Mobile Classroom Making STEM Education Fun for E. Oregon Students

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Camila Rodriguez, 13, prepares to launch her rocket she made inside the GO STEM Mobile Maker Lab on Thursday at McNary Heights Elementary School. (Photos by Michael Kane)

The excitement was palpable Thursday afternoon as a couple dozen middle schoolers lined up to shoot off rockets they had just finished making during the Umatilla School District’s Summer School Program.

Camila Rodriguez, 13, had one of the longer flights as her rocket flew 40 feet before hitting the ground.

The action was part of GO STEM’s effort to make science, technology, engineering and math more fun for students. Based in La Grande at Eastern Oregon University, GO STEM or Greater Oregon STEM brought its Mobile Maker Lab to McNary Heights Elementary School on Wednesday and Thursday for the district’s summer school students.

Students from the Umatilla School District’s Summer School Program work on rockets inside the Mobile Maker Lab.

“The kids love it,” said Toby Koehn, one of the instructors working with the students. “They get to be outside and play with rockets. Who wouldn’t like that?”

The Mobile Maker Lab is a portable classroom with a STEM-focused curriculum. It was created with the mission of making STEM education accessible to all students across Eastern Oregon, no matter how remote their location. By the time it wraps up its Eastern Oregon stops, it will have visited Harney, Grant, Baker, Union, Wallowa, Morrow and Umatilla counties.

“We’ll be in Baker City next week,” Koehn said. “Every week we’ve got something going on.”

Koehn said science and related subjects can be intimidating to a lot of students. But, he said, that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Science, technology, engineering and math are things we use every day,” he said. “It’s important to build a connection with students so they can be aware of the subjects and not be afraid of them. We’re giving them a chance to fail without consequences.”

Julian Mendoza-Jimenez, 13, said he was enjoying the challenge of building a rocket and shooting it into the sky.

Julian Mendoza-Jimenez, 13, finishes up his second rocket inside the Mobile Maker Lab.

“I kind of like building them better,” he said. “It’s like arts and crafts.” He said his first rocket performed well, but he was working on a second rocket with bigger wings in hopes that it would outperform his first effort.

The curriculum being taught inside the Mobile Maker Lab includes concepts such as renewable energy, robotics and coding, hands-on building and crafting, as well as other career-focused projects that can accommodate different grade levels’ learning and diverse schools’ interests and needs.

The mobile lab, which was launched at the start of the year, is solar powered, said Koehn. “It powers our AC, heat, car, power system and the van we haul supplies in.”

During the two-day stay in Umatilla, around 90 students got to take part in hands-on activities. Once the summer ends, the mobile lab will continue to visit schools in Eastern Oregon.

“We’ll integrate right into the regular school year,” Koehn said.

Not everyone is afraid of science as evidenced by the smiles on the faces of many of the students on Thursday, including 14-year-old Guillermo de la Torre, who said he likes the subject.

“You get to do experiments,” he said. “ It’s been a fun experience.”

That was music to ears of Blake Jones, one of the instructors working with the students.

“If you’re just sitting in class listening to a lecture, it doesn’t sink in and last,” he said. “You need hands-on activities. This is the way to teach engineering. Do something. Build something. Learn something.”

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