A select group of sixth-grade students at North Hall Middle School is paving the way in a new program with big ambitions.
Seventy-three students are part of Earhart-Edison Exploration Academy’s inaugural year.
“A normal day would be, we start like a normal sixth-grader,” student Taylor Wells said. “We come in, go to our lockers and get all situated. But after homeroom in first period, second, third and fourth, you really see the difference between the normal sixth grade and E2, because with E2, they really go deeper and give you more hands-on (projects) to work (on).
“Some kids learn better with being creative,” she added.
The E2 Academy is set up to model a STEM academy program, such as the one at next-door North Hall High School. But the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics looks a little bit different at the middle school level.
“In my mind, I was thinking, OK, we’re going to have these little scientists running around,” said E2 coordinator Kathy Mellette, laughing. “And then you realize, they’re still sixth-grade students.
While those STEM subjects are emphasized, the academy is more about teaching students to embrace learning, particularly with the technology available to them.
“The reason we picked Earhart-Edison, those two people, is because of their spirit, innovation and willingness to explore,” Mellette said of the school being named for aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and inventor Thomas Edison.
North Hall Middle Principal Shane Rayburn said the premise behind the academy is to “raise the intellectual engagement and curiosity for learning.”
“It’s a space for exploring those STEM pieces ... but in these early stages, it truly is exploration,” Rayburn said.
This year is more of a pilot program, but Rayburn said he is hopeful E2 will open next year as a program of choice for all county students.
If not, the academy will expand to include this year’s group as it moves into seventh grade, and then a new group of incoming sixth-graders.
The students agree being a part of the academy is more intellectually demanding than what they are used to, particularly in coming from fifth grade. They also touched on the different methods used to teach subjects.
“I do a lot more typing than I ever had (before),” said Zach Warwick. “Almost every paper you have to do is typed.”
Warwick talked about a recent math project that involved learning fractions by creating recipes, and sharing that on posterboard.
From time to time, groups of students break out for smaller lunch sessions with their instructors. One of these recent lunch-and-learns with Mellette involved a reptilian discussion.
“It was a lot of fun,” said student Leilani Polanco. “When we went to Mrs. Mellette’s room, she had her pet snake. We got to hold that, and she had a tarantula.”
Also Wednesday, singer Marc Black performed for the E2 students, and had lunch with a few interested in writing songs and music.
Rayburn said the musical performance is just one other way to provide opportunities for students to learn different methods of expression. He said a student may not be able to get across what he or she has learned by filling in a test, but they may be perfectly able to write a song and express themselves that way.
“I think that E2 has become this space for a lot of ... collaboration, for, ‘How can we raise kind of that intellectual bar for all of us?’” Rayburn said. “And I believe really to spark curiosity about the world, about learning. It doesn’t just happen in a room with chairs lined up in a traditional way.”
There is no extra funding for the academy, though it recently received a $2,500 grant from Cargill’s local operation, along with a matching grant from its corporate headquarters. Those funds will be used to purchase equipment and for other projects, such as monitoring a stream behind the middle school.
“I think that our kids are demanding that we teach differently than we taught 20 years ago, 30 years ago,” Rayburn said. “I think they’re becoming much more savvy about the world.”