Blooming students from STEM

Woodlake Valley Middle School provides project-based learning in 18 careers at STEM Center

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

WOODLAKE – If you had to guess what the most requested elective at Woodlake Valley Middle School is, you probably wouldn’t start with science, technology, engineering and especially not math. But put them together in a brand new facility stocked with 3D printers, green screens, electronics and tools and you have enough hands-on learning to get anyone’s attention.

Eighth graders David Flores and Andrew Cuevas assemble a wind turbine across from a fan to test how much electricity it will generate at different speeds. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

Woodlake Valley Middle School (WVMS) debuted its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Center to the public during back to school night last month. As you walk through the converted old staff lounge, you can see students using software to print 3D models, piecing together a mini, plastic wind turbine to test how much electricity it can generate, repairing a broken door knob and even filming a claymation short.

“Students were very proud that this was their space,” said WVMS Principal Megan Rinaldi. “They took ownership of it and it gave the school another identity.”

Rinaldi said the modules help empower students to discover their interests and aptitudes, along the pathway to postsecondary success.

She said one of the district’s main goals regarding the STEM Center is to provide a learning environment that promotes critical thinking skills and collaboration amongst the students. Recent research states that these are two of the top skills that industry leaders are looking for in new employees.


“We believe that our students will be able to utilize the experiences they gain from working in the STEM Center, as a competitive advantage while they look to build bright and successful futures,” Rinaldi said. “WVMS is currently facilitating new learning experiences for over 100 students each semester.”

STEM is not only preparing students for potential careers, but helping to provide STEM industries in the Valley. T.J. Ryan, learning director at Woodlake Valley Middle School, said the 18 different modules in the lab represent various industries located in the Central Valley. STEM graduates from universities expect to make over $200,000 per year, but those same jobs in the Valley might make slightly over half that.

“Companies here doing the same work aren’t going to pay the same salaries,” Ryan said. “So these programs are just as important for local employers as they are for the students.”

Ryan said tactile learning has always been an important piece of education because many students learn more by doing a hands-on project. Gone are the days of making volcanoes for science fairs and auto and wood shops have almost completely disappeared from classrooms and campuses. Instead, students create models in software and 3D printers to etch those pieces into existence. But there still needs to be a fabrication element to bring a concept to life. In one of the STEM Center projects, students will be asked to research, design and build a small drone from scratch. Half of the STEM Center 5,500 square feet is used for fabrication.

“While we have 3D printers, students will still learn to cutout metal or plastics to create all of the pieces that bring that together,” Ryan said.

Krystal Poloka, an eighth grade science and STEM teacher, said the equipment, furniture, project sheets, instructions and curriculum are all part of the program offered by Paxton/Patterson, which provides learning systems that engage students with problem-based, real-world technology. Some of the Paxton/Patterson curriculum options being offered at WVMS are robotics, materials/processing, computer graphics and animation, flight technology, forensic science, computer aided drafting, digital manufacturing, mechanisms, electricity and electronics, alternative energy, personal finance, laser technology, lifetime nutrition and wellness and home maintenance fundamentals. The WUSD STEM Center is one of a few Paxton/Patterson labs in the state of California.

“Students always come in with a few things they are interested in but this gives them an opportunity to be exposed to something they wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to do,” Poloka said.

Prior to opening the STEM Center, Poloka and sixth grade STEM teacher Kurtis Ryan attended an intensive five-day training session on how to use the curriculum and equipment at each station to problem solve and complete a project. Between the two, WVMS offers three, 50-minute periods in the STEM Lab ranging from a sixth grade introductory course to an eighth grade advanced course. On average, students take about 2.5 weeks to complete a module at a station, but some advanced projects can take more than a month. Once a project is completed, students move on to a new station or discipline within STEM. The only limit to how many projects a student can complete is their own ingenuity and

“Students are not used to thinking at their own pace so they often fall behind in the beginning,” Poloka said. “But I never hear someone say, ‘I’m bored.’ That’s a great feeling as a teacher.”

A corner of the STEM Center also houses Bengal Studio, the name of the visual arts area where students create newscasts in front of a green screen. Rinaldi said the students filmed a local commercial at the Runway Café at the Woodlake Airport that they submitted to the Slick Rock Film Festival presented by the Tulare County Office of Education each spring.

“They like it because they are always doing something different,” Poloka said.

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