TAG students benefit from trial and error

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Isabella Torkelson (left), Evelyn Ruff and Tricia Bacon work on their air drop packages during a recent TAG session at the MFL MarMac McGregor Center. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Holden Mathis (left) and Kole Pape, with the help of Nate Weber, test their fish’s prosthetic tail.

Amelya Weigand (left) and Kaylee Nuehring use Play-doh to help form the fish's prosthetic tail.

Mindy Keehner hopes pipe cleaners will help the "fish."

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Designing animal prosthetics, creating air drop packages to deliver food to disaster victims: these sound like activities conducted in high-tech laboratories. While that may be true, they’re also happening within the walls of the MFL MarMac McGregor Center, where students in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program are taking on real-world engineering scenarios.

Around 40 students in fourth through eighth grade participate in the program, which gives them an opportunity to experience new learning challenges and think in ways they might not in the regular classroom.

They’re selected based upon their Iowa Assessment test scores, as well as teacher recommendations.

“They’re kids who are thinking differently and asking questions others don’t,” explained TAG adviser Natalie Heiring, who also teaches art at the middle school.

Although Heiring meets with the TAG students regularly, she’s had help this year from Nate Weber, K-12 outreach program coordinator with Clayton County’s Iowa State Extension Office. 

The Extension office, noted Weber, applied for a STEM Scale-up grant, which provided funding for curriculum materials. He visits MFL MarMac, along with Central and Clayton Ridge Schools, to share those resources.

“It’s helped a lot,” Heiring said. “He brings in different things.”

Among the activities Weber has initiated are the air drop packages and animal prosthetics.

The fourth and fifth graders are designing the aid packages. It begins, Weber detailed, with students receiving an “email” that a tsunami has struck Thailand. They’re challenged to develop packaging that will help deliver food safely.

“They try different aspects of packaging,” said Weber. “They talk about parachutes and canopies.”

The packages are filled with marbles and pasta, then tested at several height levels. 

“They count all that’s damaged to see how well they did,” he noted.

There are failures, but that’s OK.

“One of the lessons is failing,” Weber remarked. “We talk about how frustrating it can be, but also what we can learn when we fail, how we can make it better when we fail.”

Meanwhile, the sixth through eighth graders are focusing their attention on the animal prosthetics. 

“They’re given a story and a problem, and they have to design something based on that,” Weber said. 

They began by designing and building a life vest for a corgi, followed by a foot for an elephant and a beak for an eagle. Now, the challenge is to develop a tail for a fish.

In this case, the fish is a plastic water bottle. Students used everything from Play-doh and plastic wrap to popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners to form the prosthetic. They then attached it to the “fish” and tested it in a tub of water.

“They’re constantly testing and re-testing,” Weber shared.

While copying others’ work is frowned upon in other classes, Weber said, in TAG, it’s OK.

“It’s OK to take something you’ve seen and modify it,” he said. “They learn from each other.”

Unlike at the elementary level, where Weber said he guides the activities, he tries to let middle school students lead the way.

“They have to work together and stay focused,” he noted. “That work and collaboration is what they need.”

Another new aspect of TAG this year is that Heiring’s schedule has allowed her to bring TAG into classrooms and offer more diversified lessons.

She recently worked with the fifth grade social studies class, which was studying the 13 Colonies. Students made candles and butter and enjoyed 18th century games.

“I helped teach one session and [teacher Shauna Lange] did the others,” Heiring said. “It was interactive, and everybody got to do it. Those hands-on activities help them learn.”

She’ll be back with the fifth grade for an upcoming unit on the Oregon Trail. There are plans to simulate a wagon ride and create a live Oregon Trail game, similar to the popular computer game.

“Every kid can learn these things,” Heiring shared. “That’s the goal. That’s why I’m getting out more into the classrooms.”

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on MFL MarMac’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program, or Enrichment, as it’s called at the elementary level. To learn more about the elementary school’s activities, which were featured last week, check out the news tab here at

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