Mechanical education: Hillcrest STEM program top 15% in country – Fergus Falls Daily Journal


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“This is going to blow your mind,” Hillcrest Lutheran Academy (HLA) President Brad Hoganson chuckled as he opened the door to the STEM lab on their main campus. Inside the STEM lab was a barrage of electronic and mechanical components scattered on work tables and stored in every usable area of storage space. Various robots were tucked here and there and a large time clock, completely designed, 3D printed, and assembled within the STEM program was ready for use at the head of the classroom.

Last year, HLA of Fergus Falls ranked in the top 15% of all schools, both public and private, for their STEM program. 

“What’s crazy is that we were in the top 15% even though we scored a zero in some categories because there were things we just don’t do here,” Principal Jeff Isaac shared, “if we did those things, like use cellphones in the classroom, we would’ve ranked even higher.”

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The STEM program at Hillcrest is part of their overall science programming, but also includes extracurricular activities. Armin Jahr, Hillcrest educator, heads up the STEM program and is continually teaming up with others to develop new ideas for STEM projects. Their repertoire currently consists of a design class, robotics class, robotics club, LEGO League, and an aviation class.

In the design class, students start out learning how to design using a commercial-level CAD (computer-aided design) program. From there they learn how to 3D print and use routers and milling machines to work on their projects. Students create Arduino boards, which is a control board they code to use in their STEM projects.

“We have a robot that they will build basically from scratch. They will get to design the base, the wheels, and all of those things. IT has a mechanism where it will raise and lower a pen onto paper and then they code it from scratch to be able to write their name or to draw stars or different things. It’s an amazing thing! Through that hands-on experience, they are learning how to code, they are learning electronics, they are learning how to design and they are getting used to using different tools and to work in teams,” Jahr explained of one of the STEM projects his students work with.

The robotics class builds and modifies a basic robot so it can successfully carry out specific tasks, then moves on to designing their own robots from scratch.

In addition to their robotics and coding-based curriculum, Hillcrest has an environmental science program that utilizes an outdoor classroom. Jahr, along with an elementary school teacher who works at the Morning Son Campus, received training at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center and brought that knowledge to the Hillcrest campus, where development of their outdoor classroom is underway. 

“We are doing prairie restoration on the campus. We are alongside the Otter Tail River. We have a very unique campus with a fairly undisturbed waterline, and we have been working to do the restoration of that. We have quite a few acres that we can dedicate to that,” Jahr explained.

The aviation class is grant funded and provids Jahr with pilot training and curriculum for ground-school training on the Hillcrest campus. Another grant provided flight simulators which will be built by students this year. The class builds models, learns about load balancing, builds and flies drones, and completes a number of other flight-related activities.

Extracurricular activities include multiple robotics teams, including the First Technical Challenge (FTC) robotics team, which has been highly successful and usually ranks No. 1 or 2 in competition.  There is also a LEGO League program that ranges from grades 5-8. LEGO League is a STEM program focused on building skills for the middle school population.

Jahr concluded his overview of the STEM program with a demonstration. The robotics class competed in a challenge in which they used the robots they built to move balls to specific locations. The students were placed into teams where they used teamwork for the overall challenge but still worked toward individual goals. 

At the conclusion of the competition, they discussed the experience and reflected on how they could improve on their robots for the next challenge. The students displayed an understanding, functional knowledge of their robots and engaged in beneficial discussion, leaving the classroom with smiles on their faces. 

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