Through Enrichment, students build on their own learning processes

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Nate Weber, K-12 outreach program coordinator with Clayton County’s Iowa State Extension Office, tests a bridge with MFL MarMac third graders and Enrichment participants McKenna Kozelka (left), Parker Waterman, Gunnar Ross and Hannah Jacobson. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Second graders Kambry Keehner (left) and Addison Corlett work together to build a bridge during their Enrichment session.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Popsicle sticks, string, note cards, newspaper, masking tape. If you had to build a small bridge—sturdy enough to hold a jar of marbles—which materials would you use?

That’s a decision second and third graders in MFL MarMac Elementary’s Enrichment program had to make during a recent session.

Each tackled the project in his or her own way, adapting to the time constraints and the materials available to them. Bridge not long enough? Add another Popsicle stick. Not strong enough? Wrap it with another strip of tape. Buckling under pressure? Create a paper cylinder to hold the bridge up from beneath. 

The goal, said teacher Emily Welper, is to utilize higher level thinking skills.

Ten to 12 students in each grade, from kindergarten through third grade, participate in Enrichment. Sessions last around a half hour each week, giving kids an opportunity to experience new learning challenges and think in ways they might not in the regular classroom.

“You find where kids learn and meet them at that level,” explained MFL MarMac superintendent Dale Crozier at a recent school board meeting.

At the elementary level, noted Welper, that includes everything from building bridges to coding to research projects based on endangered animals and biomes.

“They’re experiencing books they’ve never read,” she added.

This year, Welper, who teaches Enrichment Wednesday mornings and throughout the day on Fridays, has help from Nate Weber, K-12 outreach program coordinator with Clayton County’s Iowa State Extension Office.

“I wanted to see what other activities he could bring to the kids,” she said.

The Extension office, noted Weber, applied for a STEM Scale-up grant, which provided funding for curriculum materials. He visits MFL MarMac, along with Central and Clayton Ridge Schools, to share those resources.

“There’s a lot of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Weber shared. “Math is a big push. But there’s also a focus on healthy living, citizenship and communication. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities.”

The bridge building activity comes from a curriculum called “Engineering is Elementary.”

“It goes through different types of engineering,” Weber said, “and puts students in the role of engineer.”

For many kids, who often think of an engineer as someone who runs a train, that’s a foreign idea, he added.

Students are pinpointed for Enrichment based on their FAST testing data, as well teacher recommendations.

“It’s so important to include teachers in the decision,” Welper said, noting that, while a student might struggle in reading, he or she is excelling in math.

Test scores, said Weber, who’s also been a teacher, don’t always pick up some factors.

“Some kids are really good at critical thinking skills,” he remarked, “or they’re really creative.”

Smaller groups of students—no more than six or seven at a time—help Welper and Weber extend learning and focus more on the individuals.

“It helps with the questioning and processing of things,” Weber said. “In a regular classroom, the student might know something, but because they’re with 20 other kids, the teacher is breaking down the process. They could have done it themselves.”

“This,” he said of Enrichment, “moves them on to other things. They’re building on their own process.”

Welper said Enrichment doesn’t take students away from any core subjects. Once they understand what it’s about, they’re thrilled to attend.

“Once they get in and see what it’s like, and I talk to them, they’re into it,” she said. “The kids get really excited.”

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on MFL MarMac’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program, or Enrichment, as it’s called at the elementary level. Next week’s paper will explore the TAG program at the middle school.

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