Virtual STEM classes keep kids engaged during pandemic

Forestview Middle School students learned to program robots during virtual classes with multimedia specialist Jim Reed.

Jim Reed, multimedia specialist at Forestview Middle School in Baxter, explains the Edison program he used to teach students about programming robots during virtual classes offered through Community Education. Screenshot

In a time when extracurricular activities are few and far between because of the COVID-19 pandemic, one Baxter teacher is doing his part to keep students engaged.

“They’re looking for something to do,” Forestview Middle School multimedia specialist Jim Reed said of his students during this unusual time.

In normal years, Reed runs after-school STEM classes every sports season — fall, winter and spring — to appeal to students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. While he couldn’t stick to that typical schedule this year, he decided to improvise with virtual programming classes.

“We all know these kids are on their Chromebooks. They’re on their Chromebooks all the time, and a lot of kids just look for something to do with their Chromebook. They’re on social media sites or gaming sites or YouTube,” Reed said. “So after speaking with (middle school activities director) Derek (Hendrickson), we decided, you know, let’s just try offering an evening STEM class for kids.”

During the first virtual STEM class, offered through Community Education, students in grades 5-8 learned how to program robots.


Included in the cost of the class was a programmable robot from the Australian company Edison that kids got to work with and keep when the class was over. Meeting for an hour and 15 minutes each night for three weeks, students learned three different ways to program their robots. Once they mastered the first beginner method called EdBlocks, they moved onto a more in-depth intermediate version and then finished out the class with EdPy, Edison’s version of Python programming.

“They would program their bots, and they could ask questions, and we could troubleshoot as a class,” Reed said.

For eighth grader Bridget Wells, troubleshooting issues with her peers was the best part of the class, along with gradually working her way up to more complex programming.

Fifth grader Mullen Bratney enjoyed putting two of his hobbies together — programming and robots.
“What’s a better way to do that than programming a robot?” he said during a Google Meets interview Friday, Dec. 18.

Forestview Middle School students Mullen Bratney and Bridget Wells talk about what they learned from a robot programming class taught virtually by multimedia specialist Jim Reed. Screenshot

Each of the two sections of the virtual programming class Reed taught had about 10 students and 100% attendance each night.

“They were excited to come,” Reed said. “… Everybody knows the longer you can keep kids engaged, or the more you can keep kids engaged, the better it is. And for adults too — the longer you can keep an adult engaged in something, the more they’re apt to learn. It’s also about giving these kids something constructive to do with their time in the evenings because they’re all on devices anyway. I’ve always said, if you really, really like your device and you like it that much, then you should just learn how it actually works and learn how to program it.”


Students also took a night off from their robots during the three-week course to learn about another area of programming from NASA engineer Bill Brown. Reed said Brown is a good friend and is working to build a rocket that will eventually take astronauts to Mars. He spent one class period telling students about the rocket and about NASA’s timeline for going back to the moon and how the administration plans to build a station to allow Mars travel in 2030.

“They loved it. They got to meet a real NASA scientist,” Reed said. “... The more stuff you see, the more experiences you have, the more apt you might be to follow a career like this. I mean, I don’t think kids really knew that there were people that actually programmed that rocket to go to Mars, or make that connection that there’s people sitting there writing programs and running wires. They need to see more of that, especially our kids living in a rural community like this.”

Wells and Bratney have certainly begun thinking more about the future and what they might be able to do in the science and technology fields, especially in light of COVID-19.

“After the pandemic’s done, there’s going to be something going on again, and you’re going to have to be ready for it.”

Wells agreed and added: “Right now with all the vaccine stuff coming out, all the technology stuff, it kind of makes you start to think about what you could do eventually with helping the virus or a vaccine or something.”

Reed plans to continue on with his virtual STEM classes in January, with a Scratch programming class for fifth graders, who will learn to create simple games.

“I think it’s a great way to reach kids,” he said of virtual classes. “It’s a great way to reach kids that are homeschool, and it’s a great way to reach kids that are in other districts that don’t offer STEM classes.”

After all, with all the virtual learning in 2020, the world of learning is likely altered forever.


“This environment’s never going to go away now,” Reed said. “It’s here forever, so it was a good experience for (students) to see that and participate in that environment because that’s going to be their world.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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