5th grader using microscope

Article by Rod Daniel for the Ravalli Republic

Seeking to help meet the science education needs of each of Corvallis School District’s 13 grades, the Corvallis Schools Foundation (CSF) has made hands-on science education its special project for the 2021-22 school year.

With a goal of raising $45,000 to buy a wide array of science-related, hands-on equipment, the 23-year-old non-profit foundation aims to empower Corvallis students to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills at every level, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Hands-on science experiences allow students to directly investigate and find connections that increase their understanding of science, math, and technology, according to the CSF statement announcing the project. Students engaged in hands-on science develop problem-solving skills, evaluate data to make decisions, and engage in teamwork.

This is backed up by the folks at the American Chemical Society: “Hands-on laboratory science experiences are critical to the learning process across all areas of study, beginning with kindergarten and continuing through post-secondary education. Research has shown that students who engage in well-designed laboratory experiences develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.”

The project will provide the K-4 Primary School with age-appropriate robotic classroom sets to explore robotics, coding, design, and engineering. It also will allow for the purchase of electronic building block sets for creating inventions while learning electronics and engineering skills.

Across the street at the 5-8 Middle School, project-funded tools and equipment will benefit the new STEAM curriculum, focusing on science, technology, engineering, art, and math. The tools needed to launch this program include:

• Circuits and electricity classroom sets to teach simple circuits

• Coding and Robotics classroom sets to enhance science and technology learning

• Engineering and architecture design kits to enhance math and engineering skills

• Aquaponics kits for life sciences

• Geology and meteorology equipment for earth science

At the high school, students will be able to peer deeper into the world of science with 20 new compact stereo microscopes for use in lab activities and will also utilize a new sanitizing glassware washer to enable sterile experiments in both science and agriculture classes.

Amanda Bestor, STEAM instructor for all four grades at the Middle School, said hands-on learning enhances the core curriculum by offering students the opportunity to put into practice what they’ve learned in books.

“Kids are learning content in the classroom,” she said, “but we put that into action in STEAM so kids are more likely to learn skills they can build on.”

Bestor said the overarching goal is for kids to start early thinking about and engaging in the design process as a whole so they can build on that through high school.

“They might start in primary school, when they’re not afraid to fail, with the building blocks or robotics kits,” she said. “And by the time they get to middle school, they’ll already know how to use the equipment and tools we have. They can build on a skill and go deeper with it.”

The equipment and tools to be purchased through the CFS project were requested by the teachers to meet the long-term needs of the students and represent items that typically would not be available through the school district’s budget. All the items, Bestor said, will be used for many years to come.

“To get these types of resources at a school this small is so great,” she said. “And to get these tools in the hands of the kids will have long-term benefits.”

Corvallis Superintendent Jon Konen sees a well-equipped STEM program as a pathway into the work force for a lot of kids.

“There are an increasing number of science, technology and math jobs that these kids can get right out of high school,” Konen said, “and for kids going to college we’ve seen a big increase in not only the number but also in the types of engineering jobs. STEM’s connection to the work force is just astounding.”

The Corvallis community is fortunate to have had a number of foundations and clubs to help the schools meet their needs. Grants and donations made by these groups enable the district to get science and technology resources that it doesn’t have a budget for, according to Konen.

“There’s been a decline in school funding for the last decade,” he said, “and resources like these can be very costly.”

CSF Board Chair Harlene Marks said helping the District meet the needs of the teachers and students was the impetus for CSF’s Special Projects.

“Special Projects began in 2018 with the middle school microscopes because the foundation realized the school had needs beyond its budget,” Marks said. “Since then, we’ve continued raising money for a special project each year. We solicit from the school its needs and select a project that enhances the students’ education and is complimentary to the curriculum.”

Past Corvallis Schools Foundation Special Projects include $28,000 for Outdoor Science Education, $47,500 for K-12 Musical Instruments, and $13,000 for Middle School Microscopes. Funding for the projects has come from individual donations, various fundraising activities, and grants from the Stock Farm Greater Ravalli Foundation, the Rapp Family Foundation, Corvallis Performing Arts Booster Club, the Montana Community Foundation, and the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation.

Hands-on learning, Marks said, was selected because the teachers wholeheartedly agreed about its benefits for the entire district. The money raised will augment what the school is already doing with STEAM activities and laboratory experiences and will complement support from other groups such as PAWS (Parents At Work in our Schools) and the Stock Farm Greater Ravalli Foundation.

Corvallis Schools Foundation will be pounding the pavement throughout the school year helping to raise money through community donations, grants, raffles and sponsorships, and on May 14, 2022, CSF will hold its signature Spring Fling Fundraiser at the Teller Barn in Corvallis.

To learn more about the Corvallis Schools Foundation, or to donate to the project, go to csfmontana.com.