Craig Middle School engineering teacher talks students’ science skills, innovation

Craig Middle School's Hazards team competes in the FIRST LEGO League City Shaper Challenge.
Courtesy Photo

Craig Middle School teacher Cristina Vanzo sees a bright future for students learning in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum.

Vanzo and her pupils were on hand Dec. 6 to accept the Success in Engineering Award as part of 2019 Student Achievement Awards during the 79th Annual Colorado Association of School Boards Convention in Colorado Springs, with students later competing in the LEGO Robotics contest in Denver.

Vanzo — who guides students along with fellow coaches Isadora Hitz, Lexi Caudell, and Shawn Hovorka — recently detailed how long she’s been with the program and how she feels it benefits young learners.

Craig Press: How long have you been with CMS and specifically the engineering program? Is it a regular part of the school day, an extracurricular or both? 

Vanzo: I have been in the district since 2012, but taught two years at East as a 5th grade teacher. I have been at CMS for 4 years. I started as a sixth-grade math and science teacher and have been teaching engineering for two years now. Engineering is an elective class that all grade levels have the option of taking during the regular school day.

Which tenets of STEM do you emphasize for middle school ages as opposed to other age groups? For those in their early teens, what are they most interested in learning? 

In my class, we really focus on the Engineering Design Process, which involves students defining problems in order to develop solutions, obtain feedback, and iterate. We do this by looking at global issues like waste, water quality, and biodiversity loss, to name a few. Students also use their iPads to reach out to local experts in the community, create videos to demonstrate their solutions, and draw digital prototypes. I also like to give students design challenges where they compete with their peers to develop the best prototype. All students are different and enjoy different aspects of engineering class. Some students really enjoy lessons that involve building and designing while others love the coding and robotics assignments.

When did you first learn you and your students would be receiving recognition from CASB? How would you say the award boosts your program and your kids’ confidence?

I received an email from the CASB director at the beginning of November. The students were really excited to go to Colorado Springs to accept the award. I think receiving the award allowed students to reflect on all of the great work they have done over the last few years. It was so difficult to narrow down which students would come with me because all of the students have done great things in class. 

Some examples include:
• building arcade booths with joysticks for a video game they coded
• building a robotic elephant
• presenting ideas and solutions to city council and the school board 
• creating stop-motion animation videos

The girls who advocated to get rid of styrofoam lunch trays at the middle school (and were successful) were especially proud of their work and felt very honored to accept the CASB award on stage.

I think the key is giving students choice and providing them opportunities to be creative. This allows all students to be successful which is really awesome for students who may not see the same success in core academics.

For the LEGO competition, the girls team placed third out of more than 70 teams. How do you feel that group came together and worked as a unit that made them successful?

The coaches and I are extremely proud of The Hazards. The girls are very self-driven and independent. They spent countless hours before/after school and during their lunch working on their project, coding missions, and preparing for competition. By the end of the season, they were like best friends. When we gave them feedback and advice, they put it into action and consistently improved their work and ideas. They received third place in Project Innovation. For their project, they had to identify a problem with a building or public space in their community and develop a solution. They decided to focus on energy inefficiency in residential homes. Their solution was to use waste like water bottles, sawdust, ceramics, and rubber to insulate homes. They visited the landfill and interviewed many experts in order to learn about their problem. They even built a doghouse, insulated it with water bottles stuffed with materials and tested it in both cold and warm atmospheres using temperature probes that send data to their iPads. These girls worked hard all season and it paid off!

Do you feel elements like the LEGO robotics make the subject more fun? Do you feel students went above and beyond?

Students love building and modifying their robots and learning to code them to complete various tasks both in the classroom and during the after school club. Many students choose to participate in Sumobots, in which their robot autonomously aims to push the opponent’s robot out of the ring. Some students complete missions on the robotics table and others design mazes for their robots to move through. Students always amaze me with their robot design. One of our teams received first place in Robot Design. Their robot had a rotating arm, which could be programmed to move along the X, Y, and Z axis.

What kind of things do you hope to see from engineering students from here?

I hope to continue to modify the curriculum to meet student needs and interests. I would like to see students continue innovative thinking and create “out of the box” ideas. I think it is really valuable when they get involved in the community to solve local issues. I hope to see students partnering with community members to generate solutions.

Anything else you’d like to mention about your program, pupils, etc.?

Education is shifting and providing students with opportunities to think creatively and problem-solve through the use of technology is more important now than it ever has been. STEM jobs are growing at a rapid rate and my goal is to inspire students to pursue these types of careers.

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