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Farmers Market welcomes warm weather on opening day

Owatonna’s Central Park came to life Saturday morning as the downtown farmers market celebrated the start of the season.

Vendors selling homegrown and hand made goods lined the outer banks of the park from 7 a.m. until noon as excited patrons enjoyed the sunshine and company. The park remained busy throughout the market's hours, which the organizer said was thanks to the wonderful weather.

“We have had some very cold first days,” said John Meixner, owner of Little Professors Bookshop across the street from the park and farmers market organizer on behalf of the Owatonna Business Partnership. In 2020, the farmers market opened a month later than usual in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and in order to allow vendors time to make appropriate adjustments to their booths.

Booths were still distanced more than they have been in previous years, but warm weather and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines provided people with the confidence to be among one another again. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, roughly 59% of eligible Minnesotans have received at least their first dose of the vaccine. Data reported on Saturday shows 11,841 Steele County residents are fully vaccinated.

Looking beyond the pandemic, downtown construction known as the "streetscape project," scheduled to begin in June on North Cedar Avenue, could potentially be the next obstacle for the farmers market. Meixner said at this time he is not concerned about it impacting the market, but that they will make whatever adjustments necessary if the construction impacts vendors or visitors.

The Owatonna Farmers Market is free for vendors to sign up so long as they are residents of Steele County. Meixner said this was an arrangement made by the city in an effort to open the opportunity up to everybody and not just commercial businesses.

“Sometimes we will have kids who have been making crafts or baking who get involved until they’re done with school,” Meixner said. “Once people start coming here they usually end up coming for as long as they are able to.”

The farmers market is every Saturday morning from 7 a.m. to noon in Central Park. The season usually runs through the end of October depending on the weather.

From the Heart returns with hybrid platform

It was the perfect day for a run – especially one that comes from the heart.

The annual From the Heart Run/Walk returned to Lake Kohlmier on Saturday after taking a year off in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That marked the first year the event had been canceled. In previous years, racers had participated in a variety of weather ranging from rain to blizzards and everything in between.

This year, however, the day was made for a run with blue skies and a breeze to keep runners cool throughout the trail. While the crowd size was significantly reduced from its typical hundreds of participants, additional people registered to take part in the event’s first-time virtual option.

“We had talked originally about maybe not being able to have the race again this year, but there were so many emails and phone calls from the community of people asking us to have it so they could look forward to something,” said Beth Svenby, founder and committee member for the event, in March following the announcement of the return of the race. “With the vaccines rolling out we felt a lot more comfortable moving forward, and with this combination of in-person and virtual people can do whatever they are most comfortable with.”

Banners along the race route were set up throughout the morning to allow the opportunity for people to run the route without the crowd.

The From the Heart event provides financial and emotional support to families battling cancer. This year, Svenby said the committee elected to have proceeds from the race go toward the Oncology Department at the Mayo Clinic Healthy System in Owatonna.

Despite the canceled event in 2020, financial gifts were still made to the 2020 recipient families.

In previous years, From the Heart has provided more than $600,000 of financial support for the families of Lisa Hilstad, Steve Nelson, Tyler Harlicker, Nacia Olson, Gabriella Velasquez, Kyle DeKam, Samantha Nachanicky, Christine Deming-Davis, Susan Hrty, Candy Anderson, Juana Villarreal, Bill Reuter, John Berning, Jean Borgman, Rodney Earlywine, Pete Kalan, Paul Grannes, Tracy Williams, Julie Bauer, Don Hettinga, Royetta Spurgeon, Marcy Fenske, Terri Grose, Nick Larson, Matt Ratzloff, Brian Wencl, Tanya Powell, Heidi Smith, Joe Wagoner, Jim Gleason, Dawn Armstrong, Chris Utoft, Monica Kruschke, Cheryl Bastyr, Mark Woodrich, Jon Osmundson, and Nova Maas.

Medford students write messages to robots
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Technology is evolving and it is becoming clear that developing computer, coding and programming skills will be a crucial asset to the next generation of workers.

Throughout the pandemic, people have come face-to-face with technology, being forced to quickly learn new platforms, software and all things online. Many folks have spent the last year connecting online and working from home, while nearly every student has spent some time logging into class from afar.

Medford Elementary changed the emphasis of its typical afterschool robotics program into a coding program and Principal Josh Carlson said it has been a huge success.

“We took a little twist here from what we've done in the past with a robotics focus and purchased an online curriculum focusing on the coding and students developing certain skills on how to build software, what the process looks like going into building video games, and they're just really doing some pretty cool hands-on activities,” Carlson said.

Students learn about computer software, and website, app and video game development. Beyond the curriculum, students are also practicing team-building skills, math skills and high-level thinking skills. When problems arise students are encouraged to think differently to solve the issue. Students are also learning from their failures and implementing a growth mindset, according to coach Amy Hanzlicek.

“They're just so used to succeeding at the first time, so it's good to see them fail and figure out why they're failing, and that's how they learn from it and learn how to make the codes work and the missions run smoothly,” Hanzlicek said.

Students code in an afterschool program at Medford Elementary. Due to the school not having a robotics tournament or needing to buy supplies last fall, the school was able to budget to buy a coding program for students this spring, according to coach Amy Hanzlicek. (Photo courtesy of Amy Hanzlicek)

There are about 50 third- through fifth-grade students split between two classrooms in the program. Having originally anticipated only 25 or so students, Hanzlicek and the other coaches were pleasantly surprised to see twice as many applications, leading them to open the program to more participants. The robotics program has seen a lot of growth over the years, said Hanzlicek, who has been involved in the program for three years. Attendance to the six-week program has been outstanding, with very few ever missing a class.

“(The students) are so excited, and they asked, ‘Are we doing this next year?’ They're looking forward to doing it next year so we'll have to reevaluate and see what we can offer next year too,” Hanzlicek said.

Even when it’s time to go home after the program, some students are still on their Chromebooks determinedly working away at their coding missions.

Some passionate students, who pick up skills quickly, go on to help other students who may be struggling. Fifth grade student Anthony Wilson has really been “rocking the coding,” according to Hanzlicek. In fact, Wilson often helps out younger students during the program when they get stuck.

Wilson's experience in robotics began in a couple years ago. As a self described “tech-type person,” Wilson has really taken the lead when it comes to this year’s new coding curriculum.

“Anything with robots I absolutely love,” Wilson said. “When I’m older I wish to be an engineer.”

Students are learning important and challenging coding skills. Coach Amy Hanzlicek says that sometimes even she and other coaches get stuck on a challenge. She adds that she has even learned some things about coding from her students. (Photo courtesy of Amy Hanzlicek)

Wilson explains that he and his classmates use a program called CoderZ. The program contains various levels using a EV3 robot, a robot which is typically used for their level in the robotics program, which is called Lego League. According to Wilson, students were unable to join Lego League this year because of the pandemic, thus the coaches decided to make a coding program for the students. Using the CoderZ program, students are tasked with writing missions for the EV3 robot to complete.

“There's a whole bunch of coding blocks and you place them together and then when you run the mission, the robot does that,” Wilson said. “There’s also a Heads Up Display, in the manual control. When you use manual control and look at the Heads Up Display, you can tell what degree you have to turn to in order to get to a certain spot and what to put your gyro at and also what you put your left motor at or your right motor motor at.”

Wilson helps other students who are struggling or don’t understand what to do next. He guides them through what certain blocks can do, for example the repeat block, which allows users to repeat their action more efficiently.

Each of the program’s 15 lessons teach students new skills in coding, for instance how to make a robot complete a right turn, make point turns or move forward. Students have also determined the degrees at which a robot needs to move in order to drive or move in a square. Other lessons have students working with sensors.

Students are practicing skills that will definitely come in handy as the developing workforce integrates advancing technology. Coaches too are learning along with the students from the program as well as the students themselves. Hanzlicek states she has even been challenged by some of the coding missions.

As the state starts to recover from the pandemic, and things return to “normal,” educators have stated that technology will continue to be an important part of the school experience. Teachers are taking on computer science more and more and the trend is likely to continue.

This year’s coding afterschool program has seen a significant increase in participation, almost twice that of previous years. (Photo courtesy of Amy Hanzlicek)