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Grant feeds Falmouth High School appetite for science

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Grant feeds Falmouth High School appetite for science

FALMOUTH — Students at Falmouth High School could be working in a high-tech lab in the near future after the school received $20,000 in seed money for a more robust Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program.

The start-up funding, provided by the Perloff Foundation through the Maine Community Foundation, is a third of the School Department's $60,000 goal. The money will used to purchase digital fabrication and robotic equipment for students to use in the STEM program.

"It's important for kids to not only have exposure, but to use equipment to solve problems," said David Perloff, an entrepreneur-engineer, who splits his time between Maine and Silicon Valley in California. "This will help provide them with a critical mass of equipment for students."

The School Department is providing $10,000 for the program. Falmouth High School STEM teacher John Kraljic said they also hope to receive additional funding from the Falmouth Education Foundation and local businesses.

The money coordinates with Falmouth's recently acquired STEM diploma endorsement, which 17 Falmouth High School students earned last school year.

One of the reasons Perloff said he chose to give Falmouth additional money, in addition to grants his foundation already provides the department, was that they already have a solid STEM foundation. New equipment could be weaved into the existing program more easily.

The Falmouth STEM program is ahead of most other programs in the state. The program has a workshop complete with digital routers, a 3D printer and other computer-controlled mechanics.

"No one has anything quite like this," Kraljic said, noting that other school departments have active STEM programs, but lack the facilities and equipment.

Perloff said these programs and skills are essential for young people to learn to address real-world problems. He said STEM has helped rekindle an older style of learning.

"Kids are learning by doing now, and we had gotten away from that," he said, noting students in the 1950s used Erector Sets the way modern-day STEM students are using new technology. "Really we're just coming back to the heart of where we started."

The Falmouth STEM program also plans to coordinate with universities, said Andrew Njaa, another STEM teacher at the high school.

Starting this school year, they will have a UNE graduate student assist Falmouth students with projects. Njaa said they hope the relationship will help students by connecting them with university facilities and equipment.

"The expectation at top schools is not (Advanced Placement) classes anymore," he said, "but that you've hacked a robot."

In addition to their other grants, the Perloff Foundation is helping to encourage robotics and programming skills among students in 70 Maine school districts, including the Falmouth schools, as the principal source for the LEGO robotics program.

Perloff said the early introduction to STEM is vital to maintaining student interest and ensuring their success in these programs.

"We have elementary school kids who are programming now. Kids will be arriving (in high school) who already have a skill set in a more advanced language," he said. "What we really want to do is have a long progression, where kids aren't burning out on science. I think that's what we're really trying to do here."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.