Guest Contributor: Kama Almasi
Saturday, April 25th marked the culmination of the largest-scale project I’ve done with a group of students. It was an utterly exhausting, exhilarating, and rewarding experience both for me and for the vast majority of my kids. I endured:
- sleepless nights
- frantic phone calls for help (by me to other people, not the reverse!)
- frantic runs, mostly by my husband, to hardware and electronic stores to get materials and supplies I didn’t know I needed until I couldn’t find them
- and even some tears, though thankfully not in front of the kids.
Despite all of this, I am already planning next year’s repeat performance!
What am I talking about? Why, the 2015 Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition in North Bend, of course. For those unfamiliar with this competition, MATE stands for Marine Advanced Technology Education, and ROV stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle (here is the URL for our Regional Center: http://oregon.marinetech2.org/ ). The annual competition poses scientific and engineering challenges for students, and this year the theme was ROVs in Extreme Environments: Science and Industry in the Arctic.
This project is not for the fainthearted, of which I was definitely one. When the Oregon Coast STEM Hub’s Ruth McDonald first suggested the project to me, my immediate internal reaction was “HAH! No way!” and my external reaction was “No, the middle schoolers studied the Physics standards last year, this year we need to cover other standards”. But a few months into the year, while still struggling with major behavior issues in my oversized classes, I finally relented. I was desperate for some way to improve the situation in my classroom, so I decided to dive in with all 90+ middle school science students, despite my extreme lack of knowledge of wiring and electronics. It still took me another few months before I actually started the project, but at least I knew it was on the horizon.
To be perfectly honest, the first two weeks of the project were torture. The classroom was utter chaos, I was grossly unprepared, and I felt like a naïve, first-year teacher. But suddenly I realized during the third week that student engagement was far, far higher than it had been all year. Students walked into my room and immediately started working, even before the bell had rung! This was a miracle for my room. Students consulted with each other about how to wire, which wires were positive vs. negative, what a double-pull double-throw switch is, and what kinds of extensions to build onto their ROVs. They argued and argued, but it was all about design, engineering, and science! They also fell in love with my husband, whom they did not realize was my husband, as he was volunteering in the classroom nearly every day of the project. When he was absent they always noticed immediately: “Where’s my man, Rex?” I would hear, and “I NEED him!”
The run-off competition week finally arrived in Waldport. I had 16 teams; how on earth would I make sure they were all ready for competition and what would I do with them to whittle them down to the final two teams? Turns out I couldn’t make sure they were all ready — it was up to them. And in fact, many were not ready; that turned out to be part of the learning experience for them. It was a stressful but rewarding time; at the pool, students who were normally disengaged in academics were constantly troubleshooting problems and challenges. What a treat to witness this growth! And what a joy to call home and tell the winning teams that they were headed to Regionals.
Last Saturday’s Regional Competition was quite possibly the most challenging, yet rewarding day. My colleagues, Melissa Steinman, Holly Schell, and Daniel Wirick, and I took two middle school and two high school teams from Waldport to the competition in North Bend. We saw pride, disappointment, and learning experienced by our kids, while we all experienced the excitement of seeing the great talent and variety of the other teams. Reading the posters and seeing the ROVs was great fun, but the Place to Be was poolside. How to describe the satisfaction in watching small groups of teens so purely focused on their mission, eyes on the water, the only spoken words about the task at hand. Propeller falls off? All hands work together to fix it. Mission nearly accomplished? The entire team and the spectators wait in silence, with baited breath.
During the Awards Ceremony, although our four teams did not place, I found myself getting choked up with joy and excitement as one of the Toledo teams won the Navigator category, ensuring their ROV would be on display at the Oregon Coast Aquarium for the next 1 ½ years, and as one of the Taft 7-12 teams (freshmen!) won the Ranger category, earning a trip to the International MATE Competition in Newfoundland, Canada. The Waldport adults were all so exhausted that we thought the kids would fall asleep immediately on the bus trip home last night, but it was not to be. The entire trip was filled with excited kids talking about what happened that day, and what they want to do next year. We all cracked up as, near the end of the trip we heard one student say, “Is anyone besides me tired?”
I could never have pulled off this profound, rewarding experience without the help of many dedicated colleagues and friends, especially at the Oregon Coast STEM Hub. I was going to list them all here, but I think instead I’ll thank them personally and tell you this: Please, if you are hesitant to try something like this, if you feel inadequate or inexperienced, or faint of heart, just dive right in. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, because you’ll need it, but do it. For your sake and your kids’ sake. I will just end by saying how grateful I am to my 90+ students who made me so happy to be their teacher. I needed that.
Kama Almasi teaches Science at Crestview Heights and Waldport High School. She has a PhD in Ecology and has lived across the street from the Pacific Ocean off and on for 20 years. Kama is also a member of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub Steering Committee. She and her teaching partner brought two SCOUT class teams from Crestview Heights to the Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition: Poseidon’s Pirates and Nerdz 4 Life.