Ah-ha moments: teaching today’s students the skills of tomorrow

One hundred years ago, Henry Ford claimed, “You can’t learn in school what the world is going to do next year.”

But schools today must do exactly that: prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist yet to solve problems we have never encountered, using technology that hasn’t been invented.

How can teachers do this? Montrose’s West End School District may have an answer. Nucla High School’s Melonie and Pat Enstrom coach students enrolled in their ground-breaking class, Innovations.

Teaching self-reliance

At home, the Enstroms operate their farm and large garden in traditional ways, growing alfalfa for their 50 head of cattle and garden on a large scale.

“Our house has an old coal furnace cellar that’s perfect for storage,” said Melonie, a 58-year-old librarian. “I have hanging baskets for the potatoes, garlic and other root crops.”

She uses tried and true gardening techniques, like rolling potato pieces in wood stove ash before planting them to keep vermin away.

At work, however, the Enstroms are anything but old school, embracing new technologies and launching students’ imaginations.

Innovations started out as a once-a-month robotics club, led by Melonie. When Principal Clint Wytulka saw how engaged the students were in the club, he asked her to facilitate a two-period class in the afternoon.

“I agreed and Innovations was launched,” she said.

Pat provides additional support. He’s experienced first-hand how rapidly industries change and is able to encourage students to find answers for themselves and persist when they encounter roadblocks.

“As a mechanic, I had to adapt when cars became computerized,” Pat, 56, said. “In 1998, I certified as a Microsoft specialist, but what I learned became outdated in a year.”

To stay abreast of the ever-changing world of technology in his current position as the school district’s IT specialist, he usually has to teach himself.

Scavenging parts

Thomas Edison said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

The famous inventor would approve of Melonie’s mentoring methods.

Innovations’ first project had students dismantling and scavenging parts from old VCRs, printers and computers stuffed in a junk closet. From that heap of scrap, the class built Bob, a programmable robot that serves as their mascot.

The students propose their own projects. Rather than solving problems as they arise, the Enstroms are “guides on the side,” encouraging the students’ own problem-solving and collaboration skills.

Innovations students brainstorm how to start a pet project and scour scrap heaps for materials. They search the internet for tutorials, and then adapt and build on what someone else has figured out.

Using trashed PVC pipe, leftover wood and two fans from old desktop towers, members of the class constructed a miniature air hockey table. The paddles and puck were made using Nucla High’s LulzBot TAZ 5 3D printer, with recycled felt glued to surfaces that come in contact with the table.

The San Miguel Power Association provided the cash to purchase the printer. The machine’s hum is ever-present as students turn their ideas into reality using software programs such as SketchUp, Blender and Tinkercad.

“Coby [Grierson] tweaks the settings on the 3D printer. He collaborates via Twitter with an outside expert when he needs ideas or advice he can’t get from his peers or us,” Melonie said.

Her students aren’t quitters, and they’ll be the first to tell you. Grierson said they won’t give up when they encounter a problem.

“We Google it eight ways to Sunday,” said classmate Michael Pfifer. The students evaluate their own processes and adjust as needed, skills that are critical in the 21st century. As they outgrew the typical software used by high school students, Pat negotiated with companies to gain access to more sophisticated programs like Fusion 360 and AutoCAD.

“At first I thought Fusion was too hard, but with help from Coby, it’s easy now,” student Will Gabriel said.

Where did Grierson get his expertise? He attended a University of Colorado in-service that the West End School District provided for the Enstroms. Many teachers might feel strange being in class beside their students, but that awkwardness doesn’t exist in the Innovations room.

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Dream big

Innovations is spreading. For the 2017-18 school year, the West End School District has added elements of the course to middle school classes. Melonie and Pat work with classroom teachers to incorporate Ozobots, 3D printing and other engineering and tech into the curriculum.

It’s easy to see why it appeals to this group of young dreamers. Ask the students what projects are on the horizon, and an avalanche of ideas tumbles forth.

They suggest solar panels on drones to extend battery life, repurposing failed 3D print jobs, developing an arcade game, building their own foundry…the list goes on and on.

The students’ enthusiasm was contagious. Could the next Edison, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs be attending school in Montrose?

“Attendance has not only improved, but students come in at lunch and after school to work on their projects,” Melonie said. “They dream big and initiate the next steps to make [those dreams] reality.”

To see some of what Pat calls “ah-ha moments” for yourself, visit the class website at sites.google.com/weps.k12.co.us/innovations and prepare to be amazed.

Kathy Applebee

Kathy Applebee

Kathy Applebee began writing for The BEACON Senior Newspaper in the 1980s and has rejoined the staff since she moved back to Colorado’s Grand Valley. She has co-authored three tween mystery novels with author Christy Barritt, as well as a number of educational plays and audience-interactive mystery scripts. When she isn’t writing, she can be found on stage with Mesa Murder Mysteries, coaching STEM teachers or trying to decide what she wants to be when she grows up.
Kathy Applebee

1 Comment on Ah-ha moments: teaching today’s students the skills of tomorrow

  1. I really liked the article, but this classroom is in Nucla, Colorado in Montrose County. So the next great inventor wouldn’t be from Montrose, but rather from Montrose County. I’m very glad to see the spotlight being shone upon this classroom and the Enstroms.

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