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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Learning Studios program puts education into students’ hands

Danielle Curtis

If Lizzie Cassady’s idea comes to fruition, students everywhere will have much lighter backpacks.

Cassady is working to design an e-reader made especially for textbooks, with advanced features tailored to students, including in-text note-taking, quizzes and test preparations built into each chapter, and a cloud network that would help students share notes and ideas with classmates. ...

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If Lizzie Cassady’s idea comes to fruition, students everywhere will have much lighter backpacks.

Cassady is working to design an e-reader made especially for textbooks, with advanced features tailored to students, including in-text note-taking, quizzes and test preparations built into each chapter, and a cloud network that would help students share notes and ideas with classmates.

While e-readers on the market already allow students to download some textbooks, Cassady said she believes her idea is different.

“The reason students haven’t jumped on board with e-textbooks is because there hasn’t been one made for them,” she told a group of people who gathered last month to hear about her idea.

While Cassady’s idea is interesting on its own, it’s even more intriguing knowing that she is not some business mogul or technology expert. She is a high school junior, working on a school project.

Cassady is one of four students at Nashua’s Academy for Science and Design charter school participating in a new Learning Studios program. Students in the program aim to solve a modern-day problem, creating and working on independent learning projects to create a program or product that could help the community.

The program, which juniors and seniors can participate in for a semester or full year, is in its first year at the charter school, and teachers involved said they hope to bring community partners on board in the coming months, to help turn students’ ideas into a reality.

“We always want to give students ownership of their education,” said ASD social studies teacher Douglass Belley. “This program gives them that.”

Students involved in the program presented their work so far to fellow students and staff members last month before the holiday break.

Cassady’s project not only involved the idea of a new form of e-reader made for students, it also looked at the probability of creating, marketing and selling such a device.

The design features a double screen, letting the e-reader open like a book and allowing users to view two pages at once.

While Cassady said she believes students would like this design, it also would make the device more expensive to manufacture, and therefore more expensive for school districts. Cassady estimated that the e-reader could be sold for about $500 each.

And while this would be a high cost for many school systems, especially as budget cuts loom over many, in the long run, she said, they could save money, as updates to books can be simple downloaded, instead of purchasing whole new books.

Wide use of the devices also could help the environment, by cutting down on paper usage, and benefit students, many of whom carry more weight on their backs then is healthy, thanks to textbooks.

Even if educators might hesitate about the purchase of such a device, Cassady said, students would be interested.

“We want to get into the tech game, but we’re kind of held back,” she said. “At ASD, we already use a lot of technology. But I think it’s very important to get technology into the typical high school environment.”

ASD junior Maxwell Landry also presented a Learning Studios project last month, sharing his plans to develop a lightweight epicyclic gear transmission for robotics.

It’s a topic that would fly over the heads of most highly educated adults, but one that Landry spoke about with ease, as he discussed the benefits such a product would have for students involved in FIRST robotics, like himself, as well as robotics manufacturers around the world.

An epicyclic gear transmission is part of a robot or other electronic device that helps it move. While lightweight models exist, they rarely allow the user to shift easily between two gears, Landry said. His design would allow the user to do just that.

He said that in FIRST robotics, students have a weight limit when building their devices and added that a lightweight transmission would be a big benefit.

A friend first started studying epicyclic gear transmissions last year, Landry said, and he wanted to expand on the idea for his project. Going forward, he hopes to bring his 3-D designs for the product to life, sending it to a 3-D printer and making the device.

If he can, Landry said he wants to work with a community partner to manufacture and market the product to not only FIRST teams throughout the country, but also robotics companies.

“The future of robotics is always expanding,” he said. “I think a lighter, more compact transmission could go a long way.”

Another project coming out of the Learning Studios program is a cross-country training program for middle school students, which would tailor training sessions for runners depending on their current activity level, time commitment and goals.

A fourth student has spent her independent learning time studying laundry and more economical and sustainable ways to dry clothes. Her research has brought her through dozens of loads of laundry and many different techniques for drying clothes, from hanging them on an outdoor line in all varieties of weather and temperatures, and indoors, in many different environments.

Belley and fellow staffer Andrew Myers, who are leading the Learning Studios program, said they’ve been blown away by the students’ work.

While students do have a regular class period dedicated to the program, most of that class time is used to work out any problems the students encounter during their research. The bulk of the project work, Belley said, is done by students outside class time.

He said he thinks the students are gaining a lot from the program. Not only have they been able to work on interesting, self-driven projects that they enjoy, they’ve also learned a lot about conducting research, giving presentations and turning ideas into a product.

“We’re really looking forward to getting more students involved,” he said.

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