Salk Magnet School scores a big week

by Jim Boyle, Editor

What happened at Salk Middle School this past week?

A. One of the school’s teachers, Ron Hustvedt, became a semifinalist for teacher of the year.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar watched as students showed off their magnetic levitation vehicles.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar watched as students showed off their magnetic levitation vehicles.

B. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., came to visit the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-themed magnet school to arm herself with information to push for more STEM programs in Minnesota and across the nation.

C. Salk Middle School learned moments before Klobuchar arrived that it has been named a Magnet School of Excellence through Magnet Schools of America.

D. All of the above.

If you answered D, you would be correct.

Principal Julie Athman, who introduced Klobuchar to some of the school’s most decorated students involved in state, regional and national science fairs and History Day, as well as Project Lead the Way and the after-school program called G.E.M.S. (Girls in Engineering Math and Science), told the Star News the excitement at Salk Middle School is a testament to the students and staff who have worked so hard.

“We’re so excited to be an example within our district and in our state,” Athman said. “It solidifies the hard work that our teachers do and our students do. It acknowledges the hard work that is happening in STEM here.”

Salk became a STEM magnet school in 2007. It started out as a STEM Magnet within a building. The school received funding through the Northwest Suburban Integration School District. The program was developed to desegregate the Osseo School District.

Photo by Jim Boyle Students like Mikhail Henin and Vytas Soderholm who found success in the science fair found themselves in front of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Photo by Jim Boyle
Students like Mikhail Henin and Vytas Soderholm who found success in the science fair found themselves in front of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The STEM theme was chosen because of its popularity and to pull from  communities near and not so near.

After a few years of success, the program expanded to more fully use all the technology the school had acquired and to roll out the hands-on, inquiry-based instruction to all Salk students.

Athman says things have really taken off in the last couple of years as the student body, staff and parents have embraced the school.

“I see  kids being far more engaged in what they’re learning and able to communicate their learning to others,” the middle principal of kids in sixth through eighth grades said.

There are now several elementary magnet schools, including one at Rogers Elementary School, that feed can Salk, but most of the student body comes from an attendance area. There’s also a STEM program offered through a lottery system at Blaine High School.

“Whether students choose a STEM school or their respective high school where they live, the strategies they learn here will carry them in at any high school and in any occupation they choose,” Athman said.

Klobuchar told students at the school Thursday her mission was to arm herself with stories of success at STEM schools to push for legislation. She said she has a bill in Congress to double the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet schools.

She sees advantages for students and America alike. The students asked the senator to explain.

She said jobs is the first reason. Good jobs. Jobs in medical fields. Engineering jobs. Tech and computer jobs. Scores of science-related fields and jobs.

“There are lots of interesting jobs and jobs that pay pretty well out there,” she said. “Jobs at all different levels. Making things, fixing things, designing things.

“It’s a really important part of our economy. We have to get more kids doing these jobs to get more  competitive.”

Klobuchar said one problem in Minnesota she would like to address is the fact that the state has a 5.6 percent unemployment rate and there are job openings in this area that can’t be filled.

“I don’t know what more facts we need to show that we need to keep funding programs like this,” she concluded.

Klobuchar says she is optimistic that this push for more STEM programs will be successful.

“We want to have  banks to get money out there, but really what makes our country run is when we invent things, we dream and we make the world better, and that’s what you can be a part of by going into this area,” she said.

Athman says that Salk always has a waiting list, so the interest is there for more STEM offerings.

One hour with Salk students was confirmation enough for the good things the senator has heard about the school of nearly 700 students.

Students showed their work on projects, such as in the case of one that compared how long it took stomach acid to dissolve pain killers. Project Lead the Way students Sydney Thompson, Tim Gruis, Mitchell Maass and Tailer Benson showed Klobuchar how the magnetic levitation vehicles (MagLev) they made worked and raced them for her. They talked to her about their challenges and what they found exciting as part of their design and modeling unit.

“We work to get kids to change the way they think to solve problems,” said teacher Tim LeMoine. “We break them from a traditional classroom where you follow certain rules to arrive at a certain expected answer. We don’t know what the answer will be until we arrive there.”

LeMoine’s students started the project by studying real MagLev trains that have already been built to see if they can improve upon the concepts learned. They identify criteria. And they take off in a variety of directions.

“I want to make sure they don’t zero in on one design,” LeMoine said. “I want them see all the possibilities. At the end we try to make sense of what we discovered.

What about social studies? That’s not a STEM subject, right? For that, the school has turned to National History Day projects, which also mirrors the scientific process.

Students are given a theme each, and this year it’s related to pinpointing a turning point in history. Students then do extensive research and eventually they arrive at a place they can present a thesis rather than hypothesis. The last step is to share their results, which they will do next week.

Students must pick one of five ways to communicate their findings. They can use a display board, a documentary, a performance, create a website or write a paper.

“Salk is an example of kids learning skills that we need in this country,” she said. “If we’re going to be a country that’s going to makes things, invents things and exports things throughout the world, we need more schools like Salk where the kids are so clearly engaged in real problem solving.”

The school alternates optional summer trips between Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. and Washington, D.C.

“They’re learning their math. They’re learning their science, but they’re also learning to apply it to the real world and they’re excited about it.”