Embracing New Innovative Learning Spaces

This past Sunday afternoon, October 31, I read a delightful article in the Lancaster Newspapers titled 1949 MT class photo told story of the times, written by Peggy Binkle Atkins (Manheim Township Class of ’49).  A photo of her graduating class of 1949 accompanied her article, which showed 86 students standing in long white dresses or jackets and ties (since caps and gowns had not yet been adopted by the school district).  It brought a smile to my face to see this photo from 72 years ago, especially as the author noted how the photo “reveals all sorts of information about the occasion and ‘the times’.”  As someone who thoroughly enjoys exploring history through photos from years past, I appreciated how she used this image as a window for briefly reminiscing on education in the mid-1900s.  Of particular interest was her comment about the academic coursework at that time.  In reference to the 86 graduates in the photo, she stated, “During their high school years, they matriculated in three courses: academic, commercial, and general.”  This assertion about their coursework sparked my interest as I reflected on the many different pathways we currently have in place for students to graduate.  There are many ways to achieve the end goal – and beyond.

Reading this article also encouraged me to reflect on activities from this past month that show how our school district has evolved over time to become innovative and future focused.  The two events that immediately came to mind were the opening of our new, state-of-the-art middle school, and the recent showcasing of a highly innovative learning facility that takes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education to the next level. 

New Manheim Township Middle School

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On October 19 we facilitated a ribbon cutting activity and opened our new middle school to the community – to anyone who wanted the opportunity to see this innovative learning environment.  As part of the evening’s activities, we saw pictures of the previous middle school which opened in 1968.  Those pictures were in great contrast to those of the current middle school, recognizing that this building was designed to meet the educational needs of students in the 21st century.  The new middle school has unique features such as outdoor classrooms, break-out spaces/pod areas, a black box theater, a fitness center, and technology equipped teaching and learning spaces, for the purpose of expanding and enriching the educational environment for students now and in the future.  

One of the greatest differences between the previous middle school and the new middle school is science classrooms.  The classrooms in the new middle school are more spacious and well-resourced with the capability to facilitate lab work.  During a recent visit to the school, I had the opportunity to observe students in Mr. Mike Hardwig’s science classroom.  Students were working both independently and collaboratively throughout the classroom, small group instructional areas, break-out spaces, and the outdoor classrooms.  Mr. Hardwig shared that having lab space in the classroom allows him to divide his class so that multiple learning activities can occur simultaneously.  I noticed this as well during my visit — students were working on a variety of activities at their own pace, and in their own self-selected space and manner.  When I asked students for feedback about the new school, particularly as it related to having access to break-out learning spaces, outdoor classrooms, etc., the comments were extremely favorable. 

The images below show students engaged in STEM-related activities within our innovative learning spaces. The image on the far right is from a student’s digital academic portfolio, showing his learning as it relates to the current topics of study. The science teachers (Mr. Hardwig, Mr. Brian Smoker, and Ms. Danielle Reenstra) collaboratively developed the digital academic portfolio as a tool for both instruction and assessment. 

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At any given time throughout the day, middle school students may be working individually or collaboratively in these learning environments that engage students in the 21st century skills that promote innovation – communication, collaboration, digital literacy, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. These learning environments include the classrooms, break-out spaces, outdoor classrooms, and the small group instruction areas.

New K-12 Skylab Observatory

On October 22 we facilitated a ribbon cutting and grand opening celebration for the new, highly-innovative, STEM learning facility – the MTSD Skylab Observatory. This outdoor learning space builds student knowledge in STEM subjects such as math, engineering, physics, and astrophysics.  The facility holds a retractable roof that allows students to conduct research using observational astronomy equipment such as a professional refractor telescope and work collaboratively with observatories and planetariums throughout the world.  The facility is located outside of the high school and serves as an educational space for students in kindergarten through grade 12 and the larger Manheim Township community. 

The Skylab Observatory was the dream of Mr. Dave Farina, MT high school Astronomy/ Geosciences Teacher and Director of the Planetarium and Skylab. He wrote a multi-year grant that was approved by the Manheim Township Educational Foundation (MTEF) who worked with several wonderful donors that made this project come to fruition. We are so grateful to our donors and the MTEF for helping this dream come true!

Mr. Farina spent many hours researching, planning, and coordinating efforts for the project.  Students in the MT Astronomy Club assisted in the planning, so we were elated that one of these former students was able to attend our grand opening on October 22 — Ms. Allison Collarelli.  Ms. Collarelli is a MTSD alum currently studying Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University. During the event, she shared how the science courses, Astronomy Club and the Skylab Observatory project impacted her in a positive way. She hopes to eventually work at NASA!

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I was also pleased to learn that students in our coursework and club are connected with local resources, such as the Astronomy Enthusiasts of Lancaster County (AELC) and the Ryan Observatory at Muddy Run (located in Southern Lancaster County).  As the Skylab Observatory is incorporated into district curriculum, students in Kindergarten through Grade 8 will benefit from hands-on observational astronomy directly related to the content discussed during planetarium visits.  During his presentation at the grand opening, Mr. Farina offered several specific examples of how this might occur:

  • During a discussion on the phases of the moon and lunar features, 4th grade students may come to the observatory during the first quarter moon and view the moon through the telescopes to observe the phases and lunar features. 
  • During a discussion on stars, 8th grade students may view different types of stars, multi-star systems, and even the various stages of stellar evolution. 
  • High school students can learn to conduct reliable and repeatable research from daily observations utilizing this turn-key facility. Students in physics and astronomy classes, STEM Independent Study, and Astronomy Club will be taught to run visual observations and host star watches for the community at large, building their technological knowledge and leadership skills.

The ability of the new Skylab Observatory to provide our Grades K-12 students with such innovative STEM-related experiences is unparalleled at the local and state levels. And to the best of our knowledge, very few examples exist nationally related to this level of STEM learning. Our Skylab Observatory is truly a testament to the incredible support from the many stakeholders within our district and the larger community.  

Photo of Manheim Township Middle School Principal Christine Resh and our October Employee of the Month, Kevin Diehl!

Celebrating our October Employee of the Month

A special Congratulations goes out to Mr. Kevin Diehl, Lead Custodian at the middle school, for being nominated as the MT Employee of the Month for October!  Given the successful opening of the new middle school this past August, it is quite timely to be honoring Mr. Diehl for this achievement.  In the words of one of his colleagues: 

Kevin and his team have put in a lot of extra hours and hard work to help teachers and staff prepare for the upcoming school year. The past two years were very different for the middle school staff as they had to ‘pack up’ all of their classrooms in the old building and then unpack at the new building. Kevin was extremely supportive and valuable during both processes. He worked tirelessly, assisting everyone from the teachers, students, nurses, secretaries, and food services to make sure everyone had what they needed to make the move seamless.” 

Another staff member stated, “Anyone that comes into the middle school sees Mr. Diehl walking around the building taking care of everything asked of him in a timely fashion. He is always willing to help teachers, staff, and students. He does everything with a smile! He is welcoming and kind to all of the students.”

During his recognition at the October 21 Board Meeting, it was shared by Mrs. Christine Resh, MT Middle School Principal, that “Kevin is a very helpful and positive person. He is willing to help out anyone who needs it, no questions asked. He always goes above and beyond. He never says no or tells you he can’t help. He is always willing to drop what he’s doing to make sure you are taken care of.  Kevin always does the right thing and exemplifies integrity. We are lucky to have him! This building functions smoothly because of the endless hard work that Kevin puts in day in and day out.” 

Thank you, Mr. Diehl, for all that you do for middle school and the MTSD; we appreciate you! 

#MTSDPride 💙