How A School Gets Students Excited To Learn Outside The Classroom

navy students

While controlling an underwater remotely operated vehicle, Te’shon Dickens carefully collected submerged items, confident of his wiring and waterproofing. His team spent more than a month configuring the device.

“This is pretty awesome – making and controlling your own submarine,” said 12-year-old Dickens, standing beside a pool Feb. 22 at Woodmen Hills Recreation Center in Peyton, Colo. He’s not a marine robotics technician.

He’s a seventh grader at nearby Patriot Learning Center.

“This is the best project I’ve ever done in my life,” said Dickens, after collecting 12 rings during a SeaPerch recovery course, netting 18 points. Across the water, students navigated their configurations of tubes, motors, and wires through a timed obstacle course’s hoops.

Dozens of sixth, seventh and eighth graders surrounded the pool, arriving from Patriot Learning Center. The school provides an alternative for Falcon School District 49’s at-risk students, children who statistically fail academically in traditional learning environments.

Science teacher Paul Austin says it’s important to get students excited to learn outside the classroom. From advanced placement to at-risk youth, a hands-on approach “levels the playing field,” he said, suggesting a focus on applied learning to eliminate the intimidation of tests.

“I don’t hear ‘is this going to be on the test?’ anymore,” said Austin. Last year, he introduced the Wolbachia Project to Falcon High School and Patriot Learning Center. Students analyzed DNA in arthropod cells, measuring the frequency of destructive bacteria.

“What better way to teach them physical science than doing it?” said Austin, who received a $1,600 grant from the Office of Naval Research for 10 SeaPerch kits. “It’s not threatening, there’s no classroom pressure. Even the quiet kids are coming up and saying, ‘let me try.’”

“This is hands-on, getting them excited about learning,” he said, during the SeaPerch challenge. The day’s event culminated a marine-themed curriculum that covered the basics of engineering and science.

“It’s sort of a challenge and celebration at the same time.”

After obtaining 10 SeaPerch kits last fall, Austin started coordinating the final event for February. Challenger Learning Center of Colorado supported his project by sending two more kits, an investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It’s mainly about engineering,” said Austin, explaining that engineers are in demand, and educators must get young teens excited about the related occupations. “If I get a kid in middle school excited now, maybe they’ll go into that career field.”

The students split into 12 groups. Using a SeaPerch, they studied submarine design, soldering, propulsion, buoyancy, displacement and electrical circuits and switches. They designed and painted team T-shirts.

“I enjoyed putting it together – I did the motors and built the structure,” said eighth grader Jake Jensen, 14, during the recovery course. “It’s the getting the rings part that’s hard. I’ve got eight so far, but my partner is getting the rest of them.”

Jensen won the SeaPerch challenge with eight grader Mackenzie Kerr, 13, and seventh grader Megan Gomez, 13.

“If something really stood out for me, it was the teamwork,” said Austin. “Seeing the teams work together is huge. In real life, they’re going to have to learn to work together, even if they don’t like each other. They’re learning life lessons.”

“I’ve never done anything like this in any other school,” said Dickens, summing up his entire experience as “amazing.”