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Small rural school trying to change the world through STEM

While New Myrnam School teacher Robert Tymofichuk was being praised for being awarded a Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM, he credits the hard work and innovation back to students.

MYRNAM – Located about 40 km south of St. Paul is a small rural school composed of just over 100 students. While the kindergarten to Grade 12 school may be small, New Myrnam School prides itself in its quest to explore the marvels of science, technology, engineering, math and environmental sustainability.

Robert Tymofichuk is a teacher and an assistant principal at New Myrnam School, which falls within the St. Paul Education school division. He is also a 2022 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award (PMA) for Teaching Excellence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Tymofichuk received the award on Oct. 3, presented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself.

According to Tymofichuk, while he indeed won the award, there is a bigger picture behind it all.

He says the award is about more than just him, but it also symbolizes the years-long projects New Myrnam School has been undertaking – and it is a symbol of the efforts by students and continual learning taking place.

For six years now, projects at New Myrnam School have included a sustainable greenhouse project, renewable energy systems design, designing and fabrication of a renewable energy vehicle, an ongoing project on a tiny net-zero home, and overall efforts to reduce humans’ carbon footprint.

Danielle Eriksen, the principal at New Myrnam School and Myrnam Outreach and Homeschool Center, says the projects would be much more challenging to tackle without Tymofichuk’s passion, excitement, and knowledge.

Because of Tymofichuk’s “impact on New Myrnam School’s students” and the Myrnam community as a whole, the school staff, students, and parents nominated Tymofichuk for the PMA.

Tymofichuk believes it’s important to teach students STEM due to how the world is rapidly changing. For example, there are claims that the many of the careers students will experience in their lifetime haven’t even been invented yet.

“So, can you imagine? That’s pretty profound and a little bit intimidating,” he says. “We must expose those students to science, technology, engineering, and math.”

STEM also involves becoming a good communicator and collaborator. With the fast-changing world and advancement of technology, “You’ve got to think on your feet, and you have to improvise – it’s an innovative world that we live in,” says Tymofichuk.

While speaking with Lakeland This Week, Tymofichuk recalled his grandfather’s tale, who, once upon a time, had not yet seen the existence of automobiles. His grandfather grew up with horses as a form of transportation, along with trains.

Then one day, his grandfather was in Washington when he saw hundreds of people lined up on the street. His grandfather said, “I couldn’t see anything,” until a man carried him on his shoulders and was witness to one of the world's first cars.

After recalling his grandfather’s story, Tymofichuk says, “I couldn’t even fathom what it’s going to be like in 10 years or 20 years, and we have to prepare these kids for that world – to be successful in that world. To thrive in (it).”

Eriksen admits she sometimes gets asked, “When do you do schoolwork?” To which she responds that the provincial curriculum is always being integrated into the projects offered at the school.

“Grade 9 science, for example, has a whole unit on electricity and how to build a circuit,” she says. “So, what better way to learn how to build a circuit than to hook up a solar panel to a battery in a net-zero vehicle, right?”

Eriksen says the projects at New Myrnam School also provide tangible benefits to students. For example, she says one of their school’s alums, Lucas Dubelt, received a Loran Scholarship from the Loran Scholars Foundation.

A Loran Award is valued at approximately $100,000 of over four years of undergraduate study. Eriksen says Dubelt’s involvement with the projects at the school was a big part of his application process. Dubelt is currently a student at the University of British Columbia.

When asked what the biggest challenges are to teaching STEM, Tymofichuk says time is a huge challenge.

“If you’re trying to tackle these inquiry-based projects – these things are complicated.”

The logistics, communications, and collaboration between students from multiple grade levels also take a lot of time, according to Tymofichuk.

Among the ongoing projects at the New Myrnam School is one where students are trying to create an automated snow removal system for solar roofs. Tymofichuk explains that the existing solar array on top of the Village of Myrnam’s Construction and Technology Education Centre (CTEC) is facing issues due to the snow in the winter.

The solar array on top of the CTEC cannot produce energy with snow, so “we’ll have probably about four or five months of no production,” because the snow continues to accumulate, explains Tymofichuk. “I have no doubt that these kids have the ability to design and fabricate a viable system that would be a game changer throughout the world.”

While teachers often provide students with answers to their questions, with STEM it isn’t as simple as answering a question. If there is no definite answer, it’s usually an indicator that “you’re onto a good project when the adults don’t have an answer,” says Tymofichuk.

In response to Tymofichuk’s comment, Eriksen playfully adds, “Basically, one of the problems is we have to keep getting ‘Mr. T’ to stop being so excited about his projects long enough to answer a question.”

However, Eriksen agrees that time is the biggest constraint because “we have such big ideas, big projects, and big things going on all the time.” Thus, “it becomes challenging to finish all these things.”

While rural schools traditionally have been looked upon as being disadvantaged due to their remote locations, both Tymofichuk and Eriksen see benefits in teaching at a small school where they can provide a high level of personalized education to their students.

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Prime Minister’s Award

The PMA for Teaching Excellence in STEM is a national-level award for elementary and secondary school for teachers, recognizing their “commitment to preparing their students for a digital and innovation-based economy,” according to the Government of Canada.

In a Sept. 28 federal government news release, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that educators play a foundational role in children’s lives by helping them grow into thriving adults.

“During my time as a teacher, I met so many outstanding educators who dedicate their lives to inspiring the next generation of leaders in classrooms right across the country,” stated Trudeau, who handed the award to Tymofichuk personally.

Mario Cabradilla

About the Author: Mario Cabradilla

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