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Buffalo schools' science initiative faces funding loss

Using pipe insulation and a marble to design a roller coaster.

Building a radio-controlled airplane to collect data.

Learning the science behind biodegradable plastics and soap making.

That’s just some of the cool stuff Buffalo teachers are doing to try to make science more relevant, interesting and hands-on for students in some of the district’s lower-performing, high-needs schools.

In fact, more than 70 teachers had their ideas on display this week during a district-wide showcase at Bennett High School, the fifth annual such celebration of science, technology, engineering and math.

But Tuesday’s event was also bittersweet.

Buffalo’s efforts – which have garnered national attention – are about to take a big hit when the federal grant awarded to improve science education in city schools officially ends this school year.

[Gallery: Science can be fun at International Preparatory School]

It’s an age-old dilemma in education: How do you sustain efforts when the money dries up?

“It’s a difficult challenge when you’re used to having a budget of $2 million a year and you’re going into the next phase,” said Joseph Gardella Jr., a University at Buffalo chemistry professor.

Gardella has spearheaded the initiative, known as the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership – ISEP, for short. He applied for funding with the National Science Foundation on behalf of the district, winning a five-year, $9.8 million grant in 2011 for a collaboration between city schools, UB, SUNY Buffalo State and the Buffalo Museum of Science.

The money equipped dozens of Buffalo teachers with the necessary classroom resources and paid for them to work on a research project alongside college faculty each summer to gather ideas on how to make science more interesting for their students back in the classroom.

Using shake tables to test how structures hold up during an earthquake.

Mapping invasive species.

Analyzing air resistance in car design.

Gardella is committed to keeping the initiative in some fashion.

“In this transition period, I’m really working hard with the new superintendent to develop the program corroboratively in a direction the district wants to go,” Gardella said.

Students at Annette Miller's 7th grade physical science class at International Preparatory School construct roller coasters with pipe insulation, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. The coaster must have a loop, turn and the marble riding it must slow down at the end. When they are finished, they will be making presentations why it is a thrilling and safe ride that Darien Lake should build. Miller helps Nin Nue Nwe, left, work on her group's roller coaster. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The partners are hoping they can secure smaller pots of money.

“I’ll help Joe do that,”  Superintendent Kriner Cash said. “I don’t want to say we’re going to get it out of our own budget, but we’ll go to some funders and will apply for some competitive grant funding. We won’t necessarily have the same investment, but if we could get another $200,000 or $500,000 each year to grow onto our base, I think it will sustain it.”

The superintendent said he even wants to expand these efforts to all district schools, not just the 12 currently involved. Cash thinks it’s imperative given the importance science, technology and engineering will play in finding a good job in the future.

“It’s not only about more scientists and engineers, it’s about a more diverse group of scientists and engineers,” Cash said. “That’s what we’re really trying to grow through this program.”

Gardella and Cash walked through Tuesday’s event viewing the teacher presentations and talking with them about the science they’re introducing in their classrooms.

Among them were Annette Miller, a teacher at International Preparatory School, and Samantha Stone, a teacher at Lorraine Elementary.

They teach their students about motion, energy, speed, acceleration and friction by letting them design their own roller coaster using pipe insulation and a marble.

“It’s engaging for the students,” Miller said. “It’s not just what’s out of the textbook.”

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