WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Victor Evans' George Washington Carver Academy classroom buzzes with activity.
One boy sits with a pin cushion and sews using a needle and thread. A pair of girls play a keyboard and electric drum set. Two boys wearing lab coats and goggles chop up ice in a blender and squirt measurements of an enzyme solution into a test tube.
"It's a class with a lot of learning going on — hands-on learning," said Evans. "I'm more like a facilitator in this classroom."
The class, called career tech exploration, was piloted at Carver last year and started this fall for all students at Waterloo Community Schools' three other middle schools. The district purchased the "synergistic learning modules" students use from Pitsco Education, along with desks that allow students to work in pairs. The classes will become a standard component of the district's middle schools, where they are being offered to students at each grade level.
About $280,000 has been spent so far on the modules, desks and related expenses.
That includes $85,000 awarded in April by John Deere Waterloo Works and another $50,000 in donations to the district. Officials are seeking a $50,000 grant to make more modular purchases that would eventually total about $100,000 at each middle school, according to Superintendent Gary Norris.
The eighth-graders in Evans' class Thursday worked at modules with a computer and other equipment. Some topics fit within family and consumer sciences, like baking or sewing, while others are oriented to the school's science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — focus.
Although there's some variation between schools, each currently has about 18 options for students. Nine modules are set up at a time in the Carver classroom.
Pairs of students wearing headphones go through a self-paced online curriculum and do related activities. Each is completed in seven to eight days, allowing students to finish five or six modules during the quarter.
"I like it," said student Dawntrese Wilson. "To me, it's a better way to learn stuff." She and a partner were working at the music and sound module with the keyboard and electric drum set.
"We do music. We learn how to read the notes," said Wilson. She noted that they learned about the octaves on the keyboard and used a microphone to record what they played.
Albert Wiggins, Carver's administrative assistant and STEM coordinator, said completing the modules "provide students the opportunity to gain real-world learning experiences in a variety of fields."
Students start with a pre-assessment on the topic before moving on to "research, challenge and application." Wiggins said each module contains an online library to be used for the research and the activities allow them to "apply these concepts to real-world problems." A post-assessment is completed at the end.
The modules correspond to the career academies students will choose between before starting high school and are intended to help them decide which one to join. Some of Carver's modules are video production, personal finance, robots, horticulture, engineering bridges, fashion and textiles, breakfast nutrition and entrepreneurship childcare. Modules that meet state requirements for family and consumer sciences classes are part of the mix at each school.
"The CTE course is going to, in essence, replace the traditional family and consumer sciences course," said Wiggins. That is already happening at Carver as well as Bunger and Hoover middle schools. Central Middle School is partially implementing the program this year in its strategies/skills time. It will replace family and consumer sciences during the 2013-14 school year.
Carver students Dalyne King and Salomon Rubio worked through the forensic science module in Evans' class, wearing lab coats and goggles. They completed a series of steps involving a blender, beakers and test tubes as they looked for clues in a fictional scenario involving classroom vandalism.
"It's fun doing hands-on stuff," said King, particularly if he can see the everyday applications. During past modules, he assembled a small sink in practical skills and learned how to budget money in personal finance.
Classmate Angelia Anderson worked on the flight technology module. "We have to make wings and we have to fly it on the wing tester," she said. Her wing, which is about a foot long, is made with construction paper over a foam material.
The wing tester is a small desktop machine with knobs and a mechanical arm protruding from it. Her job is to test how well the wing is constructed by ensuring that it flies level when attached it to the machine. As Anderson worked through the curriculum and constructed the wing, she needed her math skills.
Anderson doesn't know how the new knowledge will fit into her future education, but it was worth learning. "I never did it before, so I wanted to find out how works," she said.
Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com