are a prime example of unwavering commitment. In 2013, they recognized the need for better-educated students and went the extra mile to offer continued learning opportunities through STEM Academy. Founded by Jane Laux, Eric Dobervich, Holly Erickson, Michelle Weber and Adam Gehlhar, STEM Academy offers students a holistic educational experience in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. Students at STEM Academy are engaged like never before and work side-by-side with other students and teachers to solve a core problem that requires the application of an array of academic knowledge.
This week we caught up with one of the STEM Academy founders, Jane Laux, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Liberty Middle School, and she gave us her insights on education.
Sundog: Why did you want to be a teacher?
Jane: There are a lot of reasons, mostly because it’s the future of the world. It’s making sure that we have well rounded, good citizens coming out. Education has always been very important to me. I have a lot of education. I believe in learning as much as you can. I think education makes the world friendlier.
Sundog: How did you decide that you wanted to teach younger students?
Jane: That fell into my lap. It’s funny because I always said I would never teach seventh grade because my sister is a seventh grade teacher, and now I happen to teach seventh grade, and it’s a great grade. I love it. I think (STEM Academy teachers) got into teaching for basically the same reason, and that would be to make a difference. I’m not very fussy. I like to work with all ages. When it comes to STEM Academy, we want it to be kindergarten through high school, and I also teach at the college level. So I’m open to anything.
Sundog: When did you start becoming passionate about STEM education?
Jane: When I got hired as a STEM teacher. I was like everybody else and wasn’t really aware of it, I had only heard a little about it. I was very fortunate to get the job that I got. I couldn’t have landed in a more perfect position for me, a more perfect school when I was at the STEM Center, a more perfect team; everything fell together. I wouldn’t teach any other way. I always joke that STEM broke me because there’s no way I could go back to traditional teaching.
Sundog: Why do you think STEM education is so important?
Jane: Because the way the world works has changed. The way that school is now is a Victorian method built to make a Victorian worker. By that, I mean you sit in your desk and you do the same steps and you have your specific job like an assembly line. That came from the Victorian era. The empire had all the different colonies all over the world, and the idea was you could take somebody from India and plug them into South America in the same job and they would be able to do it. That was uniform and that’s why it was like that. The world isn’t like that anymore. It used to be that workers weren’t supposed to think for themselves, they were supposed to do what they were told to do and memorize. Our school model is still like that, but our workforce isn’t like that at all. Education in general needs to change to reflect that. The creativity, going through the engineer and design process, gives you an idea of how to solve a problem. It’s more problem based.
Sundog: What are some of the STEM projects you do with students?
Jane: My favorite unit is the “Long Walk To Water” unit. It started with Adam Gehlhar when he was covering Africa in his social studies class where his students would read “A Long Walk To Water.” So when I joined the team, I said, “I’ll take that on, I’m a language teacher.” So they read “Long Walk To Water,” which is a duel narrative about two refugees in southern Sudan.
So then after we read it, the kids do projects based on it. It changes slightly every year, but one of the best ways we have done it was when (in science) they did water filtration. We actually trek to a pond in Charleswood; it’s a little more than three miles there and back. We go rain or shine, so we’ve done it cold, and we’ve done it wet. The students bring back the water in gallon jugs to kind of get a feel for what that’s like. By the time we get back, they are exhausted and say, “I can’t believe how much I take for granted by getting water out of the drinking fountain at school.” Then the students filter the water, but they don’t drink it.
In Math, we took them to Moore Engineering and they learned how to do subdivisions. They designed actual plots of land. They were given coordinates in Africa, and they used Google Earth to look at the terrain of the land. Then they had to plan how the water was going to run on that terrain, where they were going to put schools, houses and wells. The best one got to go to NDSU’s rain simulator to see how it actually faired, which was really cool. Part of this project was to learn about the culture of the community they were building because you can’t build a subdivision without knowing culture. We have over 3,000 Sudanese refugees in Fargo-Moorhead alone, so when we do this again next February, I want to get them involved.
The whole idea is seeing that there are real problems in the world. How are you going to get water to these people? Can you help at all? It’s all the standards that we need to do already, but instead of saying, “read chapter four, do the questions at the back of the book and we’re going to take a test,” we actually give them a problem to solve. It’s very involved. It takes a lot of time.
Sundog: There’s already a STEM education program during the school year, why did you want to continue on with STEM Academy in the summer?
Jane: We’re very passionate about STEM education. It’s spreading and it’s happening, but it’s not happening fast enough. Fargo and Moorhead don’t have it right now; there’s a lot of opportunity. There are all these summer programs, all these summer camps, and we have all these kids. Then there’s summer school, which we’ve talked about wanting to fix how summer school is because right now it’s looked at as a punishment. It should be what it’s meant for, helping kids continue to grow in the summer time.
Summer offers some of that flexibility, but I want it yearlong. I would love to see STEM Academy be a yearlong program. I don’t know what that looks like, but we’re open to however that goes.
Sundog: If someone told you they wanted to get into STEM education, what’s the one thing you would tell them that’s the best part of your job?
Jane: There are two things. I continue to learn. Learning is important to me. I’m completely maxed out on my lane changes, but I continue to take classes. I want to get my PhD, even though I have two masters. But I love my job. I have so much fun with those kids. Seventh grade is such a crucial age. They’re getting to the age when they can drop out, and you need to catch them in middle school. So when those kids who have hated school their entire life and they’ve always gotten Ds and Fs tell me at the end of the year that they absolutely love school and they love STEM and they can’t wait for next year, they can’t wait for more, you can’t ask for more than that.
By: Meredith Wathne, Social Media Intern