SMS students fly a drone through an obstacle course

ABERDEEN, S.D. – Simmons Middle School Teacher Mariah William believes in keeping her classroom fun. 

“My philosophy when I started was: If I'm bored teaching it, then I can't expect a kid to do it,” William said. “Because I don't want to be bored here. I want to enjoy what I'm doing.” 

Fun is a big part of William’s classes at Simmons. As Project Lead the Way Computer Science teacher, William provides students with innovative learning through fun, hands-on activities—from flying drones through obstacle courses to coding their way through video games.  

“I just love how there's so many different ways that I can take the content that I have to teach and I can really connect it to the kids,” she said. 

Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is an organization whose main focus is getting kids opportunities to experience STEM fields. Simmons has two PLTW teachers: William and STEM Elective Teacher Brittany Conklin. At Holgate, PLTW courses are taught by Technology Teacher Rhonda Neubert. Though not all their classes use PLTW curriculum, all have a similar STEM career-related focus. 

“STEM careers are high in demand (engineering, medical, technology, etc.),” Conklin said, “and I want my students to be able to experience some of those aspects of these careers in my classroom.”

 At Simmons, Conklin teaches Design and Modeling to sixth graders. Students design and build projects out of random materials and use 3D printers to design and create various objects. 

For seventh graders, Conklin teaches Medical Detectives. These students do different medical activities, including learning to take vital signs, growing bacteria, learning CPR, and dissecting sheep brains. 

Conklin also teaches Automation and Robotics to eighth graders. In this course, students build and eventually code different automated structures like windmills, cars and other simulations. 

“I find many students love the sixth-grade class because it gives them a lot of creative control,” Conklin said. “The eighth graders are able to choose which electives they want to take, and my Robotics class has been at or just under capacity each semester.” 

Connecting Games with Learning 

Also at Simmons, William teaches sixth-grade Computer Science for Innovators and Makers. Here, students learn the foundations of how a computer works, and they learn about algorithms and flowcharts. Students write an algorithm for games like UNO and make a flow chart for someone who hasn’t played it before.

 “I love playing board games,” William said, “so I really like connecting that with their learning because they don't realize that they're learning while they do it.” 

She also teaches seventh-grade App Creators, where students create their own apps. William brings in old Game Boys, and students create their own games for them. They learn the types of skills needed to be a developer and discuss how apps are used by all sorts of businesses. 

In William’s eighth-grade Computer and Flight Science class, students learn to fly drones. They learn flight directions—yaw, roll pitch—and fly their drones through obstacle courses. For their final controller project, students had to plan an obstacle course and connect it to a drone piloting career. One group connected it to firefighters, creating a course that simulated searching a building. 

“They cut broken windows out of cardboard and hung them from the ceiling, and you had to try to fly through broken windows,” William said. 

Eighth graders also learn Python coding, which is more difficult than block-based web coding, through a computer program called Ozaria. Ozaria takes students through a mythical world, teaching them how to code as they proceed through the game. Students love it. 

“It’s like a video game for them, but they're learning at the same time,” William said. 

Fun to Watch Students be Creative 

At Holgate, Neubert’s sixth-grade course involves students learning to program micro bits with block coding to program LED lights, LED boards, motors and other sensors. 

“Once they have learned them all, they then build projects using them,” Neubert said. “It is a lot of fun to watch them work and be creative.” 

In her seventh-grade class, students learn how to make apps to use on Android devices using block coding they started learning in sixth grade. 

Her eighth-grade students also use Ozaria to learn Python coding, along with a program called Code Combat. Students then move on to the drone unit, where they put their Python knowledge to use and code their drones. 

“We have several different challenges to do with their drones, and they absolutely love doing it,” Neubert said. 

All three grades also recently got Ozobots. Students are able to code them with markers, block coding and Python. They’re also able to create things on the 3D printers to do projects with. 

“Most students really like the hands-on activities,” Neubert said, “and it keeps them very engaged.” 

Students Learn Additional Skills 

William said the courses also help students learn problem-solving, critical thinking, adaptability and how to work in groups. They even learn skills from other school subjects without realizing it. For example, coding involves typing sentences, and if a word is misspelled, the code won’t work. 

Some students also gain confidence. William said there is a wide range of skill levels among students, and she will often encourage them to help each other. 

“I had kids who are the quietest kids in the class,” she said, “and they were up, walking around helping other people.” 

About the Aberdeen Public School District 

The Aberdeen Public School District provides a comprehensive educational program to approximately 4,200 students in grades K-12, with a mission of empowering all students to succeed in a changing world. Our students receive the knowledge and skills necessary to reach their potential in a global community through high expectations of academic achievement; diverse educational opportunities; and community involvement in a safe, supportive environment. Learn more at