OWATONNA — With another batch of mini-grants recently gaining approval from the 761 Foundation, it’s worth examining how 2018-2019 mini-grants have been utilized this year in Owatonna schools, and they’ve impacted all ages of students, from early childhood to high school.

In 2018, the education foundation funded — partially or fully — 37 of 49 mini-grant requests for a total output in excess of $80,000, said Mary Larson, who has been a member of the foundation from the beginning. It’s “exciting to give money away — and very deserved.”

“It’s a major job to sort through all these requests,” but the education foundation consults with Michelle Krell, the district’s director of teaching and learning, for additional perspective, Larson said. Krell can inform the foundation “if there is another way of funding” a request, other than a grant from the foundation, but, of course, “sometimes there is no other way.”

Since the 761 Foundation began awarding grants in 1995-1996, roughly $2 million in grants has flowed from the foundation throughout the district, said Bruce Paulson, chairman of the 761 Foundation. The foundation’s assets have grown from $55,000 at its start in the early 1990s to $3.5 million today.

OMS Science Chromebooks

Among the grants for 2018-2019 was $3,500 for Chromebooks in the science classes of Ray Heinz, who teaches the subject at Owatonna Middle School.

“We are so blessed as teachers in this district to have the opportunity to apply for mini-grant opportunities through the (foundation), and I am so thankful that they were willing to support our goals in science at the middle school,” Heinz said. “It has been an amazing experience having these devices, and I look forward to discovering even more ways we can use them to engage our kids in science.”

Heinz had been working closely with other teachers and technology staff as part of the district’s technology committee when he applied for the grant, he said. The committee had elected to move from Microsoft Office to Google Suite in order to better support student and teacher needs, and Heinz had already been experimenting with one-to-one devices in his Animal Behavior class by checking out computer carts.

“I saw the benefit of one-to-one in science using Microsoft OneNote,” so “when we moved to Google, I was excited about the increased potential for student collaboration with their G Suite services,” and “I wanted to be able to provide opportunities for my students to build technology skills in science daily, without having to hog a computer cart and potentially limit opportunities for technology integration for other teachers,” Heinz said. Consequently, he applied for the grant, and the grant money covered most of the cost of a computer cart for his students.

Both Mike Halverson, the district’s director of Information Technology, and Julie Sullivan, middle school principal, “were incredibly supportive during the application process, and when I was awarded the grant helped gather funds to cover the cost of an entire cart, 32 devices, so we are officially one-to-one in all of my Animal Behavior and Earth Science classes,” he said. That’s “roughly 200 students over the course of the year.”

“I believe that having access to computers daily in science allows my students to build their digital citizenship and 21st century skills, (including) collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity,” he said. “In an age where our students have almost unlimited access to the good, and the bad, that exists on the internet, it is becoming increasingly important that we teach kids how to use technology to safely navigate the internet and professionally collaborate online.”

Heinz drew his tech-based goals for students from the International Society for Technology in Education, which has developed seven standards that promote “future-ready” learning in the classroom, he said. ISTE standards include empowered learning, digital citizenship, knowledge construction, innovative design, computational thinking, creative communication, and global collaboration, and, as an added bonus, many of those align closely with Minnesota State Science Standards involving scientific thinking, collaboration, proper data collection and analysis, and the design and use of models.

“After implementing one-to-one devices in my classroom, the impact has been enormous and immediate,” he said. “With the help of resources like Padlet and Dotstorming, I am able to put together digital discussion boards where students have a safe digital space to practice participating in respectful online conversations,” and “I have seen a drastic increase in student engagement during discussions with these tools, because while we can still have a verbal in-class discussion, there is also a space for every student to share their thoughts and their voice. It is amazing the deep, thoughtful insight that my quieter students are able to add to discussions when they don’t feel put on the spot to share out loud to 32 of their peers.”

“Another great tool we use often is Flipgrid,” which “gives students chances to create video content, edit it, and upload it,” he said. Flipgrid allows students to post to boards accessible only to them and Heinz, which “gives us another safe space for students to practice adding to their online presence,” and it’s “also a great way to give ‘quizzes’ by having students complete fun tasks and respond to questions without it being a formal quiz.”

“Having computers in class has also allowed us to move away from pencil-paper data analysis and plotting,” as “my students are learning how to generate Google forms to collect data, organize data in Google sheets, and then generate professional graphics to display their data,” he said. “This is much more of a real-world science skill than traditional paper-and-pencil graphing,” and “as students move into high school, college, and their careers, being familiar with creating attractive digital graphics will be paramount in many fields.”

While presenting information during a unit on planets, “students also learn to use Adobe Spark, which is another great tool for creation of quality digital content,” he said. “Due to Adobe and Google’s immense libraries of photos labeled with re-usage rights, these activities also give me a chance to discuss usage and protection of digital property rights of others when creating content online.”

“This year, I have also had my students working on individual research projects on a personal passion,” and “as part of that activity, students were asked to reach out to experts in the field they wish to learn more about,” with topics ranging from hockey, to climate change, to black holes, he said. “Having computers allowed me to help students draft professional emails and initiate contact with university professors, professional sports coaches, athletic trainers, NASA scientists, and more.”

As one might expect, students “loved the activity, and they have received some amazing responses,” he said. “If we did not have daily access to devices, it would have been very difficult to ensure all students were able to make these connections.”

In addition to all the science benefits, the Chromebooks have also enhanced student-teacher relationships, because students can receive immediate, individualized feedback on assignments through Google Classroom with comments from Heinz, and having that platform allows them to submit revisions without waiting for Heinz to return graded papers to them personally, he said. Students with computers and internet at home can also work on assignments anytime and anywhere — especially helpful on snow days

During a winter stretch with a handful of off-days due to bad weather, Heinz had “upwards of 100 assignments turned in, resubmitted, or commented on by students,” and he was able to respond and assist them, he said. Furthermore, when students miss days to illness, vacations, family circumstances, etc., they can “complete modules, look at missed notes, or take quizzes they would otherwise have to make up when they got back.”

And while some might wonder about middle school students having such access to technology, “they understand the benefits of having these devices and treat them accordingly,” Heinz said. “We went through a detailed ‘boot camp’ on proper use and care for the Chromebooks at the beginning of the year,” but Heinz “honestly didn’t have much reason to be worried, (as) the students have blown me away with how well they treat the devices. Each device sees up to eight different students in a day, and we have had no issues at all.”

Band Instruments

Holly Guenther, the district’s fifth-grade band director, was awarded $5,540 to purchase three new baritones and two French horns. This was the second-consecutive year she was given a grant for instruments, so the district now has five new baritones, four French horns, and a trumpet.

The elementary and middle-school supply of instruments is in desperate need of replacement, with the majority of the instruments at least 50 years old, Guenther said. Most instruments have lifespans of 20-25 years, and, due to the advanced age of Owatonna’s instrumements, “even trying to do basic maintenance is kind of pointless.”

“Some are very battered and dented,” she said. They’re “not what our students should be playing on.”

Replacing the rest of the instruments could cost as much as $75,000, which is obviously not in the music department’s budget, so donations and grants like those from the 761 Foundation are critical, she said. “This is an issue that’s not going away.”

OHS Robotics

The 761 Foundation “has been vital to the work our students do,” said Val Rose, the adviser for the Rebel Alliance. “They allow us to get the materials they need, and we’re so grateful.”

“I think the foundation realizes these kids are really engaged in STEM, and they learn so much for potential careers,” Rose added. “It’s amazing what these kids do in six weeks.”

“You start with a pile of aluminum and a laptop, and you’re with that robot through thick and thin,” said Nic Pilcher, a sophomore programmer in his third year of robotics. Then, “you put it away” and a take a moment to savor the fact that “we did this.”

Authors, MAAP Stars

Another $3,000 from the education foundation went to help bring authors Miranda and Baptiste Paul to Owatonna’s elementary schools in November. Miranda and Baptiste have written books individually and together, and they work in both fiction and non-fiction. During their elementary visits, students learned about the process of writing, distinguishing facts from fiction, and even how to say “I love you” in Creole.

“This is a really exciting day for us,” Jane Carlson, the district’s media specialist, said in November when Miranda and Baptiste visited Wilson Elementary. As students, “you check out books from the library, but you don’t always have an opportunity to meet the authors of those books.”

The MAAP Stars program at Owatonna’s ALC again was looked upon kindly by the 761 Foundation, with $3,500.

MAAP (Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs) Stars helps students build a number of skills, especially leadership, according to Ray Ostfeld, a math teacher at the ALC and the adviser for MAAP Stars. At MAAP Stars conferences, students participate in various activities, both individual and team, from public speaking to employment interviews, and the competitions concentrate on building leaders and career development.

MAAP Stars “is a great program” the foundation funds regularly, Larson said. “I don’t know how we’ll ever not fund that one.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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