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B-N students given 'freedom to learn' with State Farm mentors

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BLOOMINGTON — A year of analyzing and creating through computer science has some Twin City high school students itching for more real-world projects in school.

“It’s interesting to see the ways they approach and dissect problems, weigh risks, identify feasibility and make decisions. It’s cool to see that maturation of their minds,” said Allen Hays, instructor for problem solving with computer programming at Bloomington High School.

From October to April, State Farm employees mentored students from BHS, Normal West and Normal Community high school in select computer science classes.

The groups used science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to solve a problem within the community or insurance industry by creating an app or piece of software.

BHS junior Bo Stinson worked with classmates to develop an app that could help college students better manage loans and contact financial professionals with questions.

“This felt like a more realistic approach to learning than current standardized testing,” said Stinson. “It wasn’t just pages of multiple-choice answers. We had to identify a problem and solve it. It’s better to have open projects like this in school because you can really use your own ideas.”

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His group partner, Mahlik Helm, a BHS senior, said the group ran into coding problems during the project and had to work through the issues as a team.

“It gave us the chance to see what it would be like working on a similar project for a big company,” said Helm. “This was a more practical way to learn. It’d be cool if more classes had projects like this, giving us freedom to learn.”

The joint STEM project with State Farm and area high schools was organized by the Illinois Science and Technology Institute. Other businesses throughout the state were connected with 38 high schools for the project.

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One group from each high school was invited in April to the STEM Challenge Student Showcase in Chicago to present their research.

Sophomore Rylan Hambleton and freshman Dominick Saylor were chosen to represent BHS. Their project focused on the use of drone technology to make insurance claims during catastrophes.

“Our project is innovative because it would make the claims process more cost- and time-efficient. I really learned a lot of teamwork skills and how to successfully combine ideas,” said Hambleton.

Sally McCullers of Bloomington is a manager in IT systems at State Farm. She gave pointers and encouraged the drone team to think outside the box.

“My role was to keep the brainstorming flowing and get the group to very clearly articulate what they wanted to do,” said McCullers.

She said the group studied drone licensing and regulations, battery life and range of motion.

“We need to continue to bring real-life examples into the classroom to educate and energize students about career fields they can be a part of in the future,” said McCullers. “If something doesn’t feel like school work now, maybe down the road the same subject won’t feel like work.”

Students at NCHS and Normal West explored ways to insure self-driving vehicles and reward systems for safe driving.

Another BHS group designed a direct donation network for community members who need financial assistance. Through referrals from churches and homeless shelters, individuals can request donations from volunteers to pay for things like groceries and down payments.

“These kids are soaking up knowledge,” said Hays. “Their learning capacity is growing and hopefully they will take that approach in the next steps of their lives as they are educated by different people.”

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer


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