Leland School and NIU benefit from a new partnership made possible by a generous alumna

Jan Half

Students in Leland, Illinois have had the chance to design electric cars, play with circuits, use soldering irons and more, thanks to a generous donation from Jan Half, a former Leland teacher and NIU alumna. Half’s gift has enabled a new partnership between Northern Illinois University and Leland CUSD #1, a K-12 public school. The partnership provides hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) learning sessions for Leland students, teacher professional development focused on project-based learning and scholarships to help Leland graduates attend NIU.

Half’s entire career has been about building connections between schools and communities to better serve students and prepare them for career possibilities. “In any community, the school is part of the community, and especially in a small town such as Leland,” Half says. “As a teacher, I thought that students should be exposed to various kinds of people and experiences, so I had my friends visit and talk to the students about their jobs, about being an attorney or a veterinarian. And, of course, I brought in the parents and families of my students, too, to talk about their work as a beautician, a business owner or a farmer.”

Half’s focus on bringing education alive for students shaped her early career as a sixth-grade teacher at Leland from 1975 to 1979 and continued to motivate her as she completed her master’s degree in adult and career education at NIU in 1980. From there, she went on to build a career in educational technology. Half worked selling educational technology for companies such as Apple, as director of technology in a four-county region of California, and later, leading a student-centered technology non-profit called Mouse Squad. During this time, she consistently strove to build bridges between schools, businesses and communities. 

Leland Technology Director Chris Bland works with students to solder circuits. Bland and other Leland faculty joined students in the NIU STEAM after school workshops.

Half drew on her classroom experience to help teachers make learning relevant for students. “As a former teacher, I was focused on the teachers’ goals, what they wanted to do in the classroom, and how technology could make it easier for them or make it more exciting for the students,” she says.

This focus on hands-on education made a natural fit between Half and NIU STEAM, part of the NIU Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development that aims to spark curiosity, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking through school, community and educator professional development programs. So when Half approached the NIU Foundation with her intention of making a donation to benefit NIU and Leland, the Foundation connected her with NIU STEAM. Now NIU STEAM is providing STEAM learning sessions for Leland students and professional development for Leland teachers and staff.

NIU STEAM kicked off the new partnership with a community-wide hands-on STEAM festival, held at Leland School in September of 2017.

“We set up our largest STEAM exploration labs in two different gyms and had about 80 hands-on demonstrations,” says Pati Sievert, STEM Outreach director for NIU STEAM. “The whole community got involved. Kids came with their parents. School board members came and volunteered, as well as teachers, retired teachers and other community members.”

This year, NIU STEAM dove into science and technology education with three weeks of after-school programming for Leland’s fourth through eighth graders. 

“The first week was about teaching the students the engineering design process,” says NIU STEM Educator Kate Powers. “The students had to build a sorting machine to separate buttons and marbles, and every student made a different one – they were nothing alike! There were racks, tubes, even a sorting roller coaster. The students went home and talked to their families and brainstormed ideas and came up with so many different plans.”

Powers says the second week focused on electricity and circuits, and students got a chance to build different types of circuits and try their hands at soldering. The third week brought together all of these skills as students designed and built their own electric cars, culminating in a derby for the students’ families and friends.

A Leland student explores soldering and electrical circuits.

“The students have enjoyed the lessons so much that the teachers have trouble getting them out the door at the end of the day,” says Powers. “We’re always running late! We tell them, ‘You have to leave! The bus is here, and your parents are waiting for you!’ But they always want to finish just one more thing.”

NIU STEM summer camp scholarships will be available for Leland students who wish to continue the fun, hands-on STEAM learning into the summer months.

Principal Chris Bickel appreciates the chance to bring additional resources to Leland students outside of the school day.

“I’ve definitely heard good feedback from my staff that the kids are really engaged and enjoy the activities,” he says. In fact, Bickel is very much looking forward to the teacher professional development, which will enable Leland’s K-12 teachers to bring this same sort of project-based learning into their classrooms.

“It’s always good for any teacher to continue to add tools into their toolbox and learn different ways to instruct a unit,” Bickel says. “I want to equip my teachers with as many tools as I can, and a problem-based learning approach hopefully connects with students, gives the students choice in what they’re doing and makes their work more meaningful.”

Kristin Brynteson, director of professional development for NIU STEAM and the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, is leading the educator professional development at Leland.

“There’s a lot of research on the impact of problem- and project-based learning,” Brynteson says. “Really, what you’re looking at is students working together to address a driving question that has connections to the real world and an authentic audience. For example, in one school last year, we led a project-based learning unit where students chose to address how to improve the lunch program at their school – a burning question for fourth and fifth graders! The students researched federal government policy on nutrition, created a school garden and conducted surveys. In project-based learning, the students are not just handed information. They’re discovering information, so they tend to build a deeper understanding.”

Brynteson and her team are working with the Leland teachers for five months to help them design and implement project-based learning in their classrooms. “We’re really working to customize the training to the needs of the teacher,” Brynteson says. “We started out defining project-based learning and giving some information so the teachers can collaborate with one another. Now we’re moving into a support phase where the teachers can decide: Do they want us to co-plan with them? Do they want us to co-teach with them? What do they need to be successful?”

The final portion of Half’s donation goes to support scholarships for Leland graduates to attend NIU.

“My hope is that the scholarships will go to students who may not have thought about going to college,” says Half. “Many times, students don’t even apply or think about going to college if they don’t have the financial means, so it’s important to let them know it’s available.”

Leland students constructed small electric cars they designed themselves.

The NIU STEAM and Leland staff are very grateful to Half for the opportunities her donation has offered. 

“The money from Jan gives us the opportunity to spend more time with the kids, to build relationships and really develop their design and building skills,” says Powers. “The students get to be really creative without any constraints, other than safety constraints, and that builds their STEAM skills and love of learning.”

“I’m extremely grateful for the donation from Jan, which enabled the STEAM programs for Leland students and the teacher professional development,” says Bickel. “I know she’s also put aside some funds for potential scholarships for our graduating seniors to go to NIU, so we’re just extremely grateful that she’s been so generous.”

 Half says, “My four years of teaching in Leland were so important to me, and that’s why I want to continue to have an impact on the Leland school and community.”

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