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Worthington resident, dentist accused of inappropriately touching inmates at South Dakota jail

New STEM program branches out at Prairie

Reagan Phelps (from left), Cassandra Schulz and Maddy Veen try to build a tower with marshmallows and noodles at the 4-H STEM Club Monday afternoon. (Martina Baca/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — The 4-H STEM Club gathered Monday afternoon in the Prairie Elementary cafeteria to try and build a tower with unconventional materials while working on their math skills.

Jessica Velasco, the 4-H Club STEM coordinator, started working last summer with third-graders who were interested in the sciences. After seeing a great turnout with the pilot program and receiving additional funding, she was asked to come back and run a 16-week afterschool program with a focus on STEM activities. The free program is open to any third-grader in the area.

“My main goal is to provide the kids a safe space for them to create and imagine and discuss,” Velasco said.

The program is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota Extension Office and Nobles County 4-H. It’s intended to not only introduce students to 4-H, but also give them an opportunity to explore fields that they perhaps haven’t experienced yet.

“What we found out is that young people learn by doing, so the more we can do to give them opportunities to have hands-on experiences, the more engaged they become in their learning and the more interested they become in other topics,” University of Minnesota Extension Educator Mike Compton said.

Velasco works together with Compton to find engaging activities for kids and new ways to introduce school subjects to them. On Monday, students were having fun trying to make a tower out of straws, marshmallows, noodles and clips.

“I learned that it’s very hard to make buildings with straws and marshmallows,” said Cassandra Schulz, one of the third-graders who have been attending the program.

Velasco explained that in order for them to receive more material, they had to solve math problems.

“If they answer right they get the materials, and if they don't I leave a question mark so I know in what they have to work on,” Velasco said. “So it's just about helping them improve.”

Schulz, 8, a Prairie Elementary student, said she has always enjoyed her math and science classes, so she thought the program would be a fun activity for her. The program hasn’t disappointed her so far, and she said she enjoys coming every Monday and spending time with her friends.

“I like it because a lot of my friends come to the program,” Schulz said. “We do a lot of fun stuff with science, and I enjoy them because I want to be a chemist or a medical person.”

Even though Velasco started the program just two weeks ago, she and Compton have already talked about new ideas for it. Velasco said she would like to organize field trips to local businesses so kids can see what opportunities are out there for them.

“It comes back to bringing the youth back into the community,” Velasco said. “If you come and let them do a field trip, you help them know that there are opportunities for them ... even at this age, just putting it in their minds.”

Velasco said the program is a great way for kids with limited resources to experience opportunities they wouldn't be exposed to otherwise — whether that’s because of economic reasons or language barriers.

“If they have never seen or experienced the possibility of becoming a scientist or building something, whether it’s just a small tower ... they would never think like ‘OK, this is something I can actually do,”’ Velasco said. “You can only dream what you have seen.”

Compton said he invites parents to come to the program so they can see firsthand what opportunity this presents for their children.

“We just want to encourage parents to come and experience it with their kids,” Compton said. “Once the parents see the opportunities that Jessica is providing, they will get excited and want their kids to learn.”

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