STEM is hands-on program at Westwood Middle School

You’ve heard of “Star Wars” and “War of the Roses.” But Potato Wars? Make that Potato Battery Wars.

That’s what transpired recently among a class of budding scientists and engineers at Westwood Middle School.

Forrest Bugh, left to right, Drew Sutherland and Joey Holladay make a potato battery as part of an assignment in Westwood Middle School’s STEM program. Photo by Elyse Kaner
Forrest Bugh, left to right, Drew Sutherland and Joey Holladay make a potato battery as part of an assignment in Westwood Middle School’s STEM program. Photo by Elyse Kaner

Westwood is in the first-year of piloting a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program offered to its sixth- through eighth-grade students.

And if enthusiasm, curiosity and spirited competition are any indication of a program’s success, then Westwood might just be on its way to supplying the next generation of U.S. workers for jobs much in demand in the STEM professions.

“STEM is important in that it brings together multiple disciplines in a hands-on, problem solving sort of manner,” said Principal Paula Hoff. “Students are applying concepts learned in math and science to real problems. We believe it is important to help students see how their learning is applied and relevant.”

A volt of electricity

Teacher Mike Schlangen’s eighth-grade STEM students, in a recent study of direct current (DC), were assigned to build a crude battery. Their tools? A potato, jumper wires, alligator clips, a multimeter used to measure voltage and such metal variables as a copper pipe, a penny and a nail.

Not only did the assignment call for figuring out the correct combination of variables for a working battery, the goal was to create a current powerful enough to generate one volt of electricity.

Students, through trial and error, found that the pairing of copper and zinc, a penny and a nail poked into the potato, for instance, made the best conductors. They learned potato juices serve as an electrolyte and for a circuit to work, it must be circular.

One team’s battery generated .93 volts. Not to be outdone, a nearby team topped the first team at .98 volts. The war was on. But just as the students’ multimeters registered one volt, Schlangen fueled the competition. Add another potato and generate two volts, he challenged.

When two potatoes failed to edge up the meter readings, some of the ingenious students in one team cut a potato in half. By connecting one whole potato and two halves to power the battery, voilà! Two volts registered on the multimeter. Then it was 2.04 volts for another team. Spud Wars resumed.

“I think it’s really fun,” said Evan Jabas, while prodding a potato and inserting the metal variables. “We’re always doing new things. It’s just exciting.”

Said his teammate Tyler Biggerstaff, “It’s all hands on. You figure it out yourself.”

Next, Schlangen asks students to light up a small 1.5 volt lab lightbulb with their newly made batteries. But their potato batteries failed to power the lights. In a somewhat cunning manner, Schlangen set up his students to fail.

The idea was to challenge students to an even higher level of thinking. They needed additional amperage to light the bulbs. Which led to the next lesson for another day – the study of amperage and different sizes and ratings of batteries.


Almost all jobs now require some STEM skills, said Denise Waalen, District 16’s director of education.

Westwood’s rigorous classes are geared to the district’s college readiness initiative.

“Our program at the middle school has been very successful,” Waalen said. “Our goal is to develop critical thinking skills through hands-on, project-based learning. This course integrates some of the Essential Learning Outcomes linked to the engineering standards and enhances the content taught in our traditional core math and science classes.” 

More than 800 sixth- and seventh-graders are enrolled in or have taken the one-trimester required STEM courses, according to Joel Young, Westwood’s assistant principal. In eighth-grade, a year-long course, the class is optional. This year about 28 students signed up.

“It’s been really well-received by the kids,” Young said about the program.

Among other STEM assignments in the eighth-grade, students were asked to design a coat rack out of Popsicle sticks that could hang over a door. Students also created a simple electroscope, a device used to measure static electricity.

The goals

Being this is the first year of the program, students in grades sixth, seventh and eighth, go through the same lessons for the first trimester. The teachers have been coordinating lessons so they don’t overlap, according to Daniel Kretchmar, head of the STEM program.

Among sixth-grade outcomes for the program, students learn: engineering is neither positive or negative; STEM principals are used every day in such activities as cooking, manufacturing, farming, engineering, medicine and more; engineers know there are multiple ways to solve problems; and those with a desire to create can do most anything that can be done.

This summer, a separate curriculum will be written for the seventh-grade, followed by an eighth-grade curriculum next summer.

“One of the main goals of this program is to teach the children how to use the skills they already have in the real world,” Kretchmar said. “I think we are reaching our goals.”

Another goal is to give students a taste of jobs that use technology.

On the first day of Kretchmar’s sixth-grade STEM class, students made paper airplanes. They flew them five times in the school’s gymnasium. Next, they modified the planes and tested them with modifications.

“The kids measured the flights of each plane, found the averages of the distances and then made bar graphs comparing each plane with their modified versions,” Kretchmar said.

Contrary to what the students at first believed, they learned that graphs aren’t just for math class.

Further, the students turned their newly acquired knowledge into a sales brochure to sell their best plane design.

In another assignment, students created their own video games.

“I think, more than anything, this class is about connecting what is in their heads to what their hands can do,” Kretchmar said.

A fun challenge

Kretchmar is surprised at how students have enthusiastically embraced the program.

“The projects aren’t easy, but since so much of the class is hands-on, the kids want to do the work,” he said. “They seem to think that anything that doesn’t require a term paper is not school work. It’s fun. Kids have told me about projects taking as much as 181 tries to make it work. Can you imagine a kid working on a science project and not giving up after 10 tries? And yet, they have taken harder and harder challenges in this class and still say that it was fun.”

Students in STEM classes are given an opportunity to practice future job skills. They discover they can do things they never thought possible, said Sabrina McBride, who taught seventh-grade STEM classes earlier this school year.

McBride was surprised at how engaged her students were.

Among seventh-grade projects, her students also programed a simple computer game and tested airplane designs. They built towers from cogs to test strength and stability.

“I had students that were so excited to continue working on their projects when they walked in the room each day,” she said. “I also had students that were so proud of the projects that they accomplished while in STEM.”

Eighth-grader Damion Downey enjoys his STEM classes. “I want to be an engineer when I grow up, so the class is interesting to me,” he said.

And what about the brainiac wars Schlangen’s STEM assignments have spurred among his students?

“If I ask them who can do the best, they’re at each others’ throats,” Schlangen says with a laugh.

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]