Coding and programming are the building blocks for Voorheesville Elementary students next-generation science standards

VOORHEESVILLE — It’s a good thing Alan Fiero teaches science; that way, he’s able to explain how he makes it rain. In the past two years at Voorheesville and for 32 years before that in Guilderland schools, Fiero has applied for and won over $300,000 in grants.

His belief, the rainmaker said, “is that there are things that the school really can’t afford, and grants allow us to do things for kids that otherwise we couldn’t do.”

Fiero’s latest grant-writing feat has earned Voorheesville Elementary School 13 WeDo 2.0 Lego Education sets, which are designed to teach students science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lessons.

“Siemens Corporation put out a grant request,” Fiero said; 150 schools applied and 30 were chosen to receive Lego sets. “Siemens is hoping to get kids interested in technology,” he said, each set is worth $200.

Fiero has been teaching for well over 40 years; he’s a state-designated Master Teacher. But for the last two years, after retiring from a career in the Guilderland Schools, he’s been a teaching assistant at Voorheesville Elementary School, working as the science-lab coordinator.

Thursday, April 18, was the first day that students got to work with the Lego sets; they were learning coding, which is, in effect, a new language. Coding is a written script that a computer is able to understand and, when done correctly, allows a coder to direct the computer to perform any action he or she desires.

Last Thursday, students from Tim Mattison’s second-grade class were using code to tell a small motor to generate power to turn a windmill; the coding in this case, was a set of icons that, when clicked, would prompt the windmill to spin and stop.

The STEM-related lessons being taught with Legos, Fiero said, ally with the next-generation science standards that the district is in the process of implementing.

In the past, Fiero said, curriculum was driven by content. Now, it’s a three-pronged approach: content; practice, or how to be a scientist or engineer; and the deep underlying concepts “that we have to teach to make sure kids understand the things that underlie all of science and engineering like patterns and modeling.”

“It’s a much richer and wonderful set of standards,” he said

The new standards start with practice — the hands-on, learn-by-doing concept — and move forward from there, Fiero said, rather than starting with content and working backward.

“And not just hands-on,” Fiero said; it’s “minds on.” Because, he said, students will be performing investigations and modeling, which is defined as “the representation of how we think something works or to the mental constructs in our heads,” according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Students are also being taught how to argue, he said.

“As an intelligent being, you have to be able to argue your point in a rational way,” Fiero said, because presenting and asserting your findings is something that all scientists have to do, “but has never been stressed before.”

And coupled with argumentation in the next-generation science standards, Fiero said, is communication, “so it brings language arts in.”

The new standards are being rolled out over five years, he said; Voorheesville is in the third year of the rollout.

Mattison said that Fiero has done a lot to help implement the new science standards. “He’s brought expertise to a position that is a little unusual as far as his background knowledge and expertise,” Mattison said.

Typically, it’s the classroom teacher who’s facilitating the lab session, Mattison said, but because of Fiero’s 45 years of teaching experience, the process has become a lot more collaborative.

“I think it’s been outstanding,” he said of having Fiero in the classroom. “We were incredibly fortunate to have somebody with his background and expertise be interested in coming into a teaching-assistant position, really, as a master teacher.”

But Mattison is worried about what will happen with the final two years of the next-generation science standards roll out because Fiero won’t be around to help. His position was eliminated; a consequence of the deep cuts the district had to make to balance next year’s budget.

Fiero’s loss will be a real problem.

Because the cuts happened so fast — only in March, did the district find out about skyrocketing prescription drug costs — there isn’t a plan or process in place to replace him.

As the science-lab coordinator, Fiero is the second prong — practice; hands-on, learning-by-doing — in the triad that makes up the next-generation science standards.

In addition, because Fiero runs the science lab, Mattison said, he interacts with all students from all grade levels, which is important because another facet of the new standards is the correlation or sequencing of lessons and labs, so that students are building and expanding their experience and knowledge base as they move from year to year.

Fiero, Mattison said, “helps the entire process run all the more smoother; that [student] interaction has allowed the district to move forward.”

“My prayer is that the school will have a developed another system by which to implement the new standards,” Fiero said. The elementary school science lab is a great facility, Fiero said, “but there needs to be a plan for how all the hands-on will be done.”

Currently, it appears, Fiero is the plan and the system; however, ever the Master Teacher, he has come up with a science-lab curriculum.

“A teacher leader program,” Fiero said, is where a teacher from each grade would be designated leader, and, once a week, would be responsible for coming in early to set up the lab and staying late to break it down, as well as explaining to their fellow teachers that day’s lab exercise.

As for Fiero, retirement will keep him active, he said. He and his wife, Kathy Fiero, who teaches at Voorheesville Elementary School and heads the teachers’ union, have a grandchild on the way and he hopes to maintain his ties with Voorheesville Elementary.


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