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School on a Hill: The best thing ever

Teachers in the Morris Area School District have consistently looked for new and interesting ways to teach students. When he was a science teacher at in the district, Ken Gagner brought space, seeds and chickens into his classroom at the old elementary school building.

MORRIS, Minn. -- The school experience consists of many facets: arts, sports, after-school activities, music, physical education and socialization. But what of the classroom? Each year teachers rack their brains to find novel ways of engaging students and inspiring learning. Investigating these efforts can help us understand what makes for effective education.

Ken Gagner is the current principal of the Morris Area Elementary School and taught fifth grade for 22 years in Morris from 1988 to 2005. His approach in the classroom revolved around teaching basic principles through the lens of hands-on space science and rocketry.

Gagner said his passion for space science emerged during his early years in school.

“In high school I had to write a report for class,” Gagner said, “I chose to write about the moon landings and I clearly remember standing in the library and learning that we hadn’t just been to the moon once, but many times. That inspired me.

“Years later, when I got my first teaching job out in what seemed the middle of nowhere in McLaughlin, South Dakota at the age of 22, I bought my first rocket and launched it behind the school. I thought ‘wow, this is the best thing ever!’ After that, I bought more rockets for my kids and continued teaching about rockets when I came to Morris two years later in 1988.”

Gagner said that his use of space science as a classroom expedient for studying other subjects originated from the encouragement of an older teacher.

“When I came to Morris to teach, a retiring teacher named John Anderson caught my arm and said ‘it goes quick’. At the time I was 24 years old. He then gave me a packet of rocket parts from when he did a rocket unit in his class. I’ve kept that package all these years and have never opened it.”

Gagner integrated various aspects of hands-on science into his annual curriculum. Each year a favorite school event was when the fifth graders launched the rockets they’d built in class, but Gagner had his students do a variety of experiments that allowed them to participate in real scientific study. For several years his students raised seeds from space as a part of a global experiment with NASA.

In 1984, 12.5 million tomato seeds were left in space for six years onboard a satellite. Astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia recovered the satellite and brought the tomato seeds back to earth. The seeds were distributed to school children all over the world to study the effects of spaceflight on plants.

The students found that the space tomatoes were just as healthy as the earth tomatoes. A result of the students' research, NASA now knows that seeds can survive in space for long periods of time with little or no change in the resulting plant.

“I said a little white lie when I requested seeds for the project,” Gagner said, laughing. “I told NASA I had a LOT more kids in class than I did. We were able to do the experiment for many years after that.”

Another favorite project consisted of raising recently-hatched chicks for three weeks to observe their development.  

“In the old building there were rooms on the 3rd floor that weren’t being used for class,” Gagner said. “At first we raised chickens up there—this was early in my career—and it turns out raising chickens in a public school is not something you can do. You wouldn’t believe the dust it made. After that we moved it to another location.

“That was a fun project because we’d do experiments to see how nutrition affects growth. We’d give one group of chicks more protein than the other. Those chicks fed more protein had within two weeks increased their body weight some ten times over. For a human that would be an 80 pound baby. The students were always astounded that the birds would put on the weight they did.

“There were many, many times when I’d see the kids’ eyes light up when they ‘get it’. Like when the kids held a baby chick in their hands for the first time. A lot of it was around the hands-on learning.”

Over time, Gagner realized that the typical fifty-minute instructional period made it difficult to explore all the concepts and projects he’d developed for hands-on learning. The solution was Camp Alpha, a mixed-age, weeklong summer youth camp founded in 2000.

Camp Alpha primarily focused on building both chemical rockets and water-pressure rockets made from recycled pop bottles. In addition to building rockets, the campers studied comets using dry ice and learned about stars at the University of Minnesota, Morris’ observatory.

Gagner said that the excitement of building and launching rockets provided him the opportunity to delve into other subjects, including writing, math, aerospace, history, and astronomy.

Ray Finzel (’09) is a recent computer science graduate from Valparaiso University in Indiana. He attended fifth grade with Gagner and worked as a counselor for Camp Alpha in 2010.  

Finzel said he worked with the older, more experienced kids who had the opportunity to make exotic rockets out of whatever materials they wanted. He said he found the experience of helping the students both a challenge and a joy.

“A lot of the kids I worked with had been to camp before and held a love of science and rocketry,” Finzel said. “I helped them come up with interesting and complex ways of building their rockets. They wanted to build the most awesome things they could imagine, and my role there was to help them accomplish that goal.

“I didn’t feel that I was teaching so much as I was helping them make good on their ideas. Some rockets looked really good, some looked like they were about to teeter over. The kids were presented with the opportunity to build something cool and during launch see either success or failure. A fun, joyous occasion in my opinion.”

In 2005, the recently-demolished elementary was closed and replaced with a new facility adjacent to the high school down the street. Gagner said it’s sad to see the building go, but he’s happy the students have a new school.

“We looked at it closely and there was no way to make use of the old building,” he said. “Bringing it up to code, etc. would have been cost prohibitive. We had mold in the building, and bats and birds living in the attic. There was a reason we needed a new school and it was sad to me that it decayed for eight years. It was time. It had served its purpose.”

Gagner looks back at his 22 years teaching at Morris with fondness and appreciation. He said that now he’s in a position to encourage other young teachers.

“You can teach anything once you get the kids hooked on something they are really interested in,” Gagner said. “For me it all fit together around rockets and the kids for the most part seemed to love doing it. I loved it. Rockets kept my energy up.

“I tell teachers now: if you are passionate, you can teach kids just about anything. Spelling is spelling and math is math, but if you are passionate about what you are teaching, kids will learn. Kids pick up on when people love what they are doing. If you love it, do it.”  

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of the ongoing “School on a Hill” series detailing the history of the recently demolished Morris school building and the development of education in Morris. For prior stories about the school, please visit