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Willmar Middle School students studying science in cramped, outdated classrooms

Katelyn Hansen, 13, conducts an experiment Jan. 13 at Willmar Middle School. Science classrooms at the school, which was constructed in the 1960s, are outdated, and school officials fear the rooms are not equipped to deal with the increasing needs for science instruction. Muna Abdlahi, 12, is pictured below during the same class. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Bob the fish wasn't doing so well. He was cold, because the beaker that served as his fish bowl was sitting in a pan full of snow. His breathing had slowed, and he didn't move around as much. If a goldfish can seem unhappy, he did. Things got better when the snow was replaced by warm water, and his little world began to warm up.

The quartet of seventh-graders who had named him Bob watched the fish's reaction and counted his respirations as he was ch-illed and warmed up.

Around teacher Lisa Ru-ter's Willmar Middle Sc-hool classroom, other groups of students clustered ar-ound unnamed fish to record their observations. It was a hands-on way of learning how an ecto-therm, or cold-blooded an-imal, responds to temperature changes. (Ruter said the goldfish are tough and are able to survive the experiment repeatedly.)

The lab experiment was hindered somewhat by the cramped conditions and the lack of proper lab space in the 42-year-old building.

Ruter's students have to share two lab sinks, particularly difficult in the two class periods where she has more than 30 students.

The teachers and students are used to the situation, Ruter said, but it's not ideal.

Time can sometimes be an enemy. For each 45-minute class, students have to set up experiments, do their work and clean up before the next class comes in.

"Ideally, we would have a classroom and a lab room," Ruter said. "Certain labs you don't do because of safety issues." Teachers do some experiments as demonstrations, "because of space, numbers and time."

The science classrooms at the school are outdated and not equipped to deal with increasing needs for science instruction, according to school officials.

"A lot of jobs are being created out there in science and technology," said Middle School Principal Mark Miley.

"We want people to know the kids are getting a good education," Miley said. "We're doing our best." The school's experienced staff works well together to provide labs using shared equipment, he added.

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he hopes to someday be able to add eight to 10 modern science classrooms to the school in southeast Willmar.

Kjergaard said his dream of new science classrooms is only at the discussion stage.

"I think it would help our kids, which is the reason we're here," he said. "I don't know if anything will ever happen, but somebody needs to talk about it."

At this point there are no plans or drawings or even a cost estimate, though Kjergaard guessed such a project could cost in the neighborhood of $2 million. "We haven't gotten that far," he said. "It's just a superintendent's pipe dream."

The top priority for Kjergaard is to persuade voters to approve a new operating levy this fall. Without it, the district could be making $3 million in budget cuts, after cutting a total of $10 million in the past decade.

Building science rooms or making other building improvements could require a bond referendum in the future. It won't be easy in a time when schools are facing a future with less money and higher expectations, Kjergaard said.

The alternative to putting a bond question to the voters in a referendum would be finding community support for the project. Kjergaard and Miley said they would be happy to speak with local businesses with an interest in science and technology.

"It would be nice to have corporate help," Kjergaard said. "We aren't going to be able to sell enough candy bars."

Administrators are concerned about the growing demands on schools to provide science and technology training for students. Beginning with the class of 2015 -- this year's eighth-graders -- all students will need to study either chemistry or physics to graduate from high school.

That requirement will affect every student currently at the middle school.

Many of the science rooms were built to handle 24 students, said seventh-grade science teacher Randy Frederickson. However, the class size can range from the teens to the 30s, depending on students' schedules. Sometimes, "we don't all fit," Frederickson said.

There was more room for science classes and a separate lab room when the building was a junior high for grades 7 and 8, but when the sixth grade was added in a 2009 reorganization, the extra room was used up.

"But I love the middle school," Miley said. It's allowed the district to offer a full science curriculum for sixth-graders.

The sixth-graders in teacher Carolyn Gripentrog's class nodded when asked if they like science classes better in middle school. They do more hands-on lab experiments than they did in elementary school, they said, and that helps them learn and remember more.

The students rattled off a list of things they've done this year, like planning a self-sufficient city, doing volume and density experiments and taking apart small machines.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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