New class offers STEM opportunities for middle schoolers

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published January 13, 2016

 Ryan Dunlap’s Ferndale Middle School Project Lead the Way class poses last semester with its air skimmers. The class is a new offering and serves as an introduction to STEM opportunities.

Ryan Dunlap’s Ferndale Middle School Project Lead the Way class poses last semester with its air skimmers. The class is a new offering and serves as an introduction to STEM opportunities.

Photo provided by Ryan Dunlap

FERNDALE — Ferndale Middle School has added yet another opportunity for students to get more engaged with science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, with a new class offering.

This school year marked the beginning of the Project Lead the Way class, taught by Ferndale High School science teacher Ryan Dunlap. Project Lead the Way reportedly provides STEM programs in more than 8,000 schools.

Dunlap said Superintendent Blake Prewitt and other administrative heads heard about the program and felt it fit with the direction that the district has been trying to go in terms of offering more STEM opportunities.

“This is built around STEM career pathways, which is something that is incredibly in high demand as we move forward with technology,” Dunlap said. “This is a great program for students to get their interests perked up a little bit in these fields. A lot of seventh- and eighth-graders don’t know about these engineering fields at this point, so this will get them learning about something they may be interested in.”

Project Lead the Way has offerings for all grade level, but Ferndale currently is using only the middle school pathway. Dunlap said that by starting in middle school, students can decide if they have a certain branch they prefer, such as medical, computer or engineering.

The class is focused around project-based learning, such as using computers for three-dimensional design or creating plans for bigger projects.

Last semester, for example, the students had to create plans for and build air skimmers that would float just above the ground about a half-inch.

“We were in a unit about precise measurements, and they had to take blueprints and create something from that,” Dunlap said. “The skimmers float because of the design features, so the students understood pretty quick that if they were not precise in cutting and measuring, the skimmer would crash into the floor.”

Going forward, FMS Principal Jason Gillespie said the students will be using computers to design their own playgrounds. They will be learning how to run certain computer programs and engineering a project.

When Gillespie went to school in the 1980s, he said, home economics and wood shop were the preferred electives, but now computers and engineering are where the schools are heading. And the sooner students can be introduced to that, the better.

“This is where the jobs are, and if students are engaged in these fields, there is a better chance of them getting a job out of school,” he said. “Not to mention there is a particular importance to exposing underrepresented students, such as minorities and women, to the STEM classes, as they are not represented well in those fields.”

Dunlap took a course last summer at Eastern Michigan University where he spent 50 hours training for the Project Lead the Way program. This summer, Dunlap said, he will look to go back to broaden his knowledge and open up the possibility of offering more courses, such as robotics.

With a semester under its belt, Dunlap said the district made the right choice in adding the new class, and he can already see the students getting excited about the program.

“This class is hands-on and they have to participate, so they are not just sitting there in lecture on a daily basis,” he said. “As a science teacher, it is great because they are doing things and experimenting and learning from mistakes, which is what all sciences are about. They get excited about using computer programs, and I just hope to keep making the program better and better.”