The fifth-graders fell eerily quiet as they focused on creating a Bristlebot as part of STEAM day at Challis Elementary School.

Steve Dahl, owner of Computer Zen in Salmon, his son Nathan Dahl, and employee Paul Zivkovic had passed out kits and instructions and shown a video of how to create the tiny robot-like device from pipe cleaners, a small battery, a toothbrush head and googly eyes. Then the kids got busy. The pipe cleaners worked like training wheels and the kids soon realized that twisting the pipe cleaners in various ways meant their robots could move in different ways.

Dahl and his staff spent Jan. 28 rotating Challis students in and out of the school gym, mixing up their lesson plans to suit the grade level in the room at the time. Fifth-graders had some pretty serious discussions.

3-D printers hummed away in the background cutting symbols and words into blocks of wood and creating small rubber animals. Teage Erickson asked Zivkovic if a nearby soccer ball had been built on a 3-D printer.

“No,” Zivkovic said, “but that would have been cool.”

One part of the demonstration to fifth-graders involved hooking up sensors to Cade Bell and to Dahl to send amplified nerve signals from the youngster to Dahl. Bell would open his hand and Dahl’s hand would follow, without Dahl making that action occur. Essentially, the electronic brain signal was captured to work someone else’s limb, Dahl explained. Dahl even turned away so he couldn’t see what Bell was doing when some students suggested he was just mimicking their classmate.

Dahl offers his STEAM and STEM sessions to school districts free. If the school can cover the materials cost, that’s a bonus, but not a requirement, he said. He wants kids to be excited about science and is hopeful some will pursue careers in the field, so he brings the project to schools.

“I taught school previously,” Dahl said. “Science taught out of a textbook can be boring. I think it should be fun and exciting and spark curiosity.” So, he takes science out of a book and turns it into a hands-on experience. Seeing kids get excited when they learn to build something never gets old for Dahl.

Even if they don’t chose a STEAM field for a career, Dahl is happy to expose youths to science, technology, engineering, art and math. Studies show that students exposed to STEAM curriculum end up earning twice as much in their adult jobs as students who never get that exposure, Dahl said.

It’s not all about getting every student to pursue a STEAM degree in college. While that’s good in his opinion, the programs also teach youths how to apply what they learn to their real lives. Teaching students as young as kindergartners cutting-edge technology can reap rewards down the road, he said.

Dahl and the Computer Zen staff have worked closely with the Darby, Montana, school district for several years. He calls that small school the “gem” for Computer Zen’s STEAM work. Dahl has also presented STEAM projects in Stanley, Leadore, Pocatello and Idaho Falls. The timing of his Challis trip in part was related to the upcoming school science fair. He wanted to help youths come up with ideas for their projects. He works with 5th Day Learning teams around the region and wants to make STEAM days common in those programs.

Dahl takes great joy in having parents tell him they buy STEAM toys and products for their children because their kids are curious and interested in science and they want the products.

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