Boys and Girls Clubs seek to boost Harford STEM education

After-school program piques scientific curiosity

March 26, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

With a balloon, a straw, a clothespin, tape and string, a group of young scientists designed a rocket that could fly across a room on a trajectory between two chairs.

During their aerodynamics experiment, the children discovered that as the balloon releases air, it will travel along the string from one point to another. Then, they tested the theory with multiple balloons and organized races in their lab at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club in Harford County.

"I learned how to make a rocket out of a balloon today," said Jeremy Valerio, 12. "With just a little material, you can make something big."

During a 10-week, after-school program, a dozen children are pursuing informal science lessons, meeting with area scientists and engineers, and testing their own math and science skills. So far, they have built a battleship replica, studied molecular structure and mastered a bit of rocketry. After they interviewed an engineer who described a playground built for robots, they scheduled a field trip to see it. They will soon study magnets, electric currents and robotics.

"These experiments make you think more with your brain," said Iyonna Henson, 9.

The club provides opportunities in a "full STEM ahead" approach designed to generate interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

"The classes teach them the fundamentals and get them engaged with hands-on and fun lessons," said Susan Ciavolino, their teacher. "We want to ignite that spark that shows them they can be scientists."

The 90-minute sessions help the children develop problem-solving and research skills and build a team approach, she said.

School systems across the country are increasing STEM opportunities for students as part of a push by the Obama administration. The studies are particularly significant in Harford County, given its proximity to Aberdeen Proving Ground. The Army post, already one of the county's largest employers, is expected to grow by as many as 10,000 jobs as part of the nationwide military base realignment known as BRAC. Most of those new job opportunities will be in highly technical fields.

The Northeastern Maryland Technology Council represents the industries and government that could eventually employ budding scientists like those in the after-school program.

"We are strongly committed to enlarging the pipeline of technology students," said John Casner, executive director of the council. "These programs fill the need, help build excitement for science and educate these children. It will help them think for themselves and augment what they learn in school."

Asha Hall, a materials engineer contracted to the Army Research Lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground, was guest scientist at the class Tuesday. She enthralled the children with a description of micro-air vehicles that resemble insects.

"They go on secret missions, equipped with tiny cameras, audio devices and sensors that can sniff like a dog," she told the children.

Then, she partnered with Adrian Batalon, 9, and encouraged him as he set up the rocket experiment.

"I am impressed with their energy and enthusiasm," Hall said. "They figured out how much air the balloon needs to go faster. This is definitely fun learning for them."

Kristen Brock, 20, a math and chemistry major at Harford Community College, is assisting in the class. She and Brianna Hill, 10, were the first team to successfully launch a balloon rocket and the first to complete a double-balloon launch.

"The kids are getting a lot out of this," Brock said. "They are pulling from what they learn in school and re-applying it to what they do here."

Hill has not studied much on the laws of motion but said she "learned that you can use different materials to make something move."

While visiting the class, Tara Jessup was drawn into her son Jordan's experiment. As soon as their rocket succeeded, she asked the 12-year-old to repeat the test so she could photograph it.

"Science is already his top subject," she said. "He is getting so much out of this class."

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