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A new education initiative piloted at some Rapid City Area Schools called STEAM("steam-squared") is getting rave reviews as the school year's first quarter comes to a close.

Building on STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics), the STEAM2 incorporated into classrooms by Rapid City teachers this fall incorporates "art and design" to create an all-in-one and often hands-on approach to learning. On Friday, a showcase at East Middle School drew over 400 visitors to see just what students have been up to. 

On stage, students in the drama classroom read from scripts, enacting a fictional one-act play based in "East High School." Down the hallway, in the band room, a snare drum could be heard, while a student showed off new-found prowess on percussion. And upstairs in Elizabeth Burtzlaff's classroom, sixth-grader Amelia Torres held out a detective's magnifying glass, looking for whorls in the green thumbprint inked down by a visiting reporter.

"I'm trying to tell if it's an arch or a loop," Torres said. 

STEAM2 is being piloted at a few Rapid City Area Schools and is part of the district's 2022 strategic plan on 21st-century learning goals. The curriculum emphasizes problem-based learning that embraces varied disciplines (the arts, mathematics, engineering, etc.) much like activity in the work world. STEAM (science-technology-engineering-arts-mathematics) seemingly encompasses all of the old subject-matter, but they're mixed together.

"It's all those things at once," Burtzlaff said.

In a photography classroom, eighth-grader Taylor Klein talked about her photographs pulled up on a laptop.

"I think have an eye for it," said Klein, discussing close-ups and depth of field, shadows, and light.  

In Lori Mettler's reading classroom, students sat in comfortable bucket chairs, eating popcorn and watching one-minute short films the students had put together, summarizing novels such as "Charlotte's Web." 

Down the hallway, in Richard Jones' English classroom — Jones wore a hooded cloak straight out of a "Monty Pythonsketch — students dueled with wooden swords and took turns flinging tennis balls out of hand-built catapults.

"It's medieval warfare," said Jones, who said students took about five minutes a day at class's end to work on various projects. 

"I really like building catapults," 13-year-old Anders Aandahl said. "It's probably some of the most focused I've been in class."

The teachers have an opportunity, as well, to break from tried-and-true curricula to bridge in personal interests to the classroom. Jones, who recited from the 14th-century English bard Geoffrey Chaucer, said, "I'm in the International Arthurian Society, so it's fun for me, too."

In addition to the new curriculum meeting workforce needs in STEAM fields, school officials point to the increasing need to hold students' attention in a YouTube and social-media-dominant environment, and they believe STEAMaccomplishes this by making learning fun. Students (and parents) across Rapid City have already noticed a piqued interest in learning. At the school-board meeting on Oct. 22, parent Jim Bussell stood up to encourage the district to continue to support the STEAM2 initiative. 

"I'd taken my son to a concert in Sioux Falls, and he asked that we hurry back across the state so that he could attend his class," said Bussell, who said his son has picked up a love of guitar in his STEAM2 class. 

"Whatever they're doing," Bussell said, "keep it up."

In statements to the Journal, school officials said they've seen a decrease in office referral and positive attendance trends at pilot schools. In addition to East, Southwest Middle School and Corral Drive and Canyon Lake Elementary Schools are piloting the STEAMcurriculum. The district hopes to implement the curriculum across all schools by 2022.

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Contact Christopher Vondracek at Christopher.Vondracek@rapidcityjournal.com.

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Education reporter