(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
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
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
"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
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,
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
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