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Getting Maine kids excited about learning, building future workforce

At the St. George school, they have a solution: CTE for all.

MAINE, USA — A Maine Pre-K-8 school with about 300 students has committed to using hands-on learning in all grades to better engage the students and inspire them to think about their options for the future.

“We saw when kids are able to use their hands and minds, and build and create, they reengage with learning and lit up and are transformed,” Mike Felton, superintendent for the single town school district, said. 

 Felton added, “And I think a different part of the brain lights up when they use their hands and minds together.”

Proof of that was in Ruth Thompson’s first-grade classroom, where general contractor Chris Leavitt was showing the kids how to use hand tools. The students strapped on kid-size tool belts with hammers, screwdrivers, safety glasses, and work gloves — all bought with donations from a local resident. The students then pounded nails and drove screws, and the next day built wooden toolboxes.

“I think anything that’s hands-on is more interesting to the kids, and [when] we teach writing and reading that way, it's more interesting,” teacher Ruth Thompson said. She added they are also studying a book about tools and building things.

“Hands-on, minds-on” is the term the St., George school uses to describe their approach, which has found its way into every grade.

Fourth-grade teacher Jaime MacCaffray explained the approach doesn’t leave out traditional learning. 

“The reading and writing and math are the foundation. You can’t do other stuff without it," MacCaffray said. 

She cited an example of students reading Maine author Chris Van Dusen’s book “If I Built A School." The teacher then had the students come up with their own ideas.

“They all got to create their own classrooms for a new school. And they had to design it first using what we learned in math class,” she said.

Then the students used the school's “maker space” technology to bring their designs to life using a laser cutter to make the pieces out of cardboard so they could assemble models of the rooms they had imagined.

“Having students believe they can make things helps them believe they are capable of doing other things,” school technology director Paul Menersnan said.

The school and the community believe so much in the value of the hands-on learning approach that they are preparing to build a new building, next to the school. It'll have shops and larger maker spaces to expand the use of both traditional and high-tech tools for learning. 

The building will be close to the current school so students can easily walk from classrooms to the work and creative spaces. The project is designed to tie into the Midcoast School of Technology, the regional high school level Career/Technical Education center in nearby Rockland.

School Board member Kristin Falla said they have raised more than $1.5 million for the project through donations from residents and businesses, as well as a state grant. That was the original goal, but rising construction costs have now made the building more expensive, so they are raising more.

One added benefit, they hope, will be to spark interest among students in pursuing careers in the building trades, which are chronically short of workers, or with technology fields, and get them thinking about those options early.

“And whether they go into the trades or technical fields or not, the skills they are learning are essential skills whether it be computer programming or carpentry,” Felton said.

Felton added, “We really believe this is the future of public education, that to fully engage our kids and strengthen our local economy we need to make this happen. And, for us, it's [also] about rural economic development as much as it's about education."

They hope to complete fundraising and start construction on the new building in 2022. 

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