MANCHESTER — Montessori schools stress hands-on learning, but the fourth-graders at Mill Falls Charter School will have their hands on experiments that are a bit out of the ordinary.
They will be comparing the results of their experiments with worms and butterflies with those of NASA.
It's part of University of New Hampshire-Manchester's effort to boost interest and participation in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and language arts with courses at the STEM Discovery Lab in the Millyard.
The 24 Mill Falls students are among 120 students in grades 4 through 12 who will participate in several STEM programs. Granite United Way and Beech Street Elementary School are the other partners in the projects with UNH Manchester.
Orion's Quest is the NASA program in which the Mill Falls students will do experiments. NASA has a scientist doing the same experiments with tiny, short-lived worms and butterflies in zero gravity on the International Space Station, and other scientists are doing the experiments on earth.
NASA representatives met with the students in the first of six sessions on Tuesday. Lauren Provost, a professor in the UNH Department of Education, is the teacher for Orion's Quest. She'd like to someday be able to take projects on the road, to engage students in more rural settings in the same kinds of projects.
The project is a field trip for the Manchester students, who ride a bus to the UNH lab on Commercial Street. Mill Falls founding board chair Meryl Levin said the students also enjoy the use of computers in the program, something Levin said would never happen at Mill Falls' home in the Union Leader building on William Loeb Drive, where hands-on does not involve a keyboard.
"We would never have a computer lab," she said, although she admits their use in this particular program offers an opportunity "for extending our wings beyond the classroom."
Provost said the Orion project is a way to make science accessible and part of everyday life. While this project may seem like fun to the students, she said: "They are getting some solid knowledge in the STEM disciplines."
It's a way to show how the pieces are connected, that "science" isn't an abstract concept. "It's accessible," she said. "It's relevant to every child's life."
Bridging the gap
Too often, there's a disconnect between what's studied in class and the real world, and the projects at the Discovery Lab are designed to bridge that gap.
Two of the Mill Falls students, Grace Coriaty and Rachel Jordan, both 10, don't have to be sold. They already like math and science. Coriaty, who at the moment plans to become a dentist, said: "I think it would be interesting to look at (the worms) under a microscope."
Provost said the worms, which are on order, are about one millimeter long. They are also very short-lived, so bringing them back to earth to see how they might adapt isn't possible.
Jordan, whose current career choice is veterinarian, is curious about the "space" worms. She's familiar with the "earth" variety. "I've rescued worms," she said, moving them off hard surfaces after they've come to the surface in heavy rains and are easy targets for predators or accidental squashing.
"I'm adventurous," said Coriaty, who would like to be able to walk on the moon. She thinks it would be interesting to be in a spaceship 'to float' in zero gravity.
The programs being offered this fall are just the start, said Paul Bencal, director of the Emerging Technology Center. The plan is to have four sessions a year, focusing on different elements of STEM. The courses will be tailored to various student levels, and as time goes on those levels will change.
For example, he said, a 3D-animation program called ALICE was designed for middle school girls, but now it's being offered to elementary school students.
In the not-so-olden days, Bencal said, computer science was just for high school students. Also, he said: "Kids were discouraged from going into engineering if they weren't strong in math."
Times have changed and are continuing to change, he said, and UNH Manchester intends to help the changes keep moving along.
For now, Orion's Quest and ALICE are offered to elementary students. For students in grades 6 to 8, there are two options. Texting Olympics covers the complex mathematical concepts behind texting, while Mobile App Development, is an introduction to developing applications for smartphones and fundamental computer science concepts.
High school students can learn the core fundamentals of computer programming by creating three-dimensional video games in Video Game Development. That course is being taught by Nigel Swanson, a sophomore in the computer information systems program at UNH Manchester.
Beginning next month, Nick Soggu, founder and CEO of SilverTech, will teach Engineering in Action, a one-year engineering and programming course limited to 16 high school students.
And in January, Tom "TK" Kuegler, co-founder and general partner of Wasabi Ventures, will help high school students learn the fundamental skills needed to create a successful start-up business in a course called Technology Start-up Boot Camp.