Rhodes School upgrading to new STEM classroom

A new, advanced classroom in River Grove’s Rhodes School will push students a little further while learning science, technology, engineering and math.

Students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade will now be taking specific STEM classes assigned at each of the three grade levels.

The idea to implement the program at Rhodes School came a few years ago when the school’s industrial arts teacher retired. A group of teachers, administrators and board members decided they wanted to try increasingly-popular STEM programming and researched it by making site visits to a number of schools, according to Rhodes School Superintendent Jim Prather.

After multiple site visits, they settled with Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit organization that develops STEM curricula for students.

Sixth-grade science teacher Frank Monacella, who had been teaching science at Rhodes for 3½ years, was tapped to run the program. Once Monacella agreed, he went to the University of Illinois in Chicago for a few weeks of training.

The former industrial arts classroom was remodeled and turned into a STEM lab, with a Smart Board, white board paint (a special paint that allows students to write on the walls) and laptop computers for the program’s emphasis on technology-based investigation and analysis.

Prather said another reason they decided on Project Lead the Way was because East Leyden also uses the same program.

“It gives our kids a natural progression that they have the experience here, and if they want to go on to high school and chose those courses, they have a familiarity here,” Prather said.

Sixth- and seventh-graders will be taking “design and modeling” this year, while eighth-graders will be taking “automation and robotics.”

“Design and modeling” is focused on engineering and explaining to students at a young age why engineers are so important — they’re the ones coming up with everything in technology, according to Monacella.

He said that in “automation and robotics,” students will have learned the skill of design and modeling and can put it to work. Students will be given different, real-world scenarios in which they need to develop a product with kits they’re given and develop a working solution for it and program it to make it work.

Monacella, who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Illinois State University and a master’s degree in arts and teaching from Dominican University, said he’s really excited that he gets to design the whole process himself.

“It turned out to be a cool-looking classroom that I’m still working on,” Monacella said. “I’m most excited about teaching ‘automation and robotics,’ because it’s all hands-on. I had a great time with it when I was learning and training and I think the kids are really going to like it.”

Prather said that next year, they’ll add another program for seventh grade so that “design and modeling” is just for sixth grade.

He said these classes will allow students to be more creative, persistent and focused because finding the answers and solutions rests solely on their shoulders.

“The whole idea of discovery learning is that a little bit of uneasiness in kids, to kind of stress them, gets them to the next level,” Prather said. “It’s a way of getting them to their true thinking versus the traditional. This is truly exploratory learning, where the kids are problem-solving a lot of the situations on their own, which is the perfect type of learning because it forces people to get to the highest level of thinking.”

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