By Lisa Capobianco
The Southington Education Foundation (SEF) celebrated its tenth round of grants last week, during a presentation made by several teachers who received funding for different STEM-related projects.
The SEF gave grants to first grade teacher Ellen Bellinger and Food Services Manager Marion Virello of South End School, who created an indoor organic vegetable garden, and to fourth grade teacher Chanel Curtin, who started the FIRST LEGO League team at Thalberg Elementary School. Each grant integrates at least two of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering or math). Both grants total $4,000 for the projects.
Jan Galati, the chairman of SEF, said the Foundation has now awarded $78,000 in teacher grants. Recently, SEF also celebrated the launch of its Virtual STEM University, which was budgeted for $13,000.
Thus far, the SEF has provided $130,000 in grants, Galati said.
“I truly do believe that when students are engaged and involved with making and doing, that is the things they do really learn in depth—years from now, they’ll recall those experiences whether it’s with the indoor vegetable garden or the robotics teams,” said Galati.
Beginning earlier this year, the indoor organic vegetable garden at South End consists of eight-foot long raised beds located in the cafeteria so students can watch the vegetables grow during lunch. Once the construction was complete, students from grades one to five in the after school garden club planted seeds in soil cubes placed under fluorescent lighting. The goal of the program is for students to learn where vegetables come from as well as how to plant and maintain a garden, and to adopt healthy eating habits.
“The real goal is to inspire healthy eating habits and to try new vegetables,” said Bellinger.
During the presentation, Virello and Bellinger said they have contacted the University of Connecticut to bring in a master farmer to help determine why the second set of green bean plants became deformed, adding that this year is a learning curve.
“It’s a garden that will go on and on every year,” added Bellinger.
For now, Virello said students will have an opportunity to try the beet tops from the organic garden.
“Not only can they eat the bottom…[but]we could [also] eat the tops,” said Virello, adding how the students were able to taste the difference between organically grown vegetables and vegetables from the supermarket. “We will be eating our beet tops…in a salad, and that’s what the kids are going to try this year.”
Through the FLL team at Thalberg, students have the opportunity to practice their problem-solving skills in a hands-on setting. When Curtin came across the FLL through her research, she wanted to implement a robotics program at the elementary school level.
FLL is a global robotics program that gives children ages 9 to 14 the opportunity to explore science and technology while tapping into their creativity through hands-on activities. In order to make the team, students were required to write an essay, make a Powerpoint, design a t-shirt, and complete a self-evaluation. A total of ten students made the team, which meets once a week.
“It brings the engineering aspect to the children so they can learn firsthand, practical engineering skills and then apply them to a real-world situation,” said Curtin, who is currently pursuing her P.h.D. in science education. “They have to design a robot—there’s no directions, and this is where problem-solving skills come in with a team of ten.”
Every year FLL provides a new “Challenge” for teams, which is released in late August. The Challenge has three parts: the Robot Game, the Project and the FLL Core Values. The Robot Game requires FLL teams to build and program an autonomous robot to score points by performing mission tasks, which coincide with the Challenge theme. During the missions, the robot must navigate, capture, transport or deliver objects on a printed mat (the field), and has 2.5 minutes to perform as many missions as possible. Through the Project, FLL teams create a solution to solve a real-world problem, learning more about the science behind the Challenge theme. Curtin said last year’s Challenge theme was “Nature’s Fury,” and FLL teams had to design their robot to problem-solve during a natural disaster.
The team, which plans to officially kick off this fall, will meet extensively prior to a competition that will take place this December in Berlin, said Curtin.
“I’ve been blown away with the knowledge they’re already coming in knowing—the computer skills and programming and just LEGO design, the engineering design,” said Curtin, noting how her passion for science stems from her grandfather who was an aerospace engineer. “They set the bar high for themselves.”