Dec. 2, 2017 — Students at Siuslaw Middle School are involved in an after-school club that has the potential to change the world.
Siuslaw School District teacher Ed Mielke, who teaches language arts, computer science and communication arts, is the leader of the Nerd Squad, a group that is participating in an international science-based competition called the First Lego League.
The yearly event is sponsored by the toy manufacturer Lego. The purpose of the challenge is to instill in the student participants an appreciation of the important role science and nature play in their lives.
Siuslaw Middle School Principal Andy Marohl believes the opportunities for after-school activities should include areas that might not have been considered in the past.
“The Nerd Squad is offered as an after-school option for students to provide fun, engaging and safe activities for students. Not all students are into athletics, and Nerd Squad offers unique opportunities for those students,” Marohl said. “The kids who attend the program learn and practice valuable skills in the STEAM arena. Students are creating and editing videos and are learning basic programming skills for web and app development.”
STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math.
The Nerd Squad is the brainchild of Mielke. His interest in starting a tech-based after-school club began when he realized the after school choices available to students were lacking in some areas.
“Five years ago, when I was first hired here, it seemed to me the district had all types of athletics and art, and we were reigniting the theater program, so we needed some sort of tech club for students who were interested in that sort of thing,” Mielke said. “My son was an eighth-grade student and he is sort of tech minded.”
This realization led Mielke to propose and eventually begin the program that came to be known as the Nerd Squad.
Mielke volunteers his time to insure the club continues to offer interesting after school alternatives for students.
The club is currently preparing the team’s entry for a competition to be held at Oregon State University on Dec. 9. The subject of this year’s competition is Hydro Dynamics —exploring the location, use, storage and movement of water.
The reason for this specific challenge, according to the materials provided by Lego, is the increasing need for clean, accessible water around the world.
Students from 80 countries are participating in the First Lego League challenge.
Siuslaw’s squad has been working diligently on the district’s entry since school began in September.
The students have set up their entry in the science section on the second floor of the middle school. A large project board is placed amid an array of computers, a variety of photographic equipment and a large assortment of Lego building pieces. The Lego parts are mixed in with various mechanical parts and all manner of plastic and metal connectors.
The team is made up of boys and girls, most from the middle school but two of the team leaders, Levi Spencer and Tyler Johnson, are now attending Siuslaw High School.
Both have competed in previous First Lego League competitions, and this will be the last time they will have an opportunity to contribute to the squad’s entry.
“Right now, we are getting ready for the robotics competition in Corvallis,” Johnson said. “We were considering the problems in the world and clean water is a big problem. Most of the world is made up of salt water so desalination might be able to help a lot of people.”
He said he believes their team could help with a solution.
Club members want to encourage other students to join the Nerd Squad. The growth of the club and the addition of new avenues of exploration for members is part of the appeal.
“Over the years, the club has grown bigger. We’ve expanded out from just film and photos to robotics, coding and working with mobile apps,” Spencer said. “It’s really fun.”
The Nerd Squad has been supported in the past by funding for the district’s Twilight After School Program.
According to Marohl, that has changed.
“The Nerd Squad is no longer a part of Twilight. This decision had to be made due to the elimination of funding of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grant,” he said. “Mr. Mielke is so passionate about what he does that he couldn’t bear to not provide these activities for our students.”
According to Mielke, funding for the trip to OSU came in part from a generous donation made by the Florence chapter of the Delta Gammas, who donated $500 to the Nerd Squad for club activities.
Additional funding for the group comes from an ODE grant that supports STEAM-related activities.
The scope of activities the squad is learning about and enjoying is increasing and changing as time goes on.
“The Nerd Squad has gone through a variety of activities and interests over the years,” Mielke said. “This includes the making of a movie, ‘Robotapocalypse,’ in 2015, which was written, directed, acted and edited entirely by the Nerd Squad.”
He said that students envisioned an apocalyptic scenario at Siuslaw Middle School, where rogue robots attacked until student heroes defeated them with science.
“Another common staple throughout the years is the filming of our morning announcements, where students present a newscast announcing that day’s events,” Mielke said.
Marohl has fairly high expectations for the school district’s teams, and thinks the experience gained by the students is valuable.
“My expectations for the Lego Robotics tournament is to provide a fun and competitive experience for our students,” he said.
Siuslaw is sending three teams to the Lego tournament this year. Each team will compete three times at the Challenge table.
“The teams’ Core Values presentation will demonstrate how they are a team; how they work to find solutions with guidance from adults; that they learn together; they honor the spirit of friendly competition; how it’s more import to discover and learn than it is to win and that the shared experience is quite valuable,” Marohl said.