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Hunter Middle School Spotlight: Connecting STEM Learning to Real World Experiences

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Seventh grade students review their project's progress with Smith.
Seventh-grade students review their birdhouse progress with Jill Smith.

Jill Smith, Instructional Coordinator at Hunter Middle, provided an in depth look into the structure of the VW eLab curriculum for their sixth through eighth grade students. She works closely with Hunter's VW eLab specialists, Todd Richardson and Ken Morton, on forming the lesson plans for their classroom. Smith informed us that their team is constantly developing new units - the majority, of which, involve real world components. The VW eLab classroom offers all students a chance to partake in unique assignments catered to their grade level. “The goal with our sixth-grade students is to get them into teamwork and collaborative processes with the digital design methods they use,” said Smith. The sixth-grade curriculum teaches students how to use the basics of the tools. In doing so, they learn all the digital aspects that will be beneficial to their learning once they reach seventh and eighth grade. “The goal for seventh and eighth grade students is for them to engage in authentic community-oriented projects that utilize their collaborative problem solving skills and their digital design skills,” shared Smith. For each project in seventh and eighth grade, Smith reaches out to a community contact – someone who can speak about real-world aspects of the community, relating them to what students are creating in their VW eLab.

Currently, seventh grade students are learning about augmented bird habitats – a unit that Smith helped design. Park rangers from Harrison Bay spoke to the class about local + endangered bird species. Students were also able to learn about the different types of environments + habitats for these species. The assignment includes designing and building birdhouses for certain birds the students chose. “They’ve done their research on what is required, designed what they want to build, and now they’re ready to build,” said Smith. The design portion of the project is completely up to the students. “Putting their own design and name on their bird boxes gives them a proud sense of ownership,” shared Todd Richardson. Upon completion, students will take their birdhouses to a local park to help support bird habitats.

Maintaining the authentic, real-world theme of learning, eighth grade students also had the opportunity to hear real life experiences from community professionals concerning prosthetics. Both a Fillauer engineer and a local army veteran spoke to the class about their experiences with prosthetics. This was a great way to show students the impact of the story from an engineer's perspective, as well as the patient's perspective. Students were able to tie what they learned from the speakers to the project they have recently been working on - creating scaled down versions of prosthetics for horses. This required them to utilize the 3D printing machine and to learn methods of collaborative digital design. Students learn to confirm their work, ensuring they have the correct measurements and sturdiness for the prosthetic. Many students used different shapes to make one design for the leg, enduring multiple iterations while tweaking the measurements until they got it right. After students learn how to create horse prosthetics, they will further their knowledge when they learn how to make a human hand prosthetic. The research behind that assignment becomes very detailed, factoring in elements like how the hand opens and closes, as well as developing adaptations for it. For example, learning the grips of how to throw a football or baseball and incorporating that into their project.

Smith said they will continue to relate real-world experiences to class projects in the future, too. Upcoming on their agenda, a speaker from TVA will visit the class to discuss Tennessee's wind energy. This will bode well for students when they get ready to begin their wind power vehicle project.

Smith working on constructing the Lego Mindstorms robot at Volkswagen Chattanooga.
Smith working on constructing the Lego Mindstorms robot at Volkswagen Chattanooga.

Smith elaborated on the positive impact the VW eLab has played at her school and in her teachings. “It has really enhanced our STEM education,” said Smith. “Bringing in the machines has allowed our students to work with software and materials that will help them moving forward and in the future. It allows them to work with tools that real-world engineers use, so that they can engage in projects that would simulate authentic issues and solutions.”

Smith, who is also a current PEF STEM Fellow, discussed how the program has helped support her strategy and goals for her students. “STEM Fellows has helped me to be a better coach for our VW eLab,” said Smith. Recently, Smith was able to job shadow Ezra Reynolds, Assistive Technology Design Specialist at Signal Centers. During the job shadow, Smith had the opportunity to send Todd Richardson and Ken Morton on a professional development with Reynolds. There, they had the ability to brainstorm and design a unit with the concepts they learned about assistive technologies. Through STEM Fellows, Smith also had the opportunity to construct Lego Mindstorms robots at Volkswagen with her cohort. She is looking forward to checking the robots out of PEF Innovation Hub’s Technology Lending Library to use with their eighth grade class. “I think our students are going to really enjoy that project,” said Smith. “The activities in the VW eLab are engaging – and for a class to hold the attention of sixty students at a time, that says a lot.”

Richardson and seventh-grade students working on the construction phase of the birdhouse.
Todd Richardson and seventh-grade students working on the construction phase of the birdhouse.

VW eLab specialists, Todd Richardson and Ken Morton, both have different attributes to offer with their teaching styles. Richardson's focus resides more with the design + planning side of the lab, and Morton works more with the production side of projects. “I handle your software application and digital designs,” said Richardson, “and on Ken’s side, they create and test what they’ve fabricated.” Although those areas are what the teachers specialize in, they are often interchangeable. “We balance each other,” stated Richardson.

Richardson reviews the tools and computer software with sixth-grade students in the VW eLab.
Richardson reviews the tools and computer software with sixth-grade students in the VW eLab.

Richardson also shared his perspective on how the VW eLab has impacted his teaching. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” shared Richardson. “I’d been with computer tech for twenty years working with apps and software for students, and this has been a great change of pace for me. The impact that I’ve seen has been an eye opener – just to get students engaged in their learning, building, planning, and developing.” Richardson continued to share a specific impact story he experienced. “A year ago, there was one student who struggled with your traditional classroom structure academically,” said Richardson, “and when he came to the VW eLab and got that hands-on experience, it opened his eyes to what he wanted to do. On the flip side, we had a student who was gifted academically, and this class environment was a challenge for that student.” This perspective showed two ends of the learning spectrum – a student who was struggling academically yet thriving in the VW eLab + a top student academically who experienced challenge in the class. The variety of challenges the VW eLab can present to students might be a learning curve for them at first, but they gain hands-on knowledge that will ultimately help them in the long run with real-world experiences.

There is no doubt that the Hunter Middle teachers and students have their hands full with a variety of creative assignments in their VW eLab. We look forward to see what they continue to learn from a real-world perspective, and how they will tie that to the innovative projects they create. Keep scrolling to check out more impact pieces from Hunter's eighth, seventh, and sixth-grade students!


*Hunter Middle School Student Spotlights:

Paige Goforth & Nicholas Short, 8th grade

Paige Goforth & Nicholas Short pictured with two iterations of the horse prosthetic they created with the 3D printing machine
Paige Goforth & Nicholas Short pictured with two iterations of the horse prosthetic they created with the 3D printing machine

Class partners Paige Goforth and Nicholas Short both believe the VW eLab has prepared them for multiple avenues in the real world. “Learning in the VW eLab has been a fun experience,” said Goforth. "If you want to be an architect or start your own business, the VW eLab can help.” Starting a business has been a topic Short has also contemplated. "I would like to start my own clothing brand in the future," shared Short. Learning how to use the vinyl machine for printing shirts has helped spark that interest for him.

A favorite project of theirs was called the breakout box. Similar to a breakout room scenario, they had to work together with clues in order to solve a puzzle that opened the box. One of the clues was a clock, which helped them learn how to read military time. Both students felt that the project helped develop their teamwork skills and teach them how to work together in a collaborative environment. The VW eLab provided a creative outlet for Short. “I recommend the VW eLab for everyone,” stated Short. “It makes you think out of the box, so far out of the box you don’t know where the box is.” When asked what they learned in the VW eLab, Goforth shared it taught them, “teamwork, creativity, perseverance, and patience.”


Gabe Hook, 8th grade

Class partners Mosier & Hook hold up one of the shirts created in the VW eLab.
Class partners Zach Mosier & Gabe Hook hold up one of the shirts created in the VW eLab.

When asked what he's taken away from the VW eLab so far, eighth grader Gabe Hook shared, “We’ve been learning about the engineering and design process on a different scale. For example, making your own design and going back to fix it, writing down what you did wrong, and testing the design in between iterations. We learn that mistakes will help us grow and perfect our designs.”

Certain projects have helped develop business skills, as well. Students had to create something school-oriented and design a business plan, including how much they would sell it for and how much of a profit they would make.

Having the VW eLab in school allows us not only to have fun, but to learn life skills along the way," said Hook.


Morgan Pankratz, 8th grade

Pankratz pictured with decals she created for the VW eLab
Morgan Pankratz pictured with decals she created for the VW eLab.

Morgan Pankratz is an aid for two VW eLab classes and was enrolled in the class last year. When asked about what she’s learned in the VW eLab environment, she shared, “It’s allowed me to figure out new ways I can go into different careers and to learn how to use the different machines that interest me.”

Last year, Pankratz worked on a candy dispenser project, where she had to create an entire new part for a missing element of the top of the dispenser. She figured out how to do this on her own - a proud accomplishment for her.

The VW eLab helps build onto the student curriculum, and many felt the class assignments enhanced when they were provided the tools and machines.


Ava Calhoun & Katelyn Johnson, 7th grade

Class partners Calhoun & Johnson with their research presentation
Class partners Ava Calhoun & Katelyn Johnson with their research presentation

Calhoun & Johnson have been working on building a birdhouse for a local bird, the tufted tiltmouse. Their project involves extensive research on the bird and its habitat before they start the building phase. They must also document the progression of their project on a slideshow and build a work phase checklist - an element that helped give structure to their project. “Being in the VW eLab teaches you that you’re going to need to try something more than once,” said Calhoun. Johnson added, "It teaches me not to give up."

“My favorite part of the project is going to be able to build,” said Johnson. She also shared that the project has helped her learn more about her local community and environment.

Getting the chance to interact and talk about different ideas has been my favorite part of the project so far,” shared Calhoun. "It also helps you work through a problem." Calhoun has enjoyed the collaboration aspect and believes the class has also helped with her public speaking.


Trinity Brumlow, Morgan Conyers, & Lacy Pickard, 7th grade

Trinity Brumlow & Morgan Conyers show the progress of their group's research, as well as their birdhouse construction.
Trinity Brumlow & Morgan Conyers show the progress of their group's research, as well as their birdhouse construction.

For Brumlow, Conyers, and Pickard, their research involved the eastern bluebird. This team was collaborative when it came to planning their birdhouse's design and measurements.

This project helps teach us new strategies about brainstorming,” said Brumlow. She believes these strategies can help them in the future as an engineer or contractor. The group also learned about measuring requirements and the difficulties that stem from trial and error tactics. “The VW eLab teaches us how to be organized, which can help with our career later in life,” said Conyers. “It also can teach us skills at home with tools and can help keep us off the internet, off our phones, and interact more with the world.”

Trinity Brumlow & Lacy Pickard proudly show off their group's completed bird design.
Trinity Brumlow & Lacy Pickard proudly show off their group's completed bird design.

“My favorite parts were taking pictures and building it, creating a plan, and documenting our progress,” shared Brumlow. Through their team's extensive research, they were able to construct their birdhouse. This has helped them gain knowledge of what to buy in the future if they want to add onto the house. “Now that we know how to do it, we can teach others how to do it,” stated Brumlow. Favorite aspects of the project for Conyers also involved researching and learning new concepts (i.e. the size of the entrance so bird predators can’t get inside). “Kids will really enjoy this class,” shared Conyers.


Tyler Tate & Tito Williams, 7th grade

Class partners Williams & Tate working on their birdhouse construction
Class partners Tito Williams & Tyler Tate working on their birdhouse construction

“This class has been a new experience for me," said Tyler Tate. "I like the birdhouse assignment because it has been more hands-on. It’s my favorite project so far.”

The VW eLab has helped me be creative with different ways to improve my thoughts and ideas," said Williams. Examples he gave included, "going through the engineering + design process, what going through multiple iterations meant, and going through the cycle of improving and re-evaluating your products." For the floor of their birdhouse, for example, they missed the measurement by half a centimeter at first, so they worked on modifying this until they were able to achieve a result that fit. Both students are using a combination of measuring + math to help with their build. They have interests in engineering and believe this class will help with learning new processes and learning how to use the tools.


Hailey Huckabee, 6th grade

Huckabee with the documentation process of her research
Hailey Huckabee with the documentation process of her research

Huckabee is currently working on creating a candy dispenser vending machine, which involves building a box with cardboard material. She has to list the pros and cons of the project in her ideas phase and is exposed to learning how to use the vinyl and laser cutters in her VW eLab class.

“I love working with the computer designs and building while working with new tools," shared Huckabee. Her dad works at a steel cutting company, and she can relate what she’s learning in the VW eLab into conversations with her dad. “My favorite part of the VW eLab is being able to participate in hands-on learning, not just sitting in a classroom looking at a screen. I’ve seen a lot of other kids excited about coming to this classroom. Most kids wouldn’t even dream about working with these types of materials. It's one of the best classes of the year to most kids.”

Huckabee also shared her thoughts on the tools her class gets to use. “I think that being able to know how things work and the processes behind them, you’ll be more thankful for the machines and have an appreciation for the design that goes behind the work." Huckabee said she believes the environment brings joy to her and her classmates. "The VW eLab has made a positive impact in my life and my friends’ lives, because we are actually engaging with the tools and creating + building real things."


Chris Nielsen, 6th grade

Chris Nielsen designing the layout of his box on the computer prior to building.
Chris Nielsen designing the layout of his box on the computer prior to building.

Nielsen and his classmates have been working on creating a box with tabs, in order to hold it together so that the box keeps its shape. "My favorite part about this project is that I’ve gotten a proper start on it already, and I’m able to help others get the final result that they want," shared Nielsen. "I want to be a robotics engineer or someone who works with robots in general. I’d like to try to find ways to help other people find solutions. I think having VW eLabs in the schools makes a big impact on others' lives.”


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