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From a seed, a STEM grows

By John Published: May 13, 2010
Teachers Julie Hogarth, Perkins Pringle and Carol Schweizer work on putting together books for the library in the main office at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Learning in Akron. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal)

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer


Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

— Henry D. Thoreau

Four boys sat in Amanda Boyd's fifth-grade language arts classroom long after the lunch bell on the first day of middle school, looking expectantly at her.

Boyd was about to turn out the lights and asked them why they weren't heading to the cafeteria.

''Aren't you going to take us?'' they asked?

In elementary school, teachers conduct orderly lines of children whenever they venture out of the classroom.

She assured them she would lead the way today, but they were responsible for getting themselves to lunch.

Middle school overwhelms some kids with new liberties and responsibilities in a new building.

No more cubbies in a single classroom; now they have lockers with combination locks. No more single classrooms; they have schedules of classes. And no one teacher shepherds them

through the day; they have different teachers for different subjects.

But this wasn't just the first day of school; Aug. 26 was the first day of a new Akron middle school designed to hook kids on math and science before they decided those subjects were too hard or boring.

Chosen by lottery from throughout the district and beyond, these students were the first fifth- and sixth-graders of the new school: The National Inventors Hall of Fame School . . . Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] Learning.

Interconnected classes

They spent much of the first day setting up Internet accounts for their school-issued laptop computers, which had a screen with a tablet on the reverse side to write on. That was new. They had their own computers that they would have to keep charged every day.

They also began to see that things were done a little differently here. Teachers, who were to be called ''learning coaches,'' popped into each other's rooms throughout the day. Classes melted into each other. They talked about math in science class and science in language arts.

All of their studies — even gym class — would be interconnected and relevant, the way that the lives of flowering plants, bugs, frogs, birds and other critters inhabiting a meadow are interconnected and relevant.

Educators had been planning the new math and science middle school since 2003 with the district, the city, the local university and local businesses all staking money and reputation on its success.

No regular Akron middle school had ever passed a state science test; only one has ever passed a math test.

Teachers had long suspected that the typical read-a-chapter, take-a-quiz instruction in middle school failed to motivate students, even those who had been excited about math and science in elementary school.

Using a method known as project-based learning, they hoped to provide students with opportunities to struggle with real-world problems and experience the potentially addictive rush of solving them.

For years the school had existed only on the drawing board. Now real students walked the halls, but until they claimed ownership of their education, the school would remain the dream of adults.

Showing interest

There was certainly no shortage of wonder on the first day of school, especially in Jill Holcomb's fifth-grade science class when the discussion turned to spiders.

''Have you ever put a tarantula and a black widow together?'' Gaylord Mathews asked the teacher.

''No. What do you think would happen?'' Holcomb asked.

''I did it,'' Gaylord said. ''I don't want to do it again.''

''You really did do that?'' Holcomb asked.

The rest of the class chimed in: ''What happened? What happened? Yeah, what happened?''

''Long story, short,'' Gaylord began, warming to his tale.

He explained that he found the black widow spider in a log pile.

''In my book, it said that it would live anywhere it was damp,'' he said.

''I didn't want to pick it up so I called my dad, and he picked it up and put it in a jar. And then, I have a pet tarantula. I put it with the pet tarantula; the tarantula lost,'' he said.

''What? Seriously?'' Holcomb asked.

''SERIOUSLY?'' the class echoed.

''My dad was mad at me for putting them together,'' he said.

''I thought a tarantula was bigger than a black widow,'' said an incredulous classmate, Caitlyn Jarvis.

''Yeah, but one bite with a black widow — something's gonna die,'' Gaylord said.

That curiosity, however macabre, is common in fifth-graders but often doesn't survive the middle-school years, when too many boys and girls decide they aren't cut out for math and science.

The school's teachers had been working since last spring on a project that would involve both grades across all disciplines to harness that sense of wonder while it was still fresh and potent.

The project couldn't be something they just assigned in a classroom. It had to be something the kids cared about doing, something they wanted to learn and would remember long after it was over.

It had to be something they would make their own.


John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com.

AKRON PUBLIC SCHOOLS have spent five years designing a $14.5 million math and science middle school where students will learn in ways dramatically different from traditional classrooms. Years of planning, millions of tax dollars and the contributions of practically every significant public and private institution in Akron are riding on the effectiveness of these methods.

Akron Beacon Journal reporter John Higgins spent time with students and teachers as they experienced this new school.

TODAY: Story focuses on the first day of school, which opened in August.

MONDAY: Teachers venture into a swamp to prepare a lesson plan.

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