School grant bolsters Scarborough's STEM initiatives

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SCARBOROUGH — Computer Science Education Week was cause for coding and celebration last week.

Now-former state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, and Laura Perloff, senior director of advocacy and strategic alliances for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, on Dec. 3 announced a $2,000 grant to Scarborough Middle School.

The STEM Talent Pipeline grant will be used to support various science, technology, engineering and math initiatives at the school.

Volk, who nominated SMS for the grant, said in a news release that by “encouraging students to explore different basic STEM skills in the classroom, (schools) are building a strong foundation for these students’ future studies and to continue studying STEM.”

Scott Daigle, who teaches STEM courses at the middle school, said through various resources, such as a makerspace, woodworking shop and computer labs, studies are focused on both physical and digital problem-solving. 

“This helps them in all aspects of their life,” Daigle said. “Not just schooling.”

He added it was nice having Volk and Perloff visit the school and talk to students about possible STEM career paths because it “bridged the gap between what they’re doing in class and what they could be doing for careers.”

At the middle school, students can take courses in technology, engineering, and computer science, where they learn how to write computer code.

But in Scarborough, the work starts earlier than middle school. 

For the past four years, Scarborough students in grades K-2 haven’t only participated in the annual Hour of Code during Computer Science in Education Week, but have expanded to a full Week of Code, which ran this year from Dec. 3-7, as a kick-off to their computer science curriculum. 

According to Technology Integrator Coach Courtney Graffius, students participate in coding activities all week, from having a presenter discuss how technology is used in their field, to robotics and both “unplugged and plugged” coding activities. 

“Supporting our youngest students in STEM studies catches all of our students, girls and boys, when they are naturally inquisitive and willing to take risks, qualities required both for inquiry and design,” Graffius said. “It evens the playing field and catches our students from a ripe age, helping them to know that science, technology, engineering and math are meant for them.”

At Wentworth School, which houses grades 3-5, each student attends Sarah Athearn’s and Branden Johnson’s STEM class once a week all year long. 

Now in its fourth year, Athearn said Wentworth’s STEM program is focused on teaching engineering design, computer science, robotics and CAD design and 3D printing.

“Branden and I truly believe that STEM education is so important to be introduced at an early age, to give kids the process skills of critical thinking, analysis, design-thinking, and problem-solving early on so that it just comes naturally later in their academic careers,” Athearn said. “For me personally, I also want to inspire young girls to see themselves in a STEM career. I strive to show them that technology and engineering is also a creative and artistic field that is craving more female influence.”

Wentworth Principal Kelli Crosby said administrators recently learned the middle school was able to eliminate a course because students were already arriving with the technology skills that were previously taught in that course.

“Our students have so many incredible opportunities to generate and test hypothesis using technology and, to me, 21st-century learning is all about problem-solving,” Crosby said. “Sarah and Branden have worked diligently with school and district leaders to identify standards and design rigorous curriculum and engaging experiences for our students.”

At the high school level, STEM studies have taken shape in an ecosystem students have created with the help of Albert McCormack, who teaches environmental science to students in grades 9-12. 

The aquaponics program, which was started last year with a $2,000 grant from the Scarborough Education Foundation, is continuously evolving, McCormack said. 

Aquaponics is a method of growing fish and plants together in one system, with an aquarium below and garden on top. Through the system, microbes convert fish waste to be used as fertilizer for the plants and the plants filter the water back for the fish.

“As long as you are feeding the fish and growing plants up top (the system) is going to sustain itself,” McCormack said. 

The system was built strategically in the school’s Learning Commons right next to its front entrance, so all students can observe and learn from it. One student, who’s interested in information technologies, will be creating a time-lapse of plant growth. 

“It’s more a way for kids with all sorts of interests to be part of something in an easy, non-committal way,” McCormack said. 

The program, McCormack noted, fits right into STEM curriculum, which, he said, has become more “robust” in recent years to help students find specific interests within science, technology, engineering and math and build career pathways thereon. 

“One thing that … could be focused more on (in schools) is functional problem-solving,” McCormack said. “Its something that’s brought up in many classes (as well as) everyday life.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Scarborough elementary school students celebrated Computer Science Education Week with a week of coding from Dec. 3-9. 

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