Middle School Teams Prepare for the FIRST Lego League (FLL) Robotics Competition

Spruce Mountain High School in Jay will host the Maine FIRST LEGO League Challenge State Championship with teams from all over the state this weekend. After a small-scale event at Messalonskee last year and no in-person event the year before, this FIRST Lego League (FLL) event aims to move a step closer to excitement and engagement that only the Civic Center in Augusta could contain! Every season, FIRST has a new theme that goes across its different groups. “Energize” is the theme for the 2022-2023 season with an emphasis on energy generation, efficiency, and use. At the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) level, teams will take part in the “Superpowered” challenge and “explore where energy comes from and how it is distributed, stored, and used – and then put their superpowered creativity to work to innovate for a better energy future.”

This year’s event will have 25 teams competing from across the state. Three of the teams competing this year are the Veazie Vikings (Team 26180) from Veazie Community School, the STEAM Powered Knights (Team 34104) from St. George Elementary School and the RoboSharks (Team 14407) from the Shapleigh School.

The Veazie Vikings Robotics team started in 2016 and are looking to have another successful showing coming off their success last season, which included two awards. They won the Maine Global Innovation Award with their “Veazie Moves” app design and had the highest scoring robot in the competition. Their success even led to a feature on NewsCenter Maine. This year’s team has a mix of veteran and rookie middle school students who each get to build and program a robot. Combining the building and programming to complete assigned tasks on a game field is really what brings the team together. Team coach Brian Gonyar said, “Students learn teamwork. They share ideas, successes, and failures.” Working around students’ busy after-school activities can be challenging, but they are able to practice most days. The team project that focuses on biomass energy production has been an undertaking, but they are optimistic.

St. George Elementary School’s team was formed by STEAM teacher Amy Palmer and Technology & Makerspace Director Paul Meinersmann in 2017. Team 34104 has not had a straight path. After participating in the state competition in 2017, the team is finally returning to the event held in Oakland last year. This year, they will be returning to the Maine FLL State Championship with a completely new group of students. Like many robotics teams in Maine, they are rebuilding their program after going dark during the pandemic. This new team, who renamed themselves the STEAM Powered Knights (they were formerly the “Electro Dragons”), are looking to charge back into robotics action this year.

Shapleigh School will be making their debut at this year’s event. Fifth grade teacher Heidi Randall went through the necessary training this summer to begin coaching a team this school year. They were in the starting process in 2020 and are excited to be able to finally organize a team. “It was certainly a learning year with a huge learning curve,” said Randall, “Our enthusiasm is high as we are getting the final week after the break!”  For students and coaches alike, the first time going to an event is a learning experience, but one that will help the team grow and better prepare for the future.

On December 3, 2022, the Veazie Vikings, the St. George STEAM Powered Knights, and the Shapleigh RoboSharks will join many FLL teams at Spruce Mountain High School for the Maine FIRST LEGO League Challenge State Championship. This is event is free and open to the public. Children of all ages can watch FLL teams compete. There is still a high need for volunteers to help at this event in a variety of capacities. If you have any interest in volunteering at this event, please contact Geoff Cyr (geoffrey.cyr@gmail.com). To learn more about opportunities for Robotics in Maine schools, check out Robotics Institute of Maine (RIM). For information about computer science in Maine schools, please check out the Maine Department of Education’s Computer Science page. If you have a robotics success story at your school, email jonathan.m.graham@maine.gov.

Hurricane Island Provides Hands-On Coastal Learning Experiences as Part of the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative

“I need a sea urchin!” exclaimed a student as she and a handful of other students excitedly explored tidal pools for marine life to collect in buckets as part of a treasure hunt on Hurricane Island. “Who has a crab?” asked another.

Venturing over to a classroom on the Island, another group of middle school students were learning about aquaculture and the farming of scallops by retrieving spat bags from the ocean and then investigating the contents of the bags for scallops and other items that wandered or were caught inside.

After a brief snack and a stop at their bunks, the students were back together in another classroom, and out of the rain, to learn about marine debris by matching objects like fishing line, soda cans, glass bottles, newspaper, buoys, and other common items found on shore or in the ocean with how long they take to decompose.

These were just a handful of the activities that the students got to experience during their week on Hurricane Island as part of Governor Mills’ Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative. The Initiative continues to engage 1,000 middle and high school students from across Maine in hands-on, outdoor marine and coastal ecology learning programs up and down the Maine coast.

bucket of sea life

Hurricane Island held several weeklong programs as part of the Initiative, with Maine Department of Education staff getting to visit and experience the Initiative in action with a group of middle school students from Bethel who had little to no exposure to Maine’s marine environment before this program.

For the Initiative, Hurricane Island and the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond’s NorthStar program launched a new partnership to bring thirteen seventh graders to Hurricane Island this summer. The program offered students extended opportunities for quality science learning and leadership development on the shorelines and waterfronts of Hurricane Island.

“Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership is honored to be a partner organization with Governor Mills’ Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative. It is critically important that all Maine kids have access to innovative hands-on science learning experiences along the Maine coast, and this program has empowered many non-profits like ours to expand their impact this summer,” said Bo Hoppin, the Executive Director for the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership. “The launch of this exciting initiative has helped Hurricane Island reach a greater number of rural Maine youth and engage them in experiential learning on our sustainable island campus in new and unique ways.”

The NorthStar program is a hands-on mentoring program that connects young people with caring adults through community engagement, cultural exchange, and adventure challenge and leadership. The experience on Hurricane Island increased students’ knowledge and appreciation of the marine environment through using the scientific process to come up with and answer their own research questions and allowed them to work with Hurricane Island’s professional research team to get hands-on marine research experience with aquaculture projects.

The students explored the intertidal zone using field research methods to collect data, investigated marine debris from microplastics to large scale shoreline cleanups, used sampling methods to collect oceanographic data both onshore and on the water, hauled lobster traps and learned about the biggest economic industry in Maine, and increased confidence and self-awareness while engaging the natural world and building connections with one another.

In addition, Hurricane Island and Gameloft, based in Belfast, designed a program for middle school students that created opportunities for experiential learning and leadership by bringing the Game Loft’s Student Leadership Team to the island to vision how to integrate more coastal engagement into all of the Game Loft’s programs and bringing a cohort of 6th graders from the Troy Howard middle school as part of a new initiative of the I Know ME program. These weeklong programs offered both groups of students extended opportunities for quality science learning and leadership development on the shorelines and waterfronts of Hurricane Island.

Hurricane Island sits in the Penobscot Bay and takes a little less than an hour to get to by boat from Rockland. While there are several classroom and lab structures and a mess hall, the Island itself is a classroom for the students and staff. The Island also has a 3-acre aquaculture farm to the north of the island where they currently grow scallops and kelp for research purposes. Students also learn about sustainability practices through their use on the Island.

More than a dozen organizations were part of the first year of the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative, which was developed by the Maine Department of Education after Governor Janet Mills announced the pledge to deliver outdoor summer learning programs to Maine students during her State of the State Address.

Students with marine debris

The Ecology School took students on field trips to sand beaches, tidepools, and salt marshes to learn about Maine’s coastal ecosystems. The Herring Gut Coastal Science Center exposed students to sea run fish streams, oyster farms, mudflats, hatcheries, and laboratories, while also touring marine businesses across the Midcoast to let students see firsthand potential careers in Maine’s maritime industries. Sailing Ships Maine continues to offer students the chance to sail aboard a commercial training ship as an active member of the crew.

“The Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative offers hands on, highly engaging programs that allow Maine’s young people to explore and learn from our state’s amazing bounty of natural resources,” said Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin when the Initiative was launched. “Being outside connecting with nature and each other is so important in helping students recover from the pandemic. These outdoor learning experiences will build teamwork and leadership skills, reduce stress and anxiety, and develop new skills in our vast outdoor classroom which will translate to success inside the classroom as well. We thank all of the organizations that stepped up to be a part of this exciting initiative.”

This kind of so-called experiential learning is highly engaging and allows students to problem solve and learn new skills in real world settings, build teamwork and leadership skills, increase self-confidence, and develop an appreciation of nature.

Spending time outdoors has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety and to equip students with skills and knowledge that can help them succeed inside the classroom. Being able to interact with nature while building connections with peers is also beneficial students’ recovery following the disruptions and difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Organizations participating in the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative include: Herring Gut Coastal Science Center in Port Clyde, Hurricane Island + Bryant Pond in Bryant Pond, Hurricane Island + Game Loft, Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Sailing Ships Maine in Portland, the Ecology School in Saco, Boothbay Sea and Science Center in Boothbay, Casco Bay High School and Rippleffect in Portland, Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Science and Education in Beals, Hurricane Island Foundation in Rockland, Laudholm Trust in Wells, Rippleffect in Portland, Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park, and the University of Maine System Cooperative Extension summer camps at Blueberry Cove and Tanglewood.

The Initiative is funded by nearly $900,000 in federal funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds. Full program descriptions can be found here.

A Year of Success and Innovation: Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures at St George Schools

The first round of RREV (Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures) Awardees were announced in August of 2021. RREV is an initiative of the Maine Department of Education, funded by the Education Stabilization Funds through the US Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Models, that bolsters Maine educators’ innovative efforts to support their students with agile, effective, and resilient learning experiences that improve learning outcomes for all students. Now, after a year of experience and development, the Department of Education would like to thank the awardees for their dedication to innovative education and highlight their achievements that have resulted from the RREV contracts over the past year. Continue reading to learn more about the ways in which St George Public Schools has used their RREV funding this past year.

Since being named a RREV Awardee last August, St George Public Schools have been working with Mid-Coast School of Technology to create a PreK-12 Career and Technical Education Program. The program builds upon a long tradition of place-based education that grounds student learning in the history, traditions, and natural environment of St. George and provides a model for preparing students to develop the technical, creative thinking, and social-emotional skills to thrive in an innovation economy and strengthen local and regional economies by meeting existing labor force needs and creating new businesses and industries.

The program implementation and increased Makerspace use over the past year has had an “energizing effect” on the community, Superintendent Mike Felton says. “Teachers are saying thank you and getting excited,” Makerspace Director Paul Meinersmann added. It’s not just teachers that are excited, though. Students are loving the “hands-on, minds-on” learning, too. One student that was feeling disengaged at the start of the year now aspires to be an engineer after spending time using the equipment in the Makerspace.

Part of the engagement, the educators say, comes from the independence and confidence instilled in the Makerspace. Students are asked “What do you want to learn?” rather than being told what to learn, and, once they feel comfortable completing a task on their own, they are allowed to do so. Another important aspect is that students receive credit for their work. A 5th grade student who helped design and create donor plaques for the new, soon to be constructed Makerspace was both surprised and proud to find his name engraved on the back of the plaques next to Meinersmann’s.

students on toboggan
St George Students at the US National Toboggan Championships

Another group of students who were beginning to feel disinterested had the opportunity to work in Apprenticeshop in Rockland. The Apprenticeshop has hosted a Junior Boat Building program that the school has participated in for multiple years, but this year, instead of a boat, the students built a toboggan. Once their toboggan was completed, the group of three students took their toboggan to the US National Championships to compete. The construction of the toboggan reengaged the students in their learning and captivated their minds by showing them just a few of the possibilities open to them after graduation.

The district is working up to build a PreK-8 CTE/Makerspace Building at St. George School, and Felton says this past year

has been integral to making the building successful when it opens. “We need vision and heart to fill the building,” he said, and that’s exactly what they’re building through the implementation of the program this past year.

Outside of the Makerspace access and use, fundraising efforts have also helped to spread the vision and create a network of people investing in the school. The community has collectively raised over $1,450,000, which includes the $250,000 from the RREV grant. Contributions came in every shape and size, from big and little donors alike. One family sold eggs on the side of the road to pitch in, while some individuals donors made contributions up to $250,000. In addition, 13 businesses have sponsored the project.

The school hopes to break ground on the building in the fall and to provide programming to every child. Felton sees the building, and the program as a whole, as an “equity builder,” a true community resource that’s accessible to everyone, all the time, that everyone knows they can use.  The school is looking forward to having the building completed by the end of the upcoming school year and is hoping to offer summer programming for students next year.

Although RREV funding ends June 30, 2023, the vision at St George does not end next year. In the long term, Felton says he hopes for the district to act as an example and a model for other schools and districts, not only across Maine, but across the country. The goal is to spread awareness about the power of this type of learning, which he views as increased student and family engagement, and job set up. By connecting and advocating with other states, Felton says he believes that other schools can be encouraged to connect higher career and technical education with younger grades, setting students up for success.

Martin Mackey, the former RREV Project Director who tragically passed away in April of this year, embodied the RREV spirit: to think and act boldly to meet the needs of students. His passion was to “change lives.” As such, he challenged each and every RREV participant to do just that as they designed pilot ideas that would ultimately have a lasting systemic impact on students.  After 18 months of leading RREV, Martin’s passion had been passed on to almost 200 educators who had participated in innovation professional development. From those educators, 27 Pilot ideas were brought to fruition and have received over $5.7 million in RREV awards. Through their pilot ideas, these educators have pledged to commit themselves to innovation.

The Maine DOE encourages all schools and districts across the State of Maine to learn more about these innovative educators and their RREV pilots through the RREV website and the online RREV collaborative platform known as EnGiNE. It is through EnGiNE that we all hope to continue the Martin Momentum to change students’ lives through innovative and responsive educational programs.

A Year of Success and Innovation: Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures at MSAD 60

The first round of RREV (Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures) Awardees were announced in August of 2021. RREV is an initiative of the Maine Department of Education, funded by the Education Stabilization Funds through the US Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Models, that bolsters Maine educators’ innovative efforts to support their students with agile, effective, and resilient learning experiences that improve learning outcomes for all students. Now, after a year of experience and development, the Department of Education would like to thank the awardees for their dedication to innovative education and highlight their achievements that have resulted from the RREV contracts over the past year. Continue reading to learn more about the ways in which MSAD 60 has used their RREV funding this past year.

After being forced online at the start of the pandemic, MSAD 60 has chosen to embrace remote learning as a pathway for some students rather than await its end. Last year, they created Noble Virtual Middle School (NVMS) as an option for students looking to continue remote education as the district moved back to in person learning. Since receiving their RREV funding in August 2021, they have been able to transform the learning experience for students in NVMS through their pilot project “Be Well Connected,” which is helping to create mentally and physically healthier students with stronger connections and relationships with their peers. The program focuses on building social emotional learning and a whole person wellness outlook through field trips, enrichment, and teambuilding.

Over the last year, educators have seen amazing progress and growth in their students. Brigette Dumont, NVMS Director, says this year has been “phenomenal.” One student who historically has been academically capable, but quiet, has come out of his shell. In NVMS, he laughs and makes comments in class, feeling connected to his classmates, whereas before, he always kept to himself. This student is just one example, but the growth can be seen in every student. “Students came together as a community. The intentional investment of time paired with risk taking really helped break down walls and helped them all have a voice,” Dumont says.

A big part of this growth came from the enrichment activities the students had, which greatly increased student engagement and involvement. For one hour each Friday, students would meet in enrichment clusters that were geared toward their interests. The theater enrichment cluster worked on creating a play, while the computer science cluster spent time coding. One student-favorite group was a student created and led Dungeons and Dragons cluster. These students spent their time creating characters and playing through campaigns led by a student Dungeon Master using tools from the D&D Beyond website. As a final project, students created their own campaign including maps, characters, a plot, and more, which they then presented to the class and posted to D&D Beyond for others to use. They enjoyed the freedom they had to explore their creativity and were able to have fun while learning. While many people may just think they were just kids having fun playing a game, the enrichment cluster was much more than that. The communication skills these students developed, Dumont says, were beyond the skills that are typically developed in the classroom, and they gained more self-confidence because they were so engaged in their collaborative work.

In the coming year, the school plans to build on this work. They have hired a wellness counselor who will start at the beginning of the new school year in September to provide much needed mental health support to help students manage trauma and anxiety. Dumont says they are “looking forward to having someone help in acute moments with students.” The district looks forward to providing students with strategies to manage mental wellness and developing a more solid approach to bring mental health resources to their students.

students at desksThe school also hopes to offer the students of NVMS two in-person days a week. This will allow the school to increase field trips and enrichment opportunities as well as encourage growth throughout the community. By building stronger connections with community partners and local businesses, the district plans to provide students with more real-world applications for their learning and better utilize nearby resources.

Martin Mackey, the former RREV Project Director who tragically passed away in April of this year, embodied the RREV spirit: to think and act boldly to meet the needs of students. His passion was to “change lives.” As such, he challenged each and every RREV participant to do just that as they designed pilot ideas that would ultimately have a lasting systemic impact on students.  After 18 months of leading RREV, Martin’s passion had been passed on to almost 200 educators who had participated in innovation professional development. From those educators, 27 Pilot ideas were brought to fruition and have received over $5.7 million in RREV awards. Through their pilot ideas, these educators have pledged to commit themselves to innovation.

The Maine DOE encourages all schools and districts across the State of Maine to learn more about these innovative educators and their RREV pilots through the RREV website and the online RREV collaborative platform known as EnGiNE. It is through EnGiNE that we all hope to continue the Martin Momentum to change students’ lives through innovative and responsive educational programs.

Deputy Commissioner Dan Chuhta Participates in the Read to ME Challenge

Maine Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Dan Chuhta visited two schools last week to participate in the Read to ME Challenge. His first stop was at Sacopee Valley Middle School, where he visited Mrs. Bryant’s 4th grade class of young mathematicians and scientists who shared all they knew about geometry, astronomy, space travel, and even the seasons. Chuhta read A Computer Called Katherine written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison, that tells the remarkable and true story of Katherine Johnson and her pioneering work at NASA.

He next travelled to Bonny Eagle Middle School, where he met the talented writers and scholars in Mrs. Deering’s 6th grade classroom. While there, he read two student written stories found in the outstanding anthology Shadowboxing, published by the Portland-based nonprofit organization, The Telling Room.

DanReadtoMEChallengeThe Read to ME Challenge is month-long public awareness campaign to promote the importance of literacy for all of Maine’s students, regardless of age. The challenge encourages adults to read to children for 15 minutes, capture that moment via a photo or a video, and then post it to social media and challenge others to do the same using the hashtag #ReadtoME.

Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin launched the Read to ME challenge earlier this month with second graders at Solon Elementary School, and educators, parents, and families across the state continue to post about their reading adventures. There’s still plenty of time this month to grab a favorite book to read aloud to a young person and share as part of the Read to ME challenge.