Ingenuity on display

An elective class at Thurston Middle School allows students to build a model robot with wheels.

Instructor Kelly Skon guides seventh- and eighth-graders in a class called STEAM, an inaugural course that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics.

The goal is for students to develop critical thinking skills through hands-on learning in areas such as robotics, computer programming and game design, product design and development, and forensics, according to the course syllabus.

A total of 58 students from two classes broke into groups and spent two weeks designing and then building their robots, using flexible steel wires, batteries and plastic tires to construct creations largely resembling Mars rovers.

Skon allowed students to come up with their own designs.

Two groups at a time then competed against each other to see who could corral the most plastic cups. This served as a demonstration of the functionality of the impressively high-performing student projects.

Eighth-graders Luc LaMontagne, Remington Cord and Joey Ravenna thought it best to slightly bend two steel wires into U-shapes and place them at each end of the robot.

"We brainstormed a lot," Joey said. "We started building and it was either off balance or too slow."

So the trio created a robot in an hourglass shape.

"We added smaller gears so the robot would go faster," Luc said.

Luc, Remington and Joey gathered 14 cups at one point during the competition, maneuvering their car with a wireless remote control.

The project presented its challenges, according to Joey.

"It took a lot of geometry so the motors could turn without getting caught on something," he said.

Skon called their design "phenomenal."

Future projects will include students developing a logo and painting it onto skimboards donated by Laguna Beach-based Victoria Skimboards, Skon said.

For the forensics unit, students in Skon's and social studies teacher Michelle Martinez's classes will collaborate on a mock crime scene and subsequent trial, Skon said.

Skon's students will gather evidence and learn how to be expert witnesses while Martinez's students will organize a trial overseen by a judge.

Skon said the class teaches students how to work together.

"It's like a model for real life," Skon said. "Everyone has an idea and must work on [deciding] what idea will be best."

The STEAM class aligns perfectly with Joey's desired profession.

"I want to be an architect," he said. "This really plays into what I want to be."

Jobs in STEAM-related fields are increasing in demand, according to the California Department of Education. The Laguna Beach Unified School District board approved the course at a meeting earlier this year, the district said.

STEAM is a version of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) curriculum, with art added in.

"A 2011 [United States] Department of Commerce study found that over the past 10 years, growth in jobs involving STEM fields was three times greater than that of non-STEM occupations," the California Department of Education website said. "The report also forecast that STEM jobs are expected to continue to grow at a faster rate than others in the coming decade. STEM-related industries are a major economic component in California's economy."

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