LEWISTON – It’s one thing to take summer classes in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – in a school classroom.
It’s something else to get STEM lessons at a giant hydroelectric plant.
About 20 middle school students from Niagara Falls and Lockport had that opportunity last week, taking a week of classes and hands-on activities in the Power Vista, the visitor center at the Niagara Power Project.
In addition to instruction in a classroom setting, the students were able to bolster their learning using the wide range of interactive exhibits at the Power Vista, recently modernized by the New York Power Authority, which operates the plant.
For teacher Michael Radosta, a doctoral student in learning sciences at the University at Buffalo, the setting made a lot of difference, compared to the STEM summer course he taught last year in a classroom at Niagara County Community College.
“We thought it was a great opportunity for our program to take advantage of this space. I can see a big difference this year. Having access to all the exhibits and all the information is animating their thinking,” Radosta said. “One of the things we look at in education research is setting. The design and places where students learn is having a major impact on how they perform and respond.”
In one of his classes last week, Radosta had the kids figure out what proportion of the world’s energy is consumed in the United States – answer: 39 percent – and then told them what one of the major energy sources is in the less developed parts of the world.
“Burning animal dung,” Radosta said.
There were quizzical expressions and a few groans, especially after the kids who didn’t already know found out what dung is.
“Information like that, that kind of shocking or surprising information, actually is a great way to engage and get a kid’s attention,” Radosta explained after class. “At the same time, you get them thinking, too, that the hydrocarbons of dead plants and dinosaurs, there’s not much chemically different from animal dung.”
Erik Artieri, an incoming eighth-grader at North Park Middle School in Lockport, said class at the Power Vista was better “because it’s a little more fun than just sitting down, using textbooks and looking up notes and writing them down.”
“We thought it would be a great place to hold a summer camp, either for kids who would not have access to this type of activity or couldn’t afford to go,” Power Authority spokeswoman Teresa Martinez said. “We reached out to Western New York STEM to see what kind of ideas they might have for us.”
The result was the one-week “Power of STEM” camp, which Martinez said was a pilot project that could lead to a longer camp at the Power Vista next summer, with as many as 50 students, including some from Erie County.
The students were chosen by the school districts and Liberty Partnerships, a state educational program. Its director at NCCC, Jamie Reid, said the grant-funded dropout prevention program is aimed to help at-risk youth. Indicators for involvement in the program included “unsatisfactory economic performance, school truancy and negative peer pressure,” Reid said.
The kids came to the STEM camp voluntarily, but some were attending the class only for half a day, after a morning at “regular” summer school, making up work from the school year.
“I think it’s going to help me, because over the summer, people usually forget things,” said Romello Kemp, who will be entering the eighth grade at LaSalle Middle School in the Falls. “It kind of reminds you of what you’ve done.”
Forever Adams, who will enter seventh grade next month at Gaskill Preparatory School in Niagara Falls, said she ended up at the Power Authority’s STEM camp because of her membership in the Liberty Partnership program.
“I’m learning about electricity and power, all the different types of power plants are used to help generate power to cities and neighborhoods,” Forever said as she worked at an interactive exhibit that allowed her to construct a power grid.
Erik Artieri said, “What I like about this is, kids just think that it’s fun to play around, but they’re also learning stuff at the same time.”