May 2012 Issue
April 17, 2012

Galway local initiates after-school tech program for middle schoolers

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Galway teacher Carrie Herron shows student Maya Vanderhorst how to use the statapult during the Galway TA's after-school STEM Enrichment Initiative. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Galway teacher Carrie Herron shows student
Maya Vanderhorst how to use the statapult
during the Galway TA's after-school STEM
Enrichment Initiative. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

If you walked by Galway Elementary School's cafeteria on a recent afternoon and saw all the ping pong and plastic golf balls flying, you might think it was a high-energy, after-school recreation program.

But the three dozen students were engaged in something quite academic — a pilot program aimed at introducing middle school students to math, statistics and the fast-growing world of nanotechnology.

Using a medieval-looking contraption called a statapult, the students worked to figure out the best way to launch the ping pong and golf balls the farthest. With two types of balls, 20 pull-back positions and six launch angles, there were literally hundreds of different ways to do it.

"The object is to change the variables to find the best combo to optimize the distance," said seventh-grade science teacher Jim Reynolds. "Your goal is optimization, just like technicians building a semiconductor would do."

For nearly an hour, the students worked in teams to take measurements, collect data, make scatter plots and best of all, launch the statapults.

"They don't realize how much they're learning," said math teacher Carrie Herron, who noted the statapult module is a classic math-and-statistics exercise integrating numerous high-level skills. "At middle school level, this is the time the kids get most excited about these kind of activities. We want to hook them now so they'll take more math and science in high school and hopefully think about technical careers."

That's the thinking behind the Galway Teachers Association's after-school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Enrichment Inititative. The year-long pilot program combines hands-on lessons and labs with panel discussions and field trips.

So one month participants were introduced to the world of nanotechnology as they wore kitchen mitts and experienced how difficult it was to build with Legos. Another month, students used a "feet on" exercise, like the game Twister, to simulate the electric circuit flow in a calculator after learning about binary code. Students also took a personality trait test to see if they might be cut out for potential STEM careers.

At an evening commmunity session, parents and students attended a panel discussion to learn more about future career opportunities in the STEM field. The program will end with a field trip to SUNY Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, so students can see how STEM skills culminate in the fabrication of micro-chips that influence almost everything we use in our daily lives, from computers to cell phones.

Herron, who is president of the Galway TA, said the union stepped up to co-sponsor the after-school enrichment program this year after she, Reynolds and colleagues Kristyn Akin and Rachel Clay attended NYSUT's SEMI High Tech U program for two days last summer.

"We were eager to bring back some of what we learned at the Semi High Tech U program and this after-school program seemed like the perfect fit," Herron said, noting the TA is footing most of the costs and asked the students for only $20 for the year. "After-school offerings and enrichment activities have been cut dramatically — we felt this was one way for our association to give back and show how much we care about the students."

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said the Galway program shows how strong professional development offerings like Semi High Tech U can inspire teachers to bring new ideas into their schools and classrooms.

"Giving teachers the tools to successfully implement STEM education has been at the heart of several NYSUT programs," Neira said. "As jobs requiring STEM skills continue to grow, we need to motivate and excite more students to pursue STEM and high-tech careers."

In the last five years, NYSUT's Semi High Tech U program, which is co-sponsored by industry partners and higher education institutions, has trained hundreds of teachers from around the state during week-long summer sessions. Participants have reported great success in bringing what they learned back to their classrooms.

"This is by far the best professional development I've ever been part of," said Mark Kaercher, a North Colonie teacher who helped rewrite the high school's math curriculum to integrate more real-world lessons from the nano-tech market.

Schenectady High School's Bill Pickett built about nine statapults with his intern, to use in his earth science class for a measurement unit. "The students had a blast and it seemed to be more entertaining than measuring their desks," Pickett said.

Pickett and Richard Myott, a physics teacher from Argyle Central School, shared what they learned with colleagues at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning in March. Teachers from around the state attended their workshop, "Small Scale — Big Ideas," which offered practical applications to integrate math, science and technology activities into the existing curriculum and the New York State Common Core standards.

"Attending SEMI High Tech U was some of the most beneficial and well spent professional development time of my 25 years of teaching," Myott said. "I was able to walk away with materials, ideas and contacts that helped our district to implement a nanotechnology survey course. Our students have ultimately reaped the rewards of this program, and that's what it's all about."