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Libby Nelson (left), Brynn Haapajoki and Brooke Mulholland watch to see whether or not a Lego EV3 robot will successfully pick up a ring and bring it back to the other side of the table during the after-school Intro to Robotics program at Forestview Middle School in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video2 / 2

BAXTER—At 3:15 p.m., right on the dot, about 30 students file into a series of rooms and labs on Forestview Middle School's second floor.

There Friday, May 4, a group of students congregated around enclosed tables, tinkering away at Lego EV3 robots—a kind of mechanized fusion of computer hardware and elaborate Lego sets.

Students flitted between the robots and laptop screens displaying color-coded arrangements of programming, testing their creations, finding a flaw or systematic failure, and starting the process over again. It's fair to wonder what they were trying to accomplish.

"Trying to push that fire truck into that building," said Reegan Isle, a fifth-grader at Forestview Middle School and a member of its burgeoning robotics club.

"There's a little lever there that activates the fire to go down," his friend, fellow fifth-grader Rhys Boser, said, clarifying their rather unorthodox methods of firefighting.

As members of the robotics club, the boys were taking part in the STEM after-school clubs and extracurriculars—programs that are starting to garner national recognition for getting children involved with projects that feature high-tech drones, high-altitude balloons, programmable robots and a brand new laser-engraving machine.

STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) is a term that typifies non-humanities, fundamentally arithmetic-based fields.

Multimedia teacher Jim Reed characterized these programs as a means to prepare students for the future, whether that's STEM jobs, which are growing at an exponentially higher rate than other fields, or even everyday skills like problem-solving and the basics of healthy socialization.

"What we've basically done is we've tapped into kids that didn't have anything to do after school. Instead of having kids go home and play video games, why don't we have them build video games?" Reed said. "Let's develop programs around their skills and their interests and keep them here. Kids want it. Parents want it for their kids."

The STEM clubs are structured in three seasons, reflective of and competitive-like sports, with robotics in the fall, high-altitude ballooning in the winter, and spring slated as something of a toss-up—with this year focusing on drone programming, said CTE teacher Cory Olson, although the last two weeks were set aside to introduce the new laser-engraving machine to students.

The clubs trace their genesis to 2013, when Reed became interested in introducing his students to the high-altitude ballooning, a scientific endeavor where a large helium balloon is sent hundreds of thousands of feet into the air to record a bounty of data with its various instruments.

Starting with 12 students and the balloon, Reed's team eventually decided to submit their project to the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, a national problem-solving and technology competition the Forestview team went on to win, securing a grand prize.

"That was the catalyst. Balloons launched into the stratosphere—me and Cory saw that, it was interesting, and we thought 'Why can't we do that?'" Reed said.

Now, five years later, that balloon program has expanded into multiple fields and involves Reed, Olson, fifth-grade science teacher Brian Stark, multimedia teacher Layne Danielson and other educators at Forestview—as well as the elementary schools.

Robotics, in particular, has boomed in popularility—prompting the creation of a waiting list for students, as well as Stark and Danielson taking on full-time instructor positions, instead of sharing one together.

Much of the popularity of these STEM clubs is that they're providing a kind of group, or "tribe" as Reed termed it, for kids interested in these fields. While it's easy to find like-minded individuals in, say, football or band, these kinds of clubs or groups aren't always provided to students with a more technological bent.

"It's all about exposure, getting kids to experience the different forms of technology in a positive way," Reed said. "Getting them into that social environment where we've got to talk, we've got to communicate, we can't sit with our smartphones and isolate ourselves from the greater good."

Fostering solid problem-solving skills—along with teamwork sociability and a grasp of STEM concepts—forms the backbone of the after-school STEM programs at Forestview Middle School, Stark said.

"Problem-solving, you have to do that in your life all the time and whether we're doing robotics, or whether we're doing any other types of experiments in the classroom, they've gotta be able to have all these skills to do that," Stark said.

"The other thing is teamwork thing, it's huge—working with a partner, with a small group, all of those things they learn here makes them better students."

The community has responded in kind, Reed said, noting the district authorized making the instructor's positions to be eligible for the same kind of compensation that sports coaches enjoy, as well as enthusiastic support in the forms of grants and other funding.

"When we write a grant, we get funded. Brainerd Foundation is huge, Kiwanis, Sertoma—all the service organizations," Reed said. "People see a need. A while back the district did a community survey and they asked the community, 'What are the three things (they) value most?' and one of those top three was STEM programing. That's driven by people."

The kids are taking to the STEM after-school programs as well—evidenced not only by the surging enrollment numbers, but also by the excited chatter in the robotics club, or the quiet, rapt attention of pupils taking the drone-programing class in the lab next door over.

"It's a great feeling when you complete a mission. You feel accomplished," said Autumn Schiller, a fifth-grader, as she fine-tuned the programming of her EV3 robot—using a color-coded "drag and drop" application that is to programming what Legos are to construction materials. "I like robotics and I like working with computers. My brother was in it, so he encouraged me and it's a lot of fun."

For his part, Boser offered a more tangible angle on what makes robotics interesting to him as a fifth-grader.

"What I like about it is that you can customize the robot—put, like, tracks we have on there—and do different stuff," Boser said of his and Isle's escapades. "One time we made a robot that smashed a tower. We got the tower to fall on our robot."

These clubs—not to mention their focus by teachers and students, the larger Brainerd School District community, as well as the nation as a whole—comes at a time when STEM-related jobs are needed more than ever.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM jobs increased by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, while non-STEM positions increased by 9.7 percent in the same time frame.

However, girls often fall behind boys in these fields—failing to pursue long-term education or apply their talents in STEM-related industries, despite showing equal aptitude and interest at younger ages.

What factors into this divergence is difficult to pinpoint, Olson said. Currently, staff members estimate the ratio is about seven boys for every three girls that sign up for these after-school clubs—though, Olson noted, it's increasingly difficult to reach girls the older they get.

"Typically what happens, fifth or sixth grade, they're still OK they think it's OK to be together (with both sexes)," Olson said.

"But then, as they get into seventh grade, eighth grade, sometimes some of those girls that are trying to find themselves, they think they're going to be made fun of if they sign up for after-school STEM stuff, and that's where you start losing some of them."

Olson said it's an issue that's the result of both natural psychosocial development and a societal stigma that girls, even at that age, are subjected to—though, it's difficult to say how much of either factor contributes to this.

As such, he noted, it's up to teachers to promote the positives of STEM clubs in the classroom and bank on the relationships they form with their students to overcome that.