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Sensing the Future

Photo by Michael Mardosa

Sensing the Future
UMaine graduate students unlock the mysteries of science and engineering with sensor technology

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(Editor's note: Full-length version of story.)

Mondays and Wednesdays, in a science classroom in Brewer Middle School, there's a repeating refrain:
"Mr. Spratt! Can you come help us? Mr. Spratt!"
Mr. Spratt is William "Kyle" Spratt, a University of Maine (UMaine) master's student in mechanical engineering. Two days a week, he joins Frank Page, a longtime science teacher at the middle school, as part GK-12 Sensors!, a joint program of UMaine and the National Science Foundation that places UMaine graduate students in the sensor area in local high schools and middle schools. Using sensor technology – a major research area at UMaine –Spratt and seven other UMaine graduate students work with school teachers using sensors to explain the fundamentals of engineering and science to teens throughout eastern Maine.
"It's really about the concepts, understanding why things move, why they work the way they do," Page said. "They understand that part of it. If you gave them high school-level math and physics, it would be too abstract."
But Spratt, an outgoing lobsterman from Frenchboro, Long Island, makes the lessons seem like child's play. To test the effect of mass on velocity, he had his seventh-grade charges build parachutes out of trash bags, string and tape, with washers as weights. The students launched them in front of a motion sensor, which captured the data and converted the figures to graphs on their laptops.
Because sensor technology takes many forms – from everyday smoke detectors and thermometers to prototype airport screeners capable of detecting peroxide-based explosives – it lends itself to an array of subjects. GK-12 Sensors! fellows use the "gadgets" as keys to unlock the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, biology, food science, marine sciences, microelectronics and engineering.
Though he didn't realize it at the time, 12-year-old Vincent Banks had mastered a few basic engineering concepts as he ran through a series of successful parachute drops.
"Right now, we're learning about how air in a parachute can slow you down," Banks, 12, explained. "I like it, because Mr. Spratt can help us. He knows how to talk to us. He can talk in a regular voice, like if you're talking to a friend. It helps you understand a little better, because it's a little hard to understand."
Making science, technology, engineering and mathematics more accessible is what the NSF's GK-12 sensors program is all about. The GK-12 sensors grant provides funding for graduate students in supported disciplines, in the hope that their interactions with K-12 students and teachers will improve their communication, teaching, collaboration and team-building skills. The program also aims to provide professional development opportunities forK-12 teachers, a richer learning experience for students and stronger ties between local schools and institutions of higher learning.
Many of the teachers involved, including Page, participate in the accompanying Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Sensors! During the summer program, K-12 educators work with faculty and UMaine students in various engineering labs on campus.
When NSF's original GK-12 program was established in the late 1990s, Maine's best and brightest were leaving the state in droves for education and job opportunities. To help stop the brain drain, John Vetelino, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, wanted to showcase UMaine's world-class sensor research.
To that end, he worked with Constance Holden, a UMaine colleague in spatial information science and engineering, and Stephen Godsoe of Bangor High School to integrate sensors into the existing GK-12 model.
"You get kids looking at what's happening [with unemployment] and many of them leave the state never to return, even though they might have the desire to return," Vetelino says. "So we're trying to get them to remain in the state of Maine for their education and for their jobs, possibly contribute to the economy, start small businesses, things like that."
In the 2007-08 school year alone, 1,554 students in 13 schools participated in the program. Since its inception in 2002, GK-12 Sensors! has brought nearly $5 million in NSF grants to the university, which will sustain the program through 2011. GK-12 funding is intended to initiate programs that will continue with public-sector support. To that end, Vetelino is in the process of pursuing alternative funding sources.
Community partnerships – of a service-based, rather than a financial, nature – have long been a part of the sensors program. In 2004, Bangor's GK-12 Sensors! team began working with agencies and organizations in the city to address such issues as emergency preparedness. For example, students and teachers worked with fire and safety officers from the city and Bangor International Airport to build a geographic information system (GIS) for emergency service providers. As a result, the school introduced a GIS class in 2006, one of a handful of such high school level courses in the United States.
At Brewer Middle School, GIS design isn't part of Spratt's lesson plan. As his counterpart Page says, "Lectures, presentations, that isn't going to work in middle school." But parachutes and hovercrafts are all in a day's work. And sensors drive the lessons home.
"[The sensor] captures the statistics of falling objects –the velocity of parachutes," says Annissa Nicola, 14. "It's better than using timers and stuff like that."
Anissa's lab partner, Tiffany Sebastiano, agrees that the sensors make learning fun. But so does Spratt.
"He's just like a normal person – he's not boring," she says. "He knows when to be serious and when not to be serious."
As he works his way through the classroom, Spratt makes it a point to talk to each student. He stops at one table and glances at a laptop, telling the group, "That is a perfect graph!" As a boy and a girl by the door toss up their chute, it unfurls like a jellyfish before gliding out of the sensor's range. Spratt reassures them that the first drop – with only one washer to weigh it down – is always the hardest.
It is Vetelino's hope that strong role models from the University of Maine might inspire students to consider engineering – in any of its incarnations – when they get to college. If they choose to stay in Maine for schooling, this could, in turn, create a knowledge base large enough to lure high-tech companies to the region.
"To a large extent, many kids are influenced by the environment they're growing up in," says Vetelino. "If my father is a teacher, I might have aspirations of moving in that direction. You really don't know what might trigger a kid to go into engineering. It might be an uncle, or it might be a GK-12 fellow."
Gabe Levasseur, a Corinth native, decided to study in Maine– and GK-12 Sensors! fellow Wade Pinkham made all the difference. As a senior at Central High School, Levasseur excelled at math and planned to attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute because of its reputation in mathematics and science. That changed when Pinkham, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering who now works at Bath Iron Works, showed up in his classroom in the fall of 2004.
"I found out (UMaine) was good for math and science, too," said Levasseur, who graduated with a degree in electrical and computer engineering in May, after only three years in the program. Before graduation, he already had a job lined up at the Portsmouth (N.H.) Naval Shipyard. "GK-12 Sensors! opens your eyes to what engineering is and what engineers really do."
For Spratt, the program has not only strengthened his engineering skills, but his interpersonal skills, as well. After he completes his master's degree, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. with the intent of becoming a professor. When he started working with Page's pupils, he had a hard time translating graduate-level concepts to a language middle-schoolers could understand. Now, he feels more comfortable – and more helpful – in the classroom.
"I know more about how different people learn in different ways," he says. "I want to be a professor, and it's very important for me to learn all the dynamics. As I think about how to make up labs, how to manage my time, it keeps the fundamentals of engineering fresh in my mind."
It has also has helped him better articulate the key points of his research. While his peers struggled with their proposals for a recent Maine Technology Institute grant, Spratt was able to clearly outline his goals. He won the grant.
"I was able to effectively say what I wanted to say without losing people," Spratt says. "If [engineering students] can't relate what they're doing to other people, it might not work out in the long run. That's something this program has helped me do: pick out the key points and learn how to effectively communicate them."
In the classroom, effective communication could involve dropping parachutes, measuring the temperature of melting ice or clocking the speed of balloon-powered racecars. That's a huge part of the appeal for Nick Cram, 12.           
"It's not like old-fashioned book learning," Cram says as he prepares for another parachute launch. "You get to build stuff, race it, smash it."
Joe Arsenault, UMaine's GK-12 Sensors! program coordinator, says such hands-on projects, led by an enthusiastic graduate student, makes for an unforgettable learning experience.
"When you take someone who has energy and the sense of discovery of what they're finding in their own research, and have them convey that to the students, that sense that science is alive, if they can begin to feel that, it's very different from sitting in a classroom and listening to experts give out facts," Arsenault says. "Here, they can feel the facts with their hands. It's visceral."

by Kristen Andresen
September-October, 2008

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