April 17, 2024

Connecting kids to their futures

Mark Patten has been hard at work giving his students opportunities to gain real-world experience through various STEM projects.

AFTON - When it comes to supporting their students, teachers have to understand how the curriculum they teach will extend beyond the classroom. One teacher at East Union understands this perfectly.

Mark Patten is an upper elementary science teacher for East Union who has worked diligently on multiple grants to improve his teaching and curriculum. He’s taught in the district for 10 years.

Patten’s teaching style is built on a foundation of real-world application of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) ideas. “My personal goal is to bring real life experience into my classroom,” he said. “My goal is to have my students looking forward to what they actually want to do when they get out of school.”


Last week, Patten detailed his positive changes to the curriculum including how an awarded $40,000 STEM grant he received would be used for East Union, alongside other community contributions, during a regular school board meeting.

One of the community contributions Patten was able to obtain were multiple gardening sets from Walmart. The store had excess inventory and a manager who contacted the school offered them for free.

Patten described the conversation during the meeting. “He said, ‘I want you to come over and see what I got because I don’t want to overwhelm you with what I got,’” said Patten. “Well, I’ll just take whatever you have, you know, I work for a public school; I’ll take whatever you can throw at me.”

Racks, planting trays, heating trays and lights ended up packed into Patten’s truck, $6,000 worth of supplies. Walmart was gracious enough not to ask for payment, only thanks and documentation of what the supplies would be used for.

Tomatoes, peppers, flowers and other plants are being grown by students taught by Patten using these supplies. These activities can help teach students about sustainable lifestyles.

A few of the planter projects that are being used by Patten's classroom. The trays and racks were donated by Walmart.

In the classroom

When entering Patten’s classroom, the noticeable perimeter is surrounded with potential projects for students, from miniature circuit boards, planter farms, drones and structural engineering sets. All of these projects fit into the curriculum in some way to ignite a student’s potential interests.

Each of these sets help teach students real-world applications for STEM ideas. If a student shows aptitude for a certain project, Patten encourages the student to take the project home and continue working on it with their own time.

This allows for students to have a level of independence in student’s choices and interests. “That’s something I can do here at East Union schools,” said Patten. “I can provide opportunities for those kids that they may not otherwise get.”

Patten told a story about one of his students who was inspired by the planting activity. The student was initially resistant to learning in class, but, after the project was introduced, he wanted to dedicate his recess time to his project.

“He wholeheartedly invested himself into this stuff,” said Patten. “He wants to stay in during recess and start planting stuff. He just wants to do this.”

Patten sees himself as a “connector,” specifically connecting students’ interests to a real-world application and potential occupation. “I want to my students to understand what opportunities are out there and capitalize on those opportunities,” he said. “That ties in to what I’m trying to do.”

Whether a student shows an affinity for electrician’s work, planting, engineering, design or a plethora of other options, Patten has found a way to incorporate a potential project for them.

Outside the school

Fascination with STEM and its real-world applications extended outside the classroom for Patten and has led to seek out other opportunities to inspire his teaching.

In the summers of 2020 and 2021, Patten worked for Whiterock Conservancy, a campground in Coon Rapids, participating in a variety of activities for the group, from obtaining and cutting firewood to building a large pollinator garden.

Patten was able to access this opportunity through the STEM Iowa Externship Program. One of the goals the program outlines is to “give teachers the opportunity to see and use the latest real-world applications STEM disciplines in a local business or industry.”

The tools and programs given to students from these STEM grants are similar to the introduction of a strong computer science program into East Union, which eventually sprouted into a large interest in computer science within the students.

Collaboration with other classes and understanding where the students will be headed next is a big part of teaching as well. Patten frequently communicates with teachers in other grades to be able to prepare students for their future classes.


Patten wouldn’t be able to give these opportunities to his students without the support of East Union’s administration encouraging and assisting him through the grant writing process.

He wanted to give thanks to the East Union Elementary Principal Joan Gordon for encouragement to complete the grant writing as well as Iowa STEM for the opportunity itself. Superintendent Tim Kuehl, Rhiannon Tessum, Dawn Arnold and the EU School Board offered assistance and support. Casey Wenstrand and Tanya Hunt, who work for the Southwest Iowa STEM hub, also offered guidance and information on how other schools were using their STEM awards.

Patten wants East Union to succeed, and he recognizes how important the entire staff can be. “We don’t talk ourselves up enough,” he said. “We’re humble. Everybody I work with here is humble.”

Throughout all the hard work he’s done, Patten still doesn’t see teaching kids as work. “I have never in my life referred to going to school as going to work,” he said. “[My family], they always say, how was school today? They never say how was work today. That is so important, I worked for a living as well and that sucks. I’m doing something that I like to do now.”

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.