A technology exploration program rolled out in local schools this year has created a buzz with middle school students, mainly they said because it feels like fun, not school work.
FUSE Studios is an online learning platform developed by researchers at Northwestern University. The idea is to let kids self-explore the STEAM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, applied arts and math — to pique their interest in those areas without forcing assignments on them.
“You can do stuff that’s entertaining,” said Jordan Louden, an eighth grader at Schaefer Middle School. “And talk to your friends.”
He and several others have used their time every other week in the FUSE program to move through the laser defender challenges in which the student must position mirrors and other objects to direct a laser beam and create a security alarm system. Their friends then get to try to break in and steal their treasure without tripping the laser beam.
“It actually challenges you to be creative,” said fellow eighth grader Zachary Curtsinger. “It actually tested me. I thought it was going to be easy.”
All students in grades seven through 12 at Springfield City School District and Clark-Shawnee middle schools, and all high school students at Springfield, Shawnee, the Global Impact STEM Academy and the Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center have access to FUSE Studios, either through classroom time or at the YOUmedia center at The Dome.
Seventh and eighth graders don’t have access to all the challenges or technology, said Schaefer teacher Heather Hall, but they get a taste of the possibilities so they might be inspired to use it more when they get to high school.
The consortium of schools received a Straight-A grant last year, using part of it to pay $61,500 to license the program for four years. The software came with supply kits that go with some of the challenges, like the pieces to build a game controller, plus a 3D printer and vinyl cutter.
The Clark County consortium is one of only three FUSE locations outside of the Chicago area. The other two are in California.
The students so far have liked having less structure, Hall said, and have even done some of the challenges on their own at home, such as making their own music ring tones.
“They’ll come in and show me, like, ‘Look what I made,’” Hall said.
But the students are learning, too, she said.
Brett Drake, an eighth grader, likes the LED light challenge the best, in which students have to program a circuit so they can light up their LED with a push button.
“They’re learning how that circuit works,” just by playing with it through trial and error, Hall said.
In the end, what the students do with the program is really up to them, said Kim Fish, director of communications and collective impact for Springfield schools.
“Each challenge has many levels, so we hope students find challenges that engage them and that they will persist to ‘level up,’” she said. “It seems to foster self-sufficiency, collaboration and persistence, and curiosity about science. And the kids are learning some electronics and software that is brand new.”
Beyond those skills, the middle-schoolers said they’re interested in pursuing STEAM studies in high school, college and possibly as a job.