Middle Schoolers teach Minnesota – and the country

The following column is appearing in a number of APG of East Central Mn newspapers during late May, 2024, including the  Forest Lake Times, SunThisWeekStillwater Gazette. Monticello Times and Princeton Union/Times.


Middle schoolers teach Minnesota – and the country


Twelve-year-old Stillwater Middle School students David Markowiz and Alex Temali-Smith summed up their national award-winning science project beautifully: “It feels great that we are helping spread the word about this problem. … It also feels great to be helping to create the solution.”

These wise students also summarized an approach to learning that has huge research support: combining classroom work with some form of community service. Due to some dedicated people, this now has significant financial and policy support.

These sixth graders and their creative science teacher, Corrie Christenson, recently won $60,000 in applied technology for their school as part of a national Solve for Tomorrow contest sponsored by Samsung Electronics America. Their project involved identifying light pollution, which is disturbing bird migration, and developing ways that Stillwater can reduce this problem. Here’s a three-minute video on the project.

Stillwater Science class that won nat’l award

From students’ video

Ted Kozlowski, Stillwater’s mayor explained: “I didn’t expect the level of maturity and professionalism these students displayed in presenting their ideas. I was taken aback. They were super impressive.”

This research helped motivate students to investigate and see what they could accomplish


Kozlowski reported that Stillwater is exploring ways to take responsibility for downtown lights, which currently are owned by Xcel Energy. He’d like to try some of the students’ suggestions.

From Stillwater Middle School students’ video on this project

Educator and Minnesota State Rep. Josiah Hill, DFL-Stillwater, says he’s “incredibly proud of our innovative students at Stillwater Middle School, who have proven there is an abundance of ingenuity and creativity in our community when we invest in our schools and students. When we encourage our students to participate in the world around them, we are able to unlock invaluable lifelong learning opportunities.”

I strongly agree. Giving students a chance to study and help solve local problems makes sense. Extensive research, summarized by the University of Minnesota’s Andrew Furco, documents this. Furco found that well-designed and implemented service-learning programs produce more vital academic skills, reading, writing, research, etc. That’s because students see how those skills apply to real life and can help them make a difference.

Those studies helped convince the organization that supervises Minnesota teacher preparation – the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board – to require that prospective teachers learn the rationale for and implementation of service-learning and project-bas project-based learning.


thumbnail of Standards of Effective Practice (see 5-2)

The research also convinced the 2023 Minnesota Legislature to allocate $1 million to support service-learning projects proposed by students, educators and community groups.

More information about this research, PELSB and the legislation is here.

Service-learning research explains why students should have opportunities to study an issue from various perspectives, develop possible solutions, work with others — often community members — to try out solutions, assess and share the results. Then they should refine their efforts.

This is citizenship education at its best.

Unfortunately, former Minnesota state legislator Allen Quist and Julie Quist have labeled service-learning part of “Marxist ideology and practice” that teacher educators are required to promote. This in a 2022 Alpha News article.

Done right (an important phrase), service-learning encourages and opens — rather than closes — students’ minds. Done correctly, as was done in Stillwater and the Samsung program, students learn they can make a positive difference. What’s more constructive for today – and for our future?

Ann Woo, head of corporate citizenship for Samsung Electronics America, told me that over the last 14 years, Samsung has awarded more than $27 million in electronic equipment to schools, plus trips to Washington, D.C., for students and educators honored in their Solve for Tomorrow program. Its 15th year starts in August. The program is good for students, the U.S., and yes, the company. Information is here.

The Minnesota Department of Education has awarded service-learning funds appropriated in 2023 to district and charters all over Minnesota. More about this in a future column.

Stillwater teacher Christensen shared a note from 12-year-old William Lengyel, which summarizes the value of combining classroom learning and community service: “I learned about bioluminescence, bird migration, and (that) … working with someone you normally don’t talk to can be fun, you can meet new people, and that even if you don’t expect much … you can go far.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.