The gym at Dodge City Middle School was filled on Thursday with students and textbooks as the STEM Summer Learning Academy wrapped up. However, those textbooks weren’t being used in any traditional way. Instead, they were stood up around the room like dominoes; in fact, exactly like dominoes.

The gym at Dodge City Middle School was filled on Thursday with students and textbooks as the STEM Summer Learning Academy wrapped up.  However, those textbooks weren’t being used in any traditional way.  Instead, they were stood up around the room like dominoes; in fact, exactly like dominoes.
The academy, which was held during the month of June, was designed to immerse students in mathematics and engineering, along with science and technology. The goal was to address literacy in English Language Arts and to prepare students for higher education by exploring design, integrated problem solving, teamwork and thought leadership.  The STEM group, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, was 147 students strong and finished up with a presentation of their projects June 27.
But what kind of presentation would involve almost 500 textbooks acting as dominoes?
“It was one of those things like ‘Apollo 13’ where you throw everything out on the table and say this is the vision:  how is it going to look in the end?  And this is it.  This is the results,” Principal Michael King said.
King is referring to project-based learning centered on Rube Goldberg machines that take simple tasks and turn them into complex ones with the use of a series of simple machines.
                “We went to our science teachers and asked what would be most beneficial for kids to learn over the summer and they said simple machines, mainly because there’s a lot of math to it,” King explained.   “It was an excellent way of getting hands-on experience with technology.
The student’s utilized iPads and laptops every day, worked on fractions and calculations and studied Newton’s Law.  They worked under the direction of three science teachers, three math teachers and three language arts teachers.
Jesse West, one of the science teachers involved, said they started off with the idea of simple machines.
“Students were introduced to them, they explored them and then they built them,” he said.  “Math teachers taught the formulas and substitutions and the language arts teachers worked on the history and the inventors.”
West said his students mostly concentrated on machines that would pop balloons, but there were some groups that focused on throwing something away or moving a toy car.
“They definitely learned the importance of trial and error and I think it’s been a good experience for them,” he said.  “With summer school, it’s always a trick keeping them focused but with this, once they got out here and were in charge of their own projects, they were able to be a lot more involved than they would have in a regular classroom. “
In a survey, 95 percent of the students said they enjoyed the project-based summer academy experience more so than their regular school learning.
“It was a really fun experience and a really different way of learning,” Arleth Calzada, seventh grade, said.
The students watched videos of Goldberg and then discussed different ideas.  According to seventh-grade student Maria Aparicio, if they didn’t have the materials they needed or get the results they wanted, they improvised.
“We didn’t have Legos so we used dominoes,” she said.   “We needed the marble to go straight so we put a roller down the middle.”
                Aparicio, along with Alex Saldana and Daniel Hurtado, designed “The Mad Machine.”  The purpose was clear:  to pop a balloon using an incline, plane, wedge and wheel and axle.  And even with the improvising, the group enjoyed the sweet taste of success as they presented their idea to classmates.
                “I learned that a simple task can become really hard,” Aparicio said.  “But it’s more fun than just sitting around and doing worksheets.  At school, we don’t get to do projects like this.”
                One group of students each had to do an individual project before being separated into groups of three or four.  Then they worked on an all-class assignment; but for the grand finale, all three classes worked together on a huge project, under the direction of science teacher Debra Hiers.  The “machine” that took up half the gymnasium, was actually comprised of at least 15 smaller machines, including pulleys, levers, wedges, screws, wheel and axles, planes and inclines…plus textbooks – approximately 500 of them.
“The leadership I’ve seen emerge from students who don’t traditionally do well in school has been amazing,” Assistant Principal Pam Algrim, said.  “Our attendance has been really, really good.”
The group’s project is called the “DCMS Bubble Blowing Machine” and took up half of the gymnasium.  It included a puppet suspended from the ceiling on a pulley system.
“A project is easy when it’s just you,” Algrim said.  “But when you have to collaborate together in small groups, that’s a lot harder.  Having this many students working together is just amazing.”
This group also found success, but not before many, many practice runs.
“It was hard trying to figure out how to make this all work,” Jarett Lunow, who enters the ninth grade this fall, said.  “We probably tried the zip line 20 times before we moved it to a different angle, to make it more powerful.”
“I learned that you have to keep trying your ideas out and if it doesn’t work perfectly, you have to keep working on it until you get it right,” Anthony Noyola, who will also be a freshman this fall, said.
For King, his hope is that when it comes time for these students to determine a career path, they remember what they learned in this month-long academy.
“The other part of this is to get them to realize that there could be some career interest in the math and science fields that they may want to pursue and then motivate them to want to pursue it,” he said.