MILLERSBURG — With his pencil tucked neatly behind his ear, Millersburg Elementary School sixth-grader Zach Bontrager fiddled with a LEGO piece on his robot.
While his peers spend their recess time running around outdoors, Bontrager and his First LEGO League teammates said they’d rather dedicate that time to studying and learning about robotics.
It’s a lot of fun, but it sure isn’t easy, he said of the fast-growing program at his elementary school.
Whether they are building robots or learning about butterflies, students at Millersburg Elementary School are engaged in project-based, hands-on learning designed to teach them more about the world outside the classroom walls, Principal Teresa Zook said.
Millersburg Elementary is unique in that more than half of the 405-member student body are of the Amish faith. The school currently serves students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Three times each year, big boxes chock full of science gear arrive from the Elkhart-based ETHOS Science Center. The containers provide all the necessary materials for teachers’ upcoming lessons — a partnership that’s been extremely beneficial to students and teachers, Zook said.
The science lessons look a little different at each grade level, ranging from a study of ice cream to help kindergarten students learn the transition of solid to liquid and gas to fourth-graders studying circuits, she said.
The school’s Reading Buddies program is one of several opportunities students have to collaborate with their peers.
The program pairs sixth-grade students with second-graders once a week for a joint reading session.
Sixth-grader Shiv Patel and second-grader Garrett Lash became “reading buddies” shortly after the start of the year and said they enjoy the time they spend together during Reading Buddies because they get to know each other.
“It’s just kind of fun hanging out,” Patel said.
The program has been a benefit to both groups, Zook said.
“The second-graders are improving their reading skills and they like knowing the older kids and our sixth-graders are building self-confidence,” she said.
The school is in the process of converting into a practical arts academy, and to alleviate crowding at the high school, will house two sections each of seventh and eighth grades.
This year’s sixth-grade students will have the choice of whether they remain at their elementary alma mater or follow some of their peers to Fairfield Jr-Sr High School, which serves students in grades seven through 12.
The emphasis will still be on literacy, math and problem solving, but will also incorporate exposure to careers in the community as well as a traditional middle school exploratory experience in grades six through eight, Zook explained.
The changes are part of school corporation’s plans to reorganize all four of its school buildings to an inquiry-based model where teachers serve as coaches that help students navigate problems and think independently, school leaders said.
To help make space for the additional students and classes, Millersburg will add several classrooms and specific learning spaces including labs to the existing building.
Students will have access to technology education courses, family and consumer science classes, previously called home economics, and German language studies.
The changes also come with an addition that many students and teachers are excited about — an outdoor science lab.
Students will be encouraged to create proposals outlining what they’d like to see included in the new space, Zook said.
“We want to make it a real-world process,” she said, explaining how students will be required to study details such as the cost of supplies and the space available.
They’ll also be encouraged to reach out to the Millersburg community for help with donations and support, Zook said.
“The Millersburg community as a whole, is a very supportive area. Whenever there’s a need, our local businesses step up to help,” Zook said.
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