Minnehaha Academy Blog

Minnehaha Lower School Students Shine at the Science Olympiad

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on Apr 25, 2019

Photo Apr 13, 1 59 17 PM

Congratulations to Minnehaha Academy's Science Olympiad team! Placing sixth overall, these young scientists competed against other schools from around the state in 22 science competitions at the 2019 Science Olympiad.

Participation in the Science Olympiad team provides an opportunity for students and families to explore the worlds of STEM in a unique way together.

Signature events like Mystery Powders, Gummie Bear Long Jump, Straw Towers, Metric Mastery, and Don't Bug Me bring core science concepts to life using every day materials.


Science Awards Earned

Minnehaha's Science Olympiad team placed sixth overall in the State Tournament - a huge accomplishment! Individual students also received medals, including:

  • Two first place medals
  • One second place medal
  • Two third place medals
  • Three fourth place medals
Congratulations to these science olympiads!
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Learn how your child can shine at Minnehaha Academy - request Admission information today.

Topics: STEM, Lower School

Science Teacher Emily Firkus: Semifinalist for Teacher of the Year!

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on Feb 26, 2019


Middle School science teacher Emily Firkus has been named a semifinalist for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award. Congratulations, Ms. Firkus!

The Teacher of the Year award is given by Education Minnesota, a professional organization for teachers.

"The field of possible candidates for this year’s Minnesota Teacher of the Year honor has been narrowed to 40. A selection panel of 23 community leaders chose the semifinalists from an initial field of 168 candidates from across the state," said the organization. Ten finalists will be selected from this group in late March.

Ms. Firkus was also awarded the Excellent Educator award in October by WCCO.

Topics: Middle School, STEM

Bringing Science to Life Outdoors at Minnehaha Academy

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on Jan 4, 2019
If you drive by Minnehaha's Lower & Middle School along West River Parkway, you may see Middle School students, a notebook in one hand, binoculars in the other hand, looking up into the trees.
The nearby Mississippi River is a major migratory flyway, and the large tree canopy on our campus is the perfect home for many birds. Our faculty take full advantage of our setting in the natural world to bring classroom lessons to life.

Middle School Scientists:

When Middle School students go bird watching, they are doing science on a couple different levels, according to Middle School teacher Katie Humason.

Aid Cornell Lab of Ornithology
"Our students are participating in a Citizen Science program sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell maintains a world-wide database of bird observations (called eBird), where citizen scientists around the world report the birds they are seeing.  Ornithologists at Cornell then are able to use all of that bird data for their research."  

Conduct Original Research
"Our students are all doing their own research about the birds they see. Some of our students are wondering which type of seed (or type of suet) the birds will prefer, others want to find out how temperature or cloud cover impact the number of birds they see, still others are trying to find out which type of feeder the birds prefer."

What Do Students Learn?

"My goals with our bird study are to give the students a chance to do authentic scientific inquiry, and to increase their awareness of the natural world," said Middle School teacher Katie Humason. 
"So often, in Middle School, the inquiry activities available have predictable outcomes, and many students know what "should" happen before they start. When they do their research about the birds, for a very short time (until they share with the rest of us), they are the only ones who know the answer to their original question - that's cool."
"As for increasing their awareness of the natural world - I have parents come back years later and tell me how their kids still notice and identify the birds they see. At least one former student has decided to become a professional ornithologist."
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Join Minnehaha Academy!
Learn how your child can shine at Minnehaha Academy - request Admission information today.

Topics: Middle School, STEM

Algebra Starts in Kindergarten: Preparing Students for Success Part 3

Posted by Amy Barnard on Nov 27, 2018

2018-First-Grade-Classroom-Minnehaha-Academy-Minneapolis-Minnesota-7 (1)

How our Singapore Math Curriculum develops flexible thinking and the ability for abstraction

Recap: Why are We Doing This?

If you've read our previous post in this series, The Jobs That Don't Exist, you already know that more than half of the jobs our students will step into don't even exist today, and that so-called "soft" skills ranging from flexible thinking to persistence are equally or even more important than hard skills in the current and coming job market. 

Even in seemingly straightforward courses, like math, our instructors are working to make sure students are prepared with these skills.

Algebra Starts in Kindergarten

Research shows that across the nation, U.S. students fall apart at algebra.

“Algebra is the key that opens the door to higher levels of math,” explains Curriculum and Instructional Specialist Julie Winn. “But curricula in the U.S. aren’t designed to help kids make this jump.”

In response, Minnehaha Academy chose a system of math used in Asia that introduces abstract mathematical concepts years earlier than U.S. systems.

As early as kindergarten, students begin learning the building blocks for abstraction.

Students learn the “why” behind the numbers, understanding multiple ways to get into a problem, and gaining the ability to explain why their solution works.


First graders learn to estimate the number of seeds in a pumpkin based on its exterior, then counting and sorting the seeds by number.

Letting Go of the More-Harder-Better

The results of this program? Solid improvement.

“[We’ve seen] a much higher percentage of our kids go from Lower School into Middle School with a stronger conceptual understanding than before. They know how to do the work, and why it works,” says Winn.

Winn also challenges certain ingrained notions of rigor: “Rigor used to be defined as ‘more-harder-better’,“ she says. “But this can actually lead to pressure and failure.”

Instead, we want to continually set the bar just a bit beyond where students are right now and then empower them to be successful in reaching that new level, which is exactly the process we observe with Singapore Math.

The question is, how do we scaffold learning in such a way that students coming from every level and ability are knocking it out of the park on a regular basis, stretching and growing into a more well-rounded learner? Education should be a life-long journey, and if we can teach students how to keep reaching while they are here, then we have created a habit of learning that will serve them for a lifetime.”

Case Study: Not the Math Type

Teacher Alison Schmitz shares that one fourth grader had already labeled herself as “more of the artsy type,” and often found math difficult to grasp.

Under the new program (and with guidance from Schmitz), the student began to think differently about numbers and about her own ability to “do math.” The increased use of visualization for abstract concepts in Singapore Math was particularly helpful to her.

Now a seventh grader, this girl sees ongoing success in her math classes and no longer identifies as “not the math type.”

Schmitz affirms that this new approach to math really prepares students to succeed when it comes time for algebra.

Helping Parents Help their Students

This new approach to math isn't without some challenges. Most specifically, parents may initially feel intimidated by the homework their children ask for help on.

Because we've seen the positive fruit of this system of learning, our faculty is motivated to help parents understand how to help their students. 

To that end, math specialist Alison Schmitz schedules monthly, 45-minute math parent sessions to help parents better understand what their kids are working on. This empowers parents to help their kids succeed.


First graders learning about symmetry and creating a symmetrical butterfly in an integrated art and math session.

Helping New Students Adjust

Parents aren't the only ones who sometimes need a little booster shot of math help. Because our curriculum puts students ahead of many of their peers in abstract mathematical concepts, Schmitz also offers summer sessions to help new students become familiar with concepts and strategies that we use in our math classrooms.

She meets with new students during the semester to fill in any gaps they may have in their learning to ensure that they will complete the year on-par with their peers.

Ultimately, our faculty is committed to helping each student build solid skills in abstraction and the ability to see multiple to solutions to a given problem setting them up for future success.


Topics: STEM, Lower School

Preparing Students for Success Part 2: The Innovation Lab

Posted by Amy Barnard on Oct 23, 2018


How the Innovation Lab develops persistence, collaboration, and the ability to critically examine one's own work.

Recap: What's the Why?

If you've read our previous post in this series, The Jobs That Don't Exist, you already know that more than half of the jobs our students will step into don't even exist today.

How do we prepare our students for an environment we can hardly imagine? What skills will translate into roles and technology that we have no way to anticipate?

Research shows that so-called "soft" skills like persistence, flexible thinking, and collaboration already are and will continue to be foundational to student's future ability to achieve success—both personally and occupationally.

Let's look at one of the many ways Minnehaha Academy is working to help students develop these skills: The Innovation Lab

Developing An Innovator's Mindset

On any given day you might walk into the Innovation Lab and find Lower School students facing high-tech coding challenges or hands-on design projects like building a functioning, weight-bearing bridge with just a handful of materials.

Innovation Lab Specialists Angela Anderson and Jim Nelson have two primary goals for these students: to help them develop the perseverance to keep working until they achieve a breakthrough and to build foundations for the creative thinking that leads to social entrepreneurship and innovation. 2018 - Fall - Ms. Anderson in Innovation Lab SMALLER-1

"It is so fun to watch how students come together and collaborate to create...If you were to step into lab during our coding unit you would see student leaders who love to code walking around and helping their friends problem-solve through a challenging coding project." - Ms. Anderson

Principal Karen Balmer says that she hopes to see students look around at their world and see problems they can fix, from food insecurity to water access to health issues.

“These design challenges force students into this mentality of creating [and] collaborating, of failing, trying again, and [a] critical analysis of their own work,” says Principal Karen Balmer.

This means that when students turn in their work, instead of a grade they may receive feedback regarding areas they could improve, encouraging them to “keep at it” until they see greater success.

This call for persistence, coupled with the need for collaboration, more closely mirrors the types of challenges these students will face in life outside of school.

“In real life, you don’t just hand something in and walk away from it," Balmer says.

Grit: More Important than IQ

You might have heard of Angela Duckworth's landmark study that demonstrated how the character trait perseverance—also called grit—predicts with greater accuracy the likelihood of success than IQ scores.  

This is no small issue to consider. Historically the academic world has been built towards the concepts of learning more, faster, and then passing the test to prove you learned it. In real life, however, simply being an efficient consumer of knowledge does not mean you will create the next big innovation in regulating heart arrhythmias or work yourself into a position where you will influence public policy.

And so the Innovation Lab encourages students to create, and then go back and make adjustments, and then create some more.

Case Study: The Persistent Skier

During the Winter Olympics students faced a new type of design challenge: they needed to create a downhill skier that could successfully navigate a ski slope created in the lab. Using tinfoil, popsicle sticks, and some tape given to them by Ms. Anderson, one particular team of students spent extra time bending and manipulating the tinfoil, working to create a downhill skier that was not only balanced but also aerodynamic.

The students kept working and re-working their skier, making it faster each time. Each time they made an adjustment they had to stand back think critically about how that adjustment helped or hindered their project, and then decide which steps to take from there.

Ultimately, the group received the accolades of both their teacher and peers when at last their miniature Olympian zipped down the ski slope.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

We are finding that this type of mindset shift expands beyond the Innovation Lab and bleeds into the work students are doing in other classes, from math to music.

By pushing the limits of their abilities, students discover that they can achieve so much more than they expected. They also developed a deeper understanding of how to collaborate as a group to achieve success, instead of just allowing one "superstar" student to make everything happen.

While not the only skills needed for success, we see how the persistence, critical thinking, and collaborative skills developed in the Innovation Lab have the potential to prepare students for a new and changing world.

 Check in next week for our third installment in this series!


Topics: STEM, Lower School

Rebuilding 3100: Improving Sleep, Mood, and Other Things That Never Crossed Your Mind Through Outdoor Learning

Posted by Amy Barnard on Sep 20, 2018
Minnehaha Academy_Aerial Smaller

An amazing benefit of building from scratch is that we have the opportunity to look at what science says about learning and design our space accordingly.

Research across the years shows that both learning and health improve when students spend time outdoors, especially when that outdoor time is directly meshed with their learning time.  

With the lush Mississippi Valley and historic West River Parkway just below our windows, we decided to create learning environments that expand beyond the classroom walls.

Science Says: Outdoor Learning Wins

Numerous studies demonstrate the benefits of outdoor learning on the health and well-being of students. Just a few of these benefits include*:

  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced symptoms of ADD and ADHD
  • Higher executive function
  • Increased creativity
  • Improved psychological and emotional well-being
  • Higher overall health ratings

Think about it this way: When was the last time you took a walk outside to “clear your head” or “get some air” before going back to a difficult problem? Many of us discovered almost by accident what science now confirms: being in nature refreshes our mind and gives us an energy boost to improve productivity.

What it Looks Like

Outdoor learning isn’t just about asking the students to bring their notebooks (or iPads) outside. Instead it involves strategically and intentionally designing outdoor learning arenas on campus to serve various purposes. Some of these design elements include:

  • Green Roof (rooftop garden) with space for real-world learning
  • Science Patio for STEM experimentation
  • Landscape Architecture Integration for study of local wildlife and pollinator habitats

Practically, this means that if 7th period chemistry is learning the finer points of using blazing hot chemicals to burn through metal, they won’t have to find a section of the parking lot for their experiment. At other times teachers may bring their biology classes out to explore evidence of local wildlife. 

Additional Benefits You Might Not Have Considered 

If we haven’t yet convinced you that outdoor learning is worth a little extra attention, take a look at these additional benefits:

Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Developing Stewards of Creation

As Christians we have a charge to steward the gifts we've been given. More than 100 years ago Minnehaha Academy was planted on an incredible stretch of creation, and it's our desire to steward this gift well.

We hope that students will not only gain the physiological benefits of nature, but also develop a love for creation and sense of responsibility for how we cultivate and protect this gift we've been given. As they experience the incredible benefits of time in nature we believe that their respect and gratefulness for this gift will grow.

*Sources: SAGE Handbook of Outdoor Play and Learning; Journal of Planning Literature

Topics: Upper School, STEM, 3100 Campus

Preschool Butterfly Release [Photos]

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on May 24, 2018

Ms. Kispert's three-year-old preschool class released their Painted Lady butterflies today. Over the course of three weeks they patiently watched as the caterpillars transformed into butterflies.

They took care of the caterpillars by feeding them, and then watched as each turned into a chrysalis, and then finally emerged as butterflies. What an amazing process to observe!

The preschool students were delighted as each butterfly was released - some flying off immediately and some sitting for awhile taking in their new surroundings. The students found it interesting to think that the butterflies were experiencing the outdoors for the very first time, and they were able to witness it.

Topics: STEM, Lower School

Student Research Rockets Into Space

Posted by Melissa Mortenson on May 21, 2018

At 3:44 this morning nestled among the 7,400 pounds of equipment, cargo and supplies, an experiment designed to determine if copper crystals grow faster and stronger in space started its journey towards the International Space Station.

While this week’s routine resupply launch might not have been on your radar, for 14 students from Minnehaha Academy the launch represented the culmination a year’s worth of hard work, and even “non-morning person” Tim Swanson, the students’ science teacher, woke up early to watch the launch.

“Dr. Tweeten and I are so proud of all that the students did to send off this experiment. How could I not get up to watch it?” he said.

When the project arrives this Thursday morning it will join a select group of experiments NASA sends to the station.

Why copper crystals? If successful, the research the students prepared could be used as a model for growing copper crystals to be used in medicine, among other purposes.

This project is one of 25 sent into space by high school and college students from around the world, and the only one heading up from a Midwest high school.

“With every new resupply mission we’re seeing a wide range of innovative research and technology that can truly benefit life here on earth,” says Cynthia Bouthot, Director of Commercial Innovation for the partnership between the Center for Advancement of Science in Space and the International Space Station US National Lab. This research includes projects sent by commercial companies, academic researchers and student partners like our Minnehaha students.


This partnership increases students’ excitement for connecting STEM related learning with real-world applications and gives them a taste of what a future career in STEM related fields might look like.

This year’s ISS team included:

Grace Kirkpatrick, Daniel Stein, Abby Shaffer, Eli Smith, Grace Percich, Alex Cheng, Ava Perez Erickson, Andrew Mollison, Sammi Martin, Kayla Williams, Ellie Bedingham, Laura Shea, Isaac Rose, and Forrest Ahrens.

“They overcame a lot of odds and worked incredibly hard to get this project out on time,” says Swanson. “An extra high five to our team leader, Grace Kirkpatrick. We couldn't have done it without her!”

ISS Group Edited

Props to Dr. Tweeten, Mr. Swanson, the students and the parents who supported these hard-working high schoolers!


Topics: Upper School, STEM

Teacher Appreciation Tribute, by Nancy Cripe, Upper School Science Teacher

Posted by Melissa Mortenson on May 9, 2018
In 1968, Gordon Corbett began teaching science in my hometown on the coast of Maine. He was a larger-than-life Navy man and oceanographer who had survived two near-sinkings and decided to come ashore to teach sixth grade. That man—champion of space exploration, consummate storyteller, inventor of endless experiments, the embodiment of kindness and goodness—that man shaped my childhood and my future. He is my model and inspiration as a science teacher today. The August 2017 gas explosion at Minnehaha Academy brought Gordon Corbett back into my life, as he shared his own life lessons with me about explosions and tragedy in ways that helped me begin to move forward.
Nearly 50 years ago, Mr. Corbett prepared us like NASA astronauts-in-training for the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing, and took us in tow to marine labs, pipelines, beaches, and the Boston Museum of Science. Gordon Corbett was so innovative, passionate and infectious he couldn’t be contained in one classroom. He received Maine’s 1980 Teacher of the Year Award, saying he “wasn’t the best but represented the best.” When President Reagan announced in 1984 that a teacher would soon travel aboard the Challenger space shuttle in the Teacher in Space program, over 11,000 applied. Gordon Corbett became a finalist with his proposed lessons to teach American schoolchildren the science of the yo-yo in space; NASA selected Christa McAuliffe (“I touch the future: I teach”) instead. Mr. Corbett and other finalists were at Kennedy Space Center that cold January morning in 1986, watching as the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off. I remember seeing him on television that night with tears streaming down his face. “I’ve always taught my students that space is the future. Now what do I teach them?” A new science teacher myself by then, I needed him to answer his own question.

And he did. Gordon Corbett returned to his students with renewed determination: It is man’s destiny to fly. Space exploration—like any worthy enterprise—has no guarantee of safety. To rebuild is essential. Keep pursuing the dream.
In 2007, when Christa McAuliffe’s backup Barbara Morgan finally completed the successful Teacher In Space mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, Mr. Corbett wrote to me. "Finally after 22 years a teacher has flown. The dream was and still is alive! It has been a long wait and was an unfinished chapter in aerospace history. Now the torch is passed to a younger generation of astronauts, scientists, educators, students and dreamers."

Gordon Corbett passed the torch to me, and for 20 years I’ve tried my best to pass it to my science students. For three of those years I co-mentored Minnehaha Academy’s International Space Station team designing, building and launching experiments to the I.S.S. We lost our 2015 experiment when the unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying it exploded shortly after launch. Dealing with that disaster, I could hear Mr. Corbett’s voice: “It is our destiny to fly. Space exploration isn’t safe but it’s essential. Rebuild.”

On August 2, 2017, I was in the Minnehaha Academy computer lab when a gas explosion destroyed much of the Upper School and killed two colleagues. In recent months I’ve leaned once again on Gordon Corbett’s hard-won wisdom when facing unexpected tragedies and explosions: Commit to the essential work of rebuilding. Pursue the dream and the destiny.

I had the privilege of welcoming Gordon Corbett to my Minnehaha Academy science classes in April through the generosity of a Schuler Shoes Teacher Appreciation grant. We also gave a chapel message together to the Upper School. He spoke passionately about Christa McAuliffe’s motto, “I touch the future: I teach.” He told the students, “I love these words. I’ve touched the future—she’s sitting right here beside me, and she’s touching all of you. Some of you will go on to become teachers—you just don’t know it yet. You will touch the future. And that’s a very big responsibility and an awesome challenge and a great honor.”
To Gordon Corbett and my teaching colleagues everywhere during this 2018 Teacher Appreciation Week May 7-11: Receiving the torch is an awesome challenge and great honor. Let’s pass it on with responsibility, gratitude, and fresh dreams.


Topics: Upper School, STEM

Second Grade: Extreme Math Makeover!

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on Apr 13, 2018

Second graders are taking on an extreme math makeover! The fictional "Geometry" family has asked each second grader to design a room in their home for them using geometric shapes. (Because the Geometry family just loves geometry, of course!)

After learning all about 3-D geometric shapes in class and developing blueprints (to scale), construction on the prototypes has begun! Once the prototypes are complete, students will write a report explaining how their design meets the Geometry family's requirements. Then, they'll have an open house and will share their designs with other Minnehaha students.

Students are bringing their excitement and creativity to this fun hands-on math lesson - one where math, building, design, writing, and creativity come together for a great learning opportunity!


Topics: STEM, Lower School

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