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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Nashua Summer Science Sizzler Academy brings engineering to young students

Danielle Curtis

NASHUA – Groups of students were working throughout the classroom as their teacher explained the vocabulary that would be an integral part of the day’s lesson: kinetic energy, velocity, weight and gravity, to name a few.

But the classroom wasn’t full of high school students preparing for a physics exercise. ...

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NASHUA – Groups of students were working throughout the classroom as their teacher explained the vocabulary that would be an integral part of the day’s lesson: kinetic energy, velocity, weight and gravity, to name a few.

But the classroom wasn’t full of high school students preparing for a physics exercise.

It was full of 7-year-olds gearing up for another day at Nashua’s Summer Sizzlers Science Academy, a summer school program designed not to remediate struggling students, but to challenge all students, providing hands-on science curriculum that teaches engineering at a young age.

“This is a way for us to expose them to science curriculum that they don’t often have time to cover in school,” said academy Director Randy Calhoun. “Even for kids who struggle, you don’t see the deficits that you might in another setting. In the hands-on work, the kid who struggles with reading or math is often the one who is persistent, who ends up solving the problem.”

The third-year program has grown significantly since its inception, running programs at Fairgrounds Middle School, Fairgrounds Elementary School and Amherst Street Elementary School this summer.

The summer academy began as a program for students in Title I schools only, but after hearing interest from other students, it opened up to any interested child in grades 2-6 this year.

As a result, about 100 more students are taking part this year than last year, for a total of nearly 300 students.

“It grew quite a bit,” Calhoun said. “We had to add four or five new classrooms, and they were all full after our first application deadline.”

This growth, Calhoun said, has not only shown the interest that students have in learning more about science and engineering, but will also make the program more successful for those involved.

With more students from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels, each classroom has a better mix of high-level and struggling students.

And no matter what a child’s background is coming into the program, Calhoun said, the goal of the summer academy is the same: use hands-on learning and field trips to engage learners, boost student confidence in the STEM fields, and motivate them to learn more about science and engineering throughout their school careers.

“If these kids get exposure to the STEM fields now, it might extend through their lives,” he said. “They’ll be more likely to take high-level math classes in middle school and high school to get ready to enter these fields. We shouldn’t wait for middle school for students to see this stuff.”

The summer academy began July 8 and has been getting students working on engineering projects ever since.

From building and launching trebuchets to learning about bridge design, students in all grade levels have been studying different types of engineering and working to put those lessons into practice.

They’ve gone on field trips around New Hampshire and Massachusetts, visiting the Boston Museum of Science and Squam Lake Science Center.

On Tuesday, students at Fairgrounds Middle School were learning about electrical circuits, listening to a lecture from their teacher and then building their own circuits, in hopes of being able to power a lightbulb.

The elementary students in the program were learning about windmills and trying to figure out the best way to design a high-powered one.

They were starting small, looking at sails first, determining which design would best catch the wind from a fan and discovering the best materials to make the sails out of.

Once the students choose a sail design, Calhoun said, they’ll put them to use building a windmill.

Ayush Kumar, 7, was having success with his sail, a simple rectangle-shaped piece of thin cardboard attached to a straw. As teacher Kelly Mariano placed the sail on a string track and turned on the classroom fan, the sail zoomed about 3 feet along the string before landing on a desk.

Still, Kumar was not satisfied.

“It was too slow,” he said. “I think I’ll try covering it in tinfoil.”

Seven-year-old Jenna Ross was working on a similar project, designing a new sail after deciding her original design, a small paper triangle, was not strong enough.

She decided to try making a sail out of several layers of wax paper instead, and making it a square instead of a triangle.

“I don’t really know if it will work,” she said, laughing. “I just thought of it.”

Calhoun said this trial and error is an important part of the summer academy. Teachers are trained to teach less and facilitate learning more, he said, not giving students the answers but asking them questions to get them thinking about problem solving on their own.

Helping students solve challenges on their own, Calhoun said, can build students’ confidence and carry over into all areas of education, from science and math to reading and writing.

“The first week, the students tend to get frustrated,” he said, smiling. “By the second week, they’re much more persistent. They’re collaborating, and they can come to the answers themselves.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached
at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).