New School on the Prairie
Union Center Students Learn STEAM Skills
Armed with white paper, colored markers and a color code reference sheet, second and third graders in Union Center work to create a track that a small Ozobot robot will follow.
“The plan is to use the Ozobots more in the curriculum,” says teacher Luke Erfman. “This year is filled with ‘firsts’ for everyone.”
The students working with the Ozobots were in their third week of the 2019-20 school year in the newly opened Central Meade County School. What sounds like play is actually hands-on learning in the school’s STEAM Lab (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math).
“Young people are very concrete thinkers and learners,” Erfman says. “They need to hold and see what they’re doing, and this classroom is perfect for that.”
“The classrooms are roomy and bright, students each have a locker and the kids really like their lunch period where they sit together to eat”
The Central Meade County School is one of five rural schools in Meade County. The newly built school sits 46 miles northeast of Sturgis and combines students in grades K-8 previously split by grade between Union Center and Enning five miles further east.
“We were in two-room modulars, and now we’re in bigger, modern classrooms with smartboards,” explains Meade School District Business Manager Brett Burditt. “New buildings are easier to maintain, and they provide more opportunities and efficiencies. We have a large multi-use center in the middle of the building that provides our teachers the flexibility and creativity to teach new things or teach them in new ways.”
Theresa Hanzlik, the rural school’s paraprofessional and administrative assistant, says students and staff enjoy the new building.
“The classrooms are roomy and bright, students each have a locker and the kids really like their lunch period where they sit together to eat,” Hanzlik says.
The new school also features other less-obvious, but equally important improvements, including a water filtration system and an improved heating and cooling system. The school also has a stronger internet connection.
“Before this year it seemed we were always having internet and connection problems, but we seem to have much-improved connectivity in our new building,” Hanzlik says.
That’s because the new school is connected to Golden West’s high-speed, fiber-optic infrastructure.
“We worked with the district when the new school was being planned,” says Golden West Plant Engineering Manager Marty Huether. “Fortunately, we had some fiber in the area, and we only had to add another 1,700 feet to connect the school. We were happy to be able to add advanced broadband technology to the modern facility.”
Erfman takes advantage of the updated amenities and improved internet connection in the STEAM Lab. The lab is a relatively new concept not just in Union Center but in education as a whole.
“STEAM is important for everyone,” Erfman says. “It’s a new way of giving our students the opportunity to acquire and build skills that are and will be critical in this time of rapidly changing technology.”
The lab features a variety of project areas including computer programming, robotics (like the Ozobots), scientific data collection and film, to name a few. One group of students can create a Claymation stop-motion video in one area of the lab while another can remotely collect data from sensors that measure air temperature and pH balances in soil.
STEAM Fits Ranch Life
Erfman likens the variety of creative problem-solving skills kids learn in the lab to those of a rancher living out in the country.
“Living on a ranch, you need to be a jack and jill of all trades, mechanic one day electrician the next,” he explains. “The STEAM Lab provides students with a means to learn and discover these hands-on skills at a young age.”
Students in the lab recently created a vehicle with a working winch using Lego robotics equipment. Then they modified it to feature a forklift. Then – because they’re kids – they changed it into a working catapult.
“The coolest part about my job is being immersed in all of the creativity and neat ideas that students come up with each day,” adds Erfman.
As the year of ‘firsts’ continues at the Central Meade County School, Erfman says one thing that hasn’t changed is the country-school feel.
“In my four years in the country setting, I think that what makes a country school special is the people that occupy it. And we have the same parents, staff and most importantly, we have the same wonderful students.”