Each week, Surry fourth- and fifth-graders take a virtual science class via laptops, a pull-down screen, and collaboration with Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee.
Students perform experiments, look over data and their observations “and discuss what happens and why,” said fifth-grader Nick Kane. “Each week we have a new focus.”
Chemical changes, pH levels, human reflexes and the central nervous system were covered in November. “Now we are learning about the circulatory system,” Kane said.
Using Skype videoconferencing technology, students perform hands-on science under the leadership of scientists in Aspirnaut, a program that partners Vanderbilt University scientists with rural K-12 schools.
Their first lesson, “Chemistry in a Ziploc Bag,” had students add phenol red to baking soda, record their observations, and then add calcium chloride to the mix. What happens now?
Amelia Hayden and fellow student Hannah Richard performed the experiment for school board members on December 4.
“It’s getting warm,” said fifth-grader Hayden. “The bag is filling up with air, but it’s a gas.”
Aspirnaut’s goal is to be a pipeline that recruits and develops future science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, professionals.
“This is the very best that technology can afford us for increasing science in the school,” said Principal Cathy Lewis, who was approached by state senator Brian Langley to pilot an Aspirnaut program in Otis, where she was interim principal in 2010-11.
The Mount Desert Biological Laboratory “brought us to Maine originally,” said Julie Hudson, a Vanderbilt University scientist. Aspirnaut first started in rural Arkansas schools, she said, but Maine and Arkansas deal with many of the same issues, such as the disappearance of “traditional ways people earn a living after high school.”
“Half the jobs in the next 20 years will require a solid STEM background,” Hudson said.
With STEM education resources not passing beyond “the first two rings of metro areas,” Hudson said, “there’s “a lot of highly intelligent, motivated students that are off the radar.”
Aspirnaut—a nonprofit organization funded by Vanderbilt University, grants and private donations—uses summer internships, videoconferencing and equipping school buses with Wi-Fi and laptops for long rides as a rural pipeline for the future STEM workforce.
“Dollars invested in rural areas have a high return,” she said. “We’re dealing with young, talented minds.”