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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 12, 2008

Extreme math and science
Lessons challenge all levels of learners

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Enrichment in math and science is for any student who is interested at Farnsworth Middle School.

“You are going to see students take flight,” enrichment teacher Carol Kelly told the school board Tuesday night as they watched a video of a girl riding a student-built hovercraft propelled by a fan. Her classmates cheered as she rode the disk that hovered inches off the floor.

“They didn’t just fly,” said Kelly. “They had to know why.”

In another clip, one student interviewed several others on their study of flight. As a boy recited the third law of flight — “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction” — the girl interviewing him responded, “Oh, that’s really cool.”

The enrichment program at Farnsworth — dubbed “Extreme Math and Science” — is new this school year. Unlike earlier enrichment programs at the middle school, which were for gifted students and often focused on competitive programs, this is open to all students, from struggling learners to those who excel, and is motivated by the students’ interests. The new program does not replace the services for gifted and talented students, which are still offered.

Demian Singleton, Farnsworth’s supervisor of math and science who will become the district’s head of curriculum, said, “Ideally, we’re looking for a connection to their achievement.” The program, though, is too new for it to have an effect yet on test scores, he said.

Singleton quoted Dr. Joseph Renzulli on reasons for enrichment. Renzulli is a professor of gifted education at The University of Connecticut where he directs the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. His school-wide enrichment model advocates lessons that challenge all levels of learners. Singleton cited Renzulli’s four reasons for enrichment:

“First, because intelligence can be affected by environment and opportunity, curriculum for all learners should be rich in opportunity for learners to explore and expand a wide range of intelligences and abilities.

“Second, curriculum should be designed in ways that both identify and develop high capacity in the widest feasible range of intelligences.

“Third, curriculum should be flexible enough to address both variability in manifestations of high ability and variability in how talent develops over time in a broad range of learners and talent areas.

“Fourth, curriculum should plan for development of intelligences in ways that are valid for intelligence area and domains in which it is expressed.”

 The new enrichment program, Singleton explained, follows an “inductive model,” where teachers act as coaches, patrons, probers, ombudsman, and colleagues rather than as instructors disseminating knowledge. The curriculum is not predetermined as in a textbook where knowledge is presented as fact. Rather, the area of study is derived from student interest, and knowledge serves as a vehicle for confrontation with events, issues, ideas, and beliefs.

This allows students to be inquirers and producers of knowledge rather than consumers of knowledge. Instead of passively accepting knowledge as objective and correct, students interpret, criticize, and dissect knowledge.

Farnsworth was recently one of nine schools nationwide named a finalist for the Intel Schools of Distinction Awards in the Science Excellence category; the winner will be announced on June 15.

Enrichment and inquiry-based learning, where science is taught as a process, played a part in the Intel recognition, Singleton said.

“I believe in backward design”

Kelly described some of the many enrichment programs.

“At the heart of the program are the children,” she said.

For forensic science — “They love CSI,” said Kelly of the popular crime show — the students learned about fingerprinting from Guilderland Police officer Roger Ginder.

Kelly said she would like to get more community members involved in the enrichment program, volunteering their time and talents.

In the study of taxonomy and comparative anatomy, she said, “student specialists” were trained to instruct other students.

“They are doing PowerPoints and workshops,” said Kelly. “They don’t have to but they do it.” They are not working for grades or to fulfill a requirement, she said. “That gives me the chills and warms my heart.”

In the study of atmospheric sciences, students use a digital-feed weather station at Farnsworth and collect and analyze real-time data. They also present forecasts and make films on related topics like the use of sunscreen. “Kids are teaching their fellow students and hopefully telling Mom and Dad, too,” said Kelly.

In nanoscience, she said, “We started out with a Farnsworth Bureau of Investigation.”

Students have studied the “nanoworld” between atomic and micro/macro scales. “We need to train our students for the 21st Century,” said Kelly.

She also described herself as “a proponent of inquiry.” Referring to inductive learning, she said, “I believe in backward design.”

She showed a clip of Kayla Thornton, a Farnsworth eighth-grader who came in second the 2008 National Science Fair for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students. Thornton received $300 at the competition held in Rochester for her project on the effect on hair of non-organic as opposed to organic shampoos.

“Formaldehyde is in our shampoos under different names,” said Kelly.

Some students, she said, have already “designed ideas” they want to study next year.

“Very satisfied”

Over 100 students in each grade have participated each month this school year; 53 percent were girls and 47 percent were boys.

The students who were part of the enrichment program were surveyed and the overwhelming majority said they were more excited about math and science, had a better understanding of what mathematicians and scientists do, are more aware of math and science in everyday life, and would like to continue participating.

Singleton said he is “very satisfied with this first year of the program” and he would like to increase awareness about it, both within the school and in the community at large.

School board members, who had backed the added enrichment post, were enthusiastic as well.

“It’s wonderful,” said Vice President John Dornbush, “to see a very dramatic way a piece of our commitment to math, science, technology came to life.”

“I’m fascinated by the investigative nature of the enrichment,” said Barbara Fraterrigo.

“Thanks for the leadership,” said Colleen O’Connell. “I’ve long been annoyed,” she said, that the middle school offered enrichment to just the gifted and talented students. “Some students might have a passion for science but not be an honors student.”

“It’s so great,” said President Richard Weisz, stating the program provided “maximum bang for the buck.”

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Appointed Nancy DeStefano to the newly-created post of supervisor for guidance, which will take up six-tenths of her work time. The remainder she’ll work as a counselor at the middle school and high school.

Superintendent John McGuire said DeStefano had had “a very distinguished career as a counselor,” most recently supervising 121 professional staff members. At Guilderland, she’ll supervise 11 counselors. DeStefano told the board she was “thrilled to be here”;

— Appointed Michael Pipa as a house principal at Farnsworth, to replace Chris Sanita who is becoming the principal of Pine Bush Elementary School. Pipa, who used to teach at Guilderland before working for the neighboring Bethlehem district, said the presentation on enrichment had captured the “essence of middle-level education.”

He said students are “pursuing authentic questions they have...‘What’s actually in the shampoo I use on my hair?’ ” He concluded, “I’m proud that’s what’s happening in the classroom”;

— Viewed a film clip on Guilderland High School chemistry teacher Annette Sebuyira who was honored for her teaching. “She does so much beyond the classroom in terms of cultural awareness,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Nancy Andress;

— Received three state-mandated district plans, which must be updated and approved by the board. The plans are for academic intervention services to help struggling students, for professional development to train staff, and for school safety. The board will vote on the plans at its June 24 meeting;

— Heard congratulations for high-school senior AhaQuayah Graham, an International Virtual Business student at the Capital Region Career and Technical School.

She was named Capital Region Outstanding Business Student by the Business & Marketing Educators’ Association of the Capital District. She was also named 2008 Capital Region Scholar along with her teacher Stephanie Ferlazzo, by the Capital Area School Development Association, the University at Albany, and the Times Union.

Finally, she was one of four high school students honored as a 40 Under 40 Business Leader by the Capital District Business Review.

She plans to attend Clark Atlanta University to study business;

— Learned that high-school junior Zagreb Mukerjee was given a full scholarship to the 2008 Telluride Association Summer Program at Cornell University. He was one of 68 participants selected from 728 applicants from the United States and abroad and is the first Guilderland student to be selected.

The six-week program, “Human Rights, Cultural Rights, and Economic Rights: Views from the ‘Global South’,” offers college-level seminars for gifted juniors;

— Heard that four Farnsworth students — sixth-graders Nga Eng and Alaynah Harlow, and seventh-graders Anna Ko and Azmad Din — were selected to attend the Exxon Mobil Bernard Harris Science Camp, an intensive hands-on experience at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and

— Met in executive session to discuss ratifying a contract with the administrators’ association and to hear a negotiations update.

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