Inside Rensselaer
Middle School Students Thrive in Summer STEM Program
More than 100 inner-city middle school students spent a week at Rensselaer this summer, building and programming LEGO® Mindstorms robots, designing video games — and getting their first taste of college life.

Developed and hosted by Rensselaer’s Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education (CIPCE), the summer program gave students from the Greater Amsterdam and Schenectady City school districts a new perspective on math and science, and on themselves.

By the end of the week, students had designed and built LEGO Mindstorms robots, and programmed them to move across the floor, navigate around obstacles, and lift items. Students also had used Scratch freeware to draw and animate their own cartoon characters and create basic computer games.

“These are kids who think they don’t even have a shot at college,” said Carlos Barboza, a sixth-grade teacher who accompanied students from the Greater Amsterdam School District. “I’m hoping that being here this week has changed that — that it’s given them hope. I had some of these students during the year, and the difference in them is unbelievable,” he added. “Many of them struggled during the school year. Here, they’re focused and engaged. They’ve excelled.”

One 12-year-old student from Amsterdam, for example, spent afternoons in the CIPCE program, developing an intricate video game involving an astronaut and an evil alien. Back at home, he took the initiative to download the Scratch freeware and design five more games.

The summer program was funded with a Title I School Improvement Grant from the New York State Education Department. Funds were earmarked for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs for low-performing students.

Since neighboring school districts were encouraged to collaborate, representatives from Amsterdam and Schenectady contacted CIPCE about developing a program for students from both districts. Using their existing robotics and animation academies as a foundation, CIPCE’s Lester Rubenfeld, Melissa Hershey, and Michele Murray designed a full-day, weeklong program. Over the course of five weeks, 124 students would benefit from the combination of a STEM experience and an introduction to college life. Teachers would accompany the students, learn alongside them, and bring STEM lessons back to their home districts.

“One of our goals was to find ways to build on this experience, to provide more relevant, engaging instruction that will help prepare our students for the real world,” said Susan Stoya, director of secondary instruction, Greater Amsterdam School District.

“Les understood the needs of urban kids and was willing to be flexible to accommodate them,” she added. “It was his and Michele’s commitment that made this happen. He would have been proud.”

Rubenfeld, professor of mathematical sciences and founding director of CIPCE, died in July. Paul Schoch, associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, has been appointed acting director.

CIPCE promotes STEM education on a variety of fronts, through summer academies and after-school programs, LEGO robotics tournaments, programs for high school seniors, and ongoing professional development for teachers. In fact, a lead facilitator for the Amsterdam and Schenectady academies was Courtney Hynes, an Averill Park technology teacher who has participated in past CIPCE programs and wanted other teachers to benefit from her experience.

“This program is as important for teachers as it is for students,” Hynes said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to network and exchange information so we can continue to support each other’s STEM teaching efforts and learn from one another.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 12, August 27, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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