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Students Taught Elements of Magnificent Future

Students participate in an engineering challenge at Upper Township Middle School's STEMinar March 14.

By Vince Conti

PETERSBURG – “STEM is the future.” With that assertion, Upper Township Middle School (UTMS) Principal Jeff Leek opened the school’s STEMinar March 14.
The event was an opportunity for the school’s students to show Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) projects, as well as for various STEM-related organizations to show students the many possibilities which a STEM education opens for them.
Leek said the school was in the third year of its STEM program, an effort that, in part, grew out of a school district strategic planning process that recommended greater focus of “21st century skills.” On rotating six-day schedules, students have two days of STEM education, along with two other days in that six-day block that focus on project-based learning. Both forms of skill development were in evidence at the STEMinar.
The event began in the cafeteria with a film featuring UTMS and Ocean City High School graduates who are pursuing STEM careers.  Students saw individuals who walked the same hallways they do and are involved in supercomputer modeling of chemical reactions, or who work on munitions research and development for the Army, or another who works as a conservation biologist, or another, who described a career as a software engineer.
“The future of work is STEM,” Leek added, as he spoke of adapting education to the needs of a changing workforce. The film’s purpose was to show parents and students the “endless opportunities” that lay ahead for the well prepared. While Leek spoke of coding and robotics, vendors and organizations involved with STEM manned tables lining the cafeteria where students could explore some of those opportunities.
Even though the ages of sixth to eighth graders put them years away from college decisions, several postsecondary institutions were there to inform students on the STEM-related degree programs open to them. Stockton and Rowan universities had tables, as did Atlantic Cape Community College. Universal Technical Institute, a post-secondary organization focused on technical training for the transportation industry, also pitched options to students.
The Upper Township Green Team set up a display trying to encourage township residents to follow their Facebook page to participate in activities to ensure a more sustainable state and township.
The Cape May County Library was also present with representatives from its Technology Learning Center in Court House. They showed the many digital resources of the library, the technology assistance programs available through the library, and the many technology-related activities on schedule for the Makers Day event March 23.
Careers in aviation and drone technology were on display. The Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority was there to explain to students what happens to wastewater after they flush.
The key to the evening was a set of breakout sections in locations around the school. In each room, a team of students displayed a presentation of STEM technology.
In one room, participants could try to fly a drone based on manipulating coding options on a tablet. The object was to lift off and land the drone on a green, circular object in a distant part of the room. The tablet allowed the user to learn from failed attempts and make adjustments for better performance. The students were responsible for code in the tablet.
The egg drop seemed simple enough, yet protecting that fragile egg could be harder than initially imagined. The object was to encase an egg in any of a variety of materials available while the egg rested in a plastic cup. The cup was then dropped from a height to test whether or not the egg survived intact. Students could then walk through some of the many steps in the analysis that go into protecting the egg.
Participants could engineer towers using spaghetti strands held together with marshmallows. Building structures that could withstand the weight of higher structures were harder than originally thought.
From Lego bots to 3D printing, from working with Sphero the robot to catapult building, 14 separate breakout sessions were on display, all staffed and run by students.
STEM is a curriculum designed to expose students to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Academics, politicians, and business leaders regularly speak to the importance of STEM skills in the 21st century.
The reality that the nation has been falling behind other developed countries in science and math has been a subject of countless speeches, editorials and academic papers. For many, it is an issue upon which global leadership will rest.
As one walked the halls of Upper Township Middle School, past the green lockers and bulletin boards, the message of the STEMinar became clear.  STEM is an approach to learning, a way of thinking and engaging with the world. Much like the experience piloting the drone in the breakout session, it is a learning experience in which error is an acceptable way to improve and logical thinking is a skill that can be honed and applied to all aspects of life.
When this reporter’s drone came closer to the landing area on the second try, I said, “I missed again.” The students applauded because they saw that I had learned a little more about how to manipulate their code. That to them was what STEM is about. 
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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