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Growing the STEM

CCA teacher lays out new innovations and big dreams
Reagan Boeset, CCA’s 6-8 STEM teacher, preps for her next class in this file photo from 2015. The STEM Center, a 1,500-square foot building, was designed and built by students (under the close supervision of professionals) and sits adjacent to the middle school in Tiffin. (file photo by Chris Umscheid)

TIFFIN– STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has become a focal point of education across the state and the nation. The Clear Creek Amana (CCA) Community School District began incorporating STEM into the middle school curriculum (sixth through eighth grade) several years ago with Reagan Boeset as the program’s teacher.
CCA students enrolled in Kirkwood’s Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) classes helped to design and build a 1,500-square foot standalone building adjacent to the middle school through the college under the close supervision of seasoned professionals in 2015. The STEM Center has been, “a dream come true” for Boeset, but her dreams do not end with a dedicated facility for the program she is passionate about.
Boeset laid out an ambitious plan for growing the STEM, and transforming it from a 45-day “exploratory class” to a full academy-based program within the next 10 to 12 years during a presentation to the CCA school board on Wednesday, July 17.
“What I want to present to you is all subjects, all content areas, real learning all the time,” she said. The current reality, she added, is one of unprecedented student growth, with forecast trends continuing to increase for at least the next decade. The district is becoming more diverse with more special education students (SES), and with more cultures represented. She noted the ongoing discussions regarding utilizing district buildings (grade level configurations), and what opportunities there are for CCA’s students as well as what sets the district apart from others. The district “is really pulling a lot of people into it,” Boeset said.
With so many students, and so many more coming, Boeset said, the district needs to look at employability, which she pointed out “looks different today,” than in the not-so-distant past. “Kids today, by the time they are 30 years old, they are going to have four different career changes, and that’s only the start of what they’re going to be doing. Entrepreneurship is increasing. The digital world is constantly changing.”
Boeset said to prepare her students for the demands of the working world, she utilizes the “Future Fit (educational) Model,” which focuses on social and emotional learning, as well as the “Future Ready Model,” which emphasizes digital learning.
The district, she said, is constantly looking at ways to offer all students a chance to be successful. “Every single one, whether they want to go to a four-year college, a two-year college, trade or vocational, some kind of certificate program… whatever that is. We have to constantly be talking about are we offering that here at CCA.”
Boeset said CCA is doing amazing things already.
“In every building, I hear about how we’re providing awesome things for a variety of kids,” she said. “We’re known for great teachers and administrators. We’re full of forward-thinking activities, and initiatives and conversations are already taking place, so I don’t want to intimate anything I’m saying here is new. But, I do believe our ‘amazing’ has to keep up with the growth we’re experiencing, and keep up with societal changes.”
Boeset’s goals are to encourage the STEM Mindset across the district. STEM has, to some, been pigeonholed as just science and technology, she said. “But that’s not what it is to me. STEM, to me, is cross-curricular problem solving. Kids that can walk out of my program knowing how to solve a problem that they didn’t know existed before, but they have the confidence and skill set to solve it now.” She wants to increase the belief among her fellow teachers that learning targets (for the students) are their learning targets as well. “Not, ‘that’s for the language department,’ or ‘that’s for the math department.’ I want it all to be ‘ours’ at the middle school level, and continue that to high school to some extent.”
She also wants to expand experiential learning, which gives students real-world problems, solutions and experiences. She cited the nature trail in Tiffin her students were involved with.
“It was unbelievable for the kids,” she said. “They got to see the civic process (including city council meetings and a contentious good neighbor meeting with concerned property owners adjacent to the trail) in action. They got to see failure in action, and how failure is a great steppingstone. And I want to increase that.”
In addition, Boeset would like to build additional capacity for project-based learning in all of the district’s buildings, which would, she said, build the capacity for all students to be successful.
Boeset told the board a favorite quote of hers, which she often uses when applying for grants. “We continue to work with such a diverse population of kids, and sometimes the doors we have are great, and they’re wonderful, but they’re not open to everyone. Even if we open them, they’re not available. So, we have to build more doors.”
Her ultimate objective, “building more doors,” as she said, is to design, build, and lead a project-based CCA academy, which would run in a supplemental capacity to the current seventh-12th grade educational scope and sequence.
“That’s my big pipedream,” she said.
Similar programs already exist, such as the BIG program in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, she said, but pointed out to her knowledge, none currently serve the middle school level. “So I would love, love, love to have CCA be at the forefront of that.” Her “pipedream” for 10 to 12 years out would be for every CCA graduate to have what she called an “immersion experience,” which she described as an opportunity to immerse themselves in personalized learning rooted in community, that equips them for a future, which only they can design. “Whether it be a week long, a year long, a month-long experience, they get a chance to do this, and they have to do this to graduate.” Some students, she said, would do it for a week and decide it’s for them, while others will realize they need to pursue a different path, but would still earn their one credit toward graduation.
Boeset introduced two key components which she is implementing this year. One is what she called “Immersion Learning Experiences,” which consists of day to day learning in the STEM Center with students meeting with her daily for 40-minute classes, with an extra one hour per week toward the end. The other is a “Team Deep Dive,” which involves a team of students, community members and Boeset working together (with the board’s approval) to plan, design, and open CCA’s Immersion Academy.
A common thread in both components is the idea of “authentic learning,” which she defined as learning that is focused on solving a real world problem (something they can see for themselves in need of solving), is personalized to the student, connected to the community, and cross-curricular. “Hands down,” she said, “cross-curricular is the most important. We teach math for 40 minutes and then they go to science for 40 minutes, and that just boggles my mind because we don’t do anything like that in the real world.”
Examples of authentic learning include projects providing a community service and/or philanthropy, conducting scientific research, working in architecture and engineering, and entrepreneurship all with the ultimate goal of creating employable, independent and connected problem solvers. Boeset noted these goals coincide with the district’s goals for its graduates.
As this is the first year, Boeset turned to her fellow teachers to nominate students needing and/or wanting more from school and their current learning program to participate. Parental approval to participate in the pilot program was also obtained, she said.
Students, she said, were not selected based on grades or test scores, but on the teachers’ perceptions of the students. “Do you see anybody who’s unfulfilled, or their strengths are being untapped in the traditional setting?” she asked them. She took the nominations and grouped the students to put diverse learners together in groups she felt would work well.
Unfortunately, some cuts had to be made, but she ended up with approximately 40 students divided into four groups including one made up exclusively of special education students. The other groups include students with Individual Educational Plans (IEPs), and other special programs or needs.
By the 10th year, Boeset wants all CCA graduates to be required to take at least one immersion experience between seventh grade and their senior year.
Her rough-estimate timeline starts with the current school year and is divided into three phases over the next decade or so. This year and next (2020-2021 school year), she will continue to teach sixth grade STEM classes plus the aforementioned four groups of seventh and eighth graders in the pilot Immersion program for half of the year.
She also wants to initiate the Team Deep Dive to start the process of designing what an Immersion Academy might look like.
Next summer, she plans to present the board with the results of the first year, including the Deep Dive’s research and planning work. By continuing to work with the sixth graders, Boeset said she would have the opportunity to identify students well suited for the Immersion program.
Phase two, roughly years three through five, would see an increase in student voice and choice while seeking outside partners and funding. Boeset has already been actively seeking grant money for various projects and equipment. Additional research would be conducted on other existing programs with outreach to build support for the CCA academy. Boeset also envisions increasing the team by two or three teachers, noting they wouldn’t necessarily need to be full time.
In the third phase, the sixth-through-10th year, she wants to be building the Immersion Academy with a team of five teachers covering different content areas. Boeset added the possibility of constructing a separate building, or renovating an existing facility to house the academy. In addition, a credit system (applied toward graduation) would be developed.
“I know I dream big,” she said while acknowledging those dreams come with a cost, one she is not expecting the board to fund in its entirety. “I am looking for grants,” she said, but pointed out an obstacle to grant funding is the district not being considered as a high-poverty district. She has already pursued partnerships with Kirkwood to utilize some of its equipment, such as 3-D printers and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines. “But, it would just be nice to have those in our buildings,” Boeset said, pointing out how Steve Clark, the industrial tech teacher in the middle school could benefit from them as well. “I know there are funds out there, I just have to find them.”
“I believe CCA is the perfect next spot. I really do. I believe we can do this. I believe we have all of the right people in place to do this,” she said. As a final thought, Boeset said, “When we are gifted with a chance to allow our children and students to blow us away, I hope we never let it pass for it is when we relinquish control that we are privy to their true gifts.”

PULL QUOTES
“It isn’t always just about opening doors, it is about building MORE doors.” – Reagan Boeset, CCA STEM teacher

“I do believe our ‘amazing’ has to keep up with the growth we’re experiencing, and keep up with societal changes.” - Reagan Boeset, CCA STEM teacher

“When we are gifted with a chance to allow our children and students to blow us away I hope we never let it pass for it is when we relinquish control that we are privy to their true gifts” - Reagan Boeset, CCA STEM teacher