March is New Jersey STEM Month. The goal, according to the state’s Department of Education, is “to celebrate New Jersey’s commitment to student success in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs. And whether it’s Citizen Science and the Innovation Classroom at Westfield High School, a Science Olympiad at the intermediate level, elementary afterschool STEM clubs or a robust K-12 curriculum, there is no shortage of STEM learning in Westfield Public Schools.
“Science touches our lives in almost everything we do,” says WHS science teacher Judith McLoughlin who spearheads Citizen Science, a monthly offering from October to May of scientific enrichment within all fields related to science. “Often students view science as restricted to what they do in a lab class. Citizen Science aims to broaden that, to make it applicable and relatable. Let’s enable students to see that they may be working in these or related areas or they may be investing in these companies. In some cases, what’s happening in these companies or concepts may end up saving their lives or the lives of their loved ones in the future.”
Citizen Science is open to all students and members of the community and is generally held one Saturday a month. In early November, it was a presentation on gerrymandering with a guest speaker from New York University, followed by a discussion of how manipulating an electoral constituency might affect scientific issues from biotechnology to environmental regulations. In December and January, the Citizen Science presentation targeted Westfield High School biology students with science and physical education teachers teaming up to connect the subject to real life through cross-content lessons and activities in the science, health, physiology and psychological aspects of cellular respiration.
In February, the guest was former WHS graduate Adam Gormley, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Rutgers University and an expert in nanobiomaterials.
“Adam was able to make highly technical science very relatable,” McLoughlin says. “Students learned how nanotechnology targets disease within the body at a cellular level. They also learned about the potential role nanoparticles can play in healthcare delivery systems.”
“Citizen Science is a good program that gives students the opportunity outside of their classrooms to see how science is applied in practical ways. Since it is a Saturday event, it allows students across grade levels to come together and learn,” says K-12 Science Supervisor Thomas Paterson, who adds that the district is always looking for Westfield residents who are professionally involved in science to share their expertise with students through the Citizen Science program.
Paterson points to the Science Olympiad semester course for intermediate students as another good example of hands-on, student-centered STEM learning.
“This was the first year of this inter-school competition where students at Edison and Roosevelt came together to compete both with and against each other. We think it went very well,” says Paterson about the Science Olympiad which took place at Roosevelt in late January.
Olympiad activities included designing, building, and testing roller coasters and catapults, examining the health and environmental threats posed by various diseases, assessing dangerous climate conditions by region, and meeting stringent design criteria to build the lightest bridge with the highest structural efficiency possible which was then tested by seeing how many grams of water in a bucket it could support without breaking.
“Science Olympiad provides an opportunity for students to take the knowledge that they have acquired in their STEM-related coursework and apply it to a series of problem-solving challenges,” says Paterson, who designed the inter-school competition with Roosevelt science teacher Jeff Robbins. “These challenges are designed to hone students’ critical thinking and teamwork abilities. The end-of-semester event is a fantastic capstone to highlight the students’ work throughout the semester.”
Third grade classrooms across the district are piloting “Up the Ladder,” a new program developed by former WHS alum Laura Overdeck that provides teachers with hands-on activities and tools to introduce mathematical concepts and enhance what they are learning through the Grade 3 math curriculum.
“The students love the different materials and the teachers find the activities rewarding,” says Supervisor of K-12 Mathematics Elizabeth Delasandro, who adds that the Up the Ladder pilot program is included as part of so-called Flex Friday activities during third grade math blocks.
There are popsicle sticks, wax sticky twists, glow sticks and lots of other hands-on fun to reinforce what students are learning about plane geometry, skip counting, bar graphs, fractions, linear measurement and more.
“I use the glow sticks for everything. You can make a polygon, an octagon, a hexagon. If it glows, they pay attention,” says Washington School 3rd grade teacher Elizabeth Reilly with a smile during a recent team meeting.
As the district celebrates New Jersey STEM Month, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Margaret Dolan says she welcomes any opportunity to highlight the many opportunities for STEM learning in Westfield Public Schools.
“Our students are well-served by our science, technology, engineering, and math teachers who are grounded in best practices for teaching and learning,” says Dolan. “We are fortunate to have so many knowledgeable professionals helping our students to be engaged, self-directed learners.”