Five Students at a Rural School Design Tomorrow's Science Classroom

Dec 3, 2015

The Cardinal High Design Team, (l-r) Dakota Durflinger, Shelby Smith, Allison Metcalf, Lexi Fullencamp and Riley McElderry
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

In a small school district in Southeast Iowa, five young women are taking the future of science education into their own hands.

They’ve designed a proposed building addition that would provide room for students to experiment in science, technology, engineering and math.

Design team member Riley McElderry at Cardinal High School in Eldon says the project began by asking some simple questions.

“What would we like to have now, or what would we want to fix? she says, "and then we just went from there. We asked teachers, students, saw what they wanted and tried to implement that.”

The senior with an interest in chemistry and the history of science says what the team learned is the Cardinal district is pretty up-to-date in some areas of STEM education.

“We’re very blessed when it comes to technology," she says, "but when it comes to the sciences portion of it, we’re kind of behind, well we’re getting better because we have a 3D printer and we have a robotics team, so we’re getting there, but we think we can improve the other areas of science, like botany, aquaculture.”

So at the high school level, Cardinal is in decent shape for STEM learning. It’s a different story at the adjacent middle school, where the younger students sit in cramped classrooms and lack equipment. No wonder, says Senior Lexi Fullenkamp, so many kids lose interest in science as they grow older.

“The number of students in our advanced science classes is really low," she says. "It drops dramatically from freshman year up to pretty much any time after that.”

The floor plan for the Cardinal High School and Middle School science wing.
Credit Cardinal Community School District

The floor plan drawn by Lexi, a budding broadcast meteorologist, and the four other young women shows plenty of room for teen-age scientists to engage in hands-on experiments. Lexi says this will help keep up-and-coming students engaged.

“It will really just increase the excitement of students because they actually get to do activities and they don’t have to sit there and listen to a teacher lecture all day,” she says.

The teacher watching over these architectural renderings is Paul Fleetwood, a city boy from Sheffield, England, transplanted to rural Southeast Iowa. He says it makes perfect sense to put students in charge of planning the future of education at Cardinal because they have a better grasp on the changes ahead. They’ve already won a statewide design competition run by a Waterloo architectural firm.

“You talk to any of the architects, any of the heads of school systems, they will say they went and talked to the students," he says. "The students really matter when it comes to implement design to support this type of learning.”

The student designers are dreaming big. The centerpiece of their plan is a theater with stadium seating. They know where the proposed new science wing can attach to the main building, on an unused lot out back of the school. Can a school district with just 630 students K-through-12 afford to build it? Cardinal Superintendent Joel Pedersen says don’t discount the possibility.

The possible future location for the Cardinal School District's science labs.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“Between maybe some grants, between our own dollars," he says. "I just believe what’s happening right now at Cardinal, anything is possible, and so stay tuned.”

If construction does occur, Senior Shelby Smith, who likes astronomy, says her school will be the envy of every other school in the state.

“There are no other schools in Iowa, I don’t think, that would have something like this," she says. "So, it kind of makes our school standout against all the others, it will make us one-of-a-kind.”

And that will be thanks to five forward-thinking young women who heard the calls from educators and politicians for enhanced STEM curricula, and then left quite a gift to their alma mater.