2013-09-06 / Front Page

New S.T.E.M. initiative unveiled

Kennebunk High School refines science and math curriculum
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum at Kennebunk High School is being refined for the 2013-14 school year. The shift in curriculum is being spearheaded by mathematics instructor Alan Carp, who was just recently named S.T.E.M. coordinator for the high school.

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program, which all students in Regional School Unit 21 are exposed to in some capacity, is largely funded by the Education Foundation. The Foundation, which prides itself on furthering academic excellence at all grade levels, is privately funded and often hosts localized events and activities for students such as the Julia Robinson Math Festival for fifth-graders in May. S.T.E.M. is one of the largest ongoing projects funded by the Education Foundation.

“In a nutshell, (high school principal) Sue Cressey and Assistant Superintendent Sara Zito have wanted to start a S.T.E.M. initiative for a few years now,” Carp said. “Sue and I had a number of conversations about how to best implement a top-notch program for our students. As an engineer for 20 years and seven as a math teacher, I am happy to share my insights on how to better prepare students for careers in math and science.

“S.T.E.M. initiatives across the country are doing a great job of promoting these fields of study and attracting students to them. Students are excited and S.T.E.M. classes in middle schools and high schools are full. A major problem in the country, however, is the rate at which students that go off to college to study science, technology, engineering and math drop out or change their majors in the first year — more than 60 percent in most studies,” Carp said. “It seems that there is a disconnect between what high schools are turning out and what colleges expect.”

In an effort to align curriculum with what colleges expect of incoming freshman, Kennebunk High School is being more concrete and decisive about what is expected from S.T.E.M. students.

Additions to the S.T.E.M. program include a new robotics class and a new pre-engineering class. “We’re formalizing the program,” Carp said. The formalization includes a tangible goal for students to work towards.

“If students can complete a certain amount of hours, they will earn S.T.E.M. certification,” Carp said. Basic certification requires 16 hours, one hour per class. Students can even begin working toward their certification the first semester of their freshman year with classes such as algebra I.

“Our S.T.E.M. program allows students to choose a variety of classes over their four years at KHS, from robotics to pre-engineering, physics to calculus, drafting to computer programming,” Carp said.

New materials for the newly minted robotics course are being funded by the Perloff Family Foundation as part of its STEM4ME Grants.

The goal of S.T.E.M., especially this year, said Carp, is to increase hands-on learning and experience by working with mechanics, mathematics and science, and programming. “A lot of classes offer some of these areas,” Carp said. “What we’re doing with S.T.E.M. is having one class students have when they can put it all together and watch it work.”

Carp reported that the new S.T.E.M program will cater to all students, including those who don’t particularly excel in math and science. “We encourage students typically not enrolled in these advanced-level courses to take them as well,” Carp said. “By offering a pass/fail option, students who feel they may struggle now have no pressure other than to learn. A student that may want to work as a mechanic, draftsman or fisherman can work alongside future scientists and engineers,” Carp said.

The objective of implementing a more concrete S.T.E.M. curriculum, said Carp, is to keep the classroom interesting while also providing the necessary rigor that comes with intensive learning.

“Our faculty is one of the few in the state that can teach classes as advanced as advanced placement computer science, multivariable calculus and a college-level physics class,” said Carp.

S.T.E.M. curriculum has made an appearance in classrooms across the nation in various forms. Dave Auckley, associate director for the National Association of Math Circles, joined fifth-graders at the Julia Robinson Math Festival — one of several extensions of the S.T.E.M. curriculum.

When asked in May why he thinks gatherings like the Julia Robinson Math Festival are important for all students to be a part of, as opposed to just gifted and talented students, Auckly said, “Let me use a sports analogy. Imagine how the U.S. would do at basketball if the only time people were exposed to it was in a classroom setting where they ran drills and were given grades. People learn much more about basketball by playing games for the sheer joy of the sport, than they ever would if it was just a school activity.”

“In addition to making better basketball players, this part of our culture makes the entire populace healthier,” Auckly said. “The fact that it is culturally acceptable to play basketball for fun, not only encourages people who like basketball to play, it also encourages people to explore other sports. Open-ended problem solving is an important skill for most of the interesting jobs. A more interesting job would collect a team of people together and ask them to arrive at new ideas to address some important situation. Taught properly, mathematics will give people experience creating new ideas to tackle novel problems, and this is a skill that is important even when someone does not use standard mathematical algorithms,” Auckly said.

Over the next several years, said Carp, the intention is to add one class per year. For example, an advanced computer programming class is in the works, along with a senior project and a senior internship program.

Another idea bouncing back and forth between Carp and Sheila Wells, S.T.E.M. coordinator for elementary and middle school-aged students, is having students begin a project in the fifth grade, and works on it through middle school and high school before concluding the project during the student’s senior year.

“Our goal,” Carp said, “is to not just attract students to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, but to make sure they will succeed in these careers after post-secondary school.”

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