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Science fling

Seventh- and eighth-graders at Talent Middle School spent Thursday morning out on the playground, but this wasn't recess.

This was science.

The students watched as parachutes they designed and built were flung off the gym roof by their teacher and timed how long it took for the sails to reach the ground. The parachutes later will be attached to rockets made from soda bottles.

It's all part of the School of Design and Innovation's project-oriented approach to science, technology, engineering and math while covering all other education requirements. The school-within-a-school was launched last fall with 48 students.

“We try to make it a fully integrated curriculum,” said Heather Armstrong, one of two teachers.

Parents, business representatives and school personnel developed SDI last year and gained approval from the district’s board. Two classrooms were converted into one large space where students can work together, another program goal.

Because students must use their knowledge to build things, Armstrong said she never gets the questions “Why do we have to learn this?” or “What will I need this for?”

“You get to construct something,” said eighth-grader Logan Jenkins, as he worked on his parachute Wednesday. “It teaches you how to do stuff, and it's fun with partners.”

Students studied elements of drag and resistance before they began building the parachutes. 

“I like that some of the students are trying to do a parasail,” said teacher Marcel d'Haem. Student Yareli Ledezma’s dual-layer, hexagon-shaped design also caught his eye. The seventh-grader said she was trying to duplicate the deep, inverted bowl configuration of a conventional parachute.

Homework often consists of doing the lab write-ups, the students’ least favorite part of the curriculum, said Armstrong.

“You get to know everyone more,” said seventh-grader Michelia Schatz. “You don’t have to worry so much between teachers because they know how much homework they are giving.”

Armstrong and d'Haem came up with about 30 design challenges this year on their own. There’s little readily available curriculum for this approach, especially at the middle-school level, said d'Haem.

“We started from scratch; we had nothing,” said Armstrong.

Another 30 design challenges will be created by the pair next year, but they will be more life-science-based, said d’Haem.

Separate class periods for math and language arts are held in the school, and each student takes one elective outside SDI. But lab write-ups required for each design challenge call for technical writing, one of the ways language arts is integrated into the larger curriculum.

Besides the classroom, students also make extensive use of the former wood shop. There they have access to more tools, space for larger projects and 3-D printers. There’s nearly one laptop available per student in the program.

In a desalinization project, students on average converted 400 milliliters of saltwater into 100 milliliters of fresh water, Armstrong said. When the students studied sound, they made musical instruments. Building sleds required a strip to Mount Ashland to try them out.

More than 40 applications have been received for the 24 spots that will open up next year in the program as eighth-graders move on to high school.

Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Talent Middle School students watch a homemade parachute drop from the gym roof Thursday for a class project as part of the new School of Design and Innovation. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta
Eighth-graders Riley Rush, left, and Cain Vargas construct a parachute Wednesday at the School of Design and Innovation. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta