Students get hands-on experience

The Baltimore Sun

In one classroom, students pore over wires and switches, a complicated array of materials used to produce a working version of a mazelike circuit diagram on the projection screen.

In another - actually not a classroom at all, but the woods behind a greenhouse - students poke insects, yell about a deer sighting and shriek as a tick finds its way up an exposed leg.

The two very different experiences are part of a summer program for students attending the new science, technology, engineering and math magnet program at North County High School next month.

"We believe the hands-on application research experience will make a difference," said Maureen McMahon, director of advanced studies and program for Anne Arundel County public schools.

The STEM program is the first science- and technology-based magnet in the county. The students, who come from seven high schools in the northern part of the county, apply as eighth-graders for the program that offers more options for advanced math and science classes. Before they graduate, they are required to do a research-based internship, and each summer, they must take a two-week session to enhance their learning with more applied experience.

With an estimated 6,000 jobs - most of them in high-tech fields - coming to an expanded Fort Meade by 2011, it's important to get students interested in science and math at a young age, said Julie Snyder, executive director of the Fort Meade Alliance, a group of business leaders that lobbies on behalf of the Army post. "We're trying to get them interested and keep them interested."

With Fort Meade expanding, "they need people with those skill sets: engineering, computer sciences," she said. Giving students chances to take higher-level math classes earlier gives them more opportunities down the line.

"Doesn't it make sense that we educate our children to take on these jobs rather than import new people?" she said.

For these 90 incoming freshmen, their education starts before the school year, as they chose one of four topics to explore during their mandatory summer session: robotics, electricity, environmental science and computer-assisted drawing. The first session, robotics, was taught at University of Maryland, Baltimore County from June 23 to July 3. The three others are being taught at Center of Applied Technology-North in Severn.

"We put them in the actual setting that an actual scientist would be in," McMahon said. "They have a leg up on using high-tech [equipment] to explore."

The electricity and environmental science classes, which ran from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, finished Friday. All the sessions focus on hands-on experience to give the rising freshmen a jump-start on research projects they will have to do for the magnet program, as well as ideas for what they would like to study in college.

Sakura Detorres, 14, said she wants to be an environmental scientist, so making her choice for a summer session was easy.

"I want to come up with ways to slow global warming," she said. She loved the field trip to Arlington Echo, an outdoor education center, where they learned about macro invertebrates, including water pennies, worms and leeches, and tested the water quality.

Teacher Kathy Chow said the students spent at least half of each day outside, where they could collect samples of leaves and other materials to test in the lab inside. With these basic ecological principles, the students will have a good background going into the magnet program in the fall, she said.

"Hopefully, we've sparked that interest [in the environment] a little more," she said.

In the electricity class, largely male-dominated, students worked on creating three-way switches, a complicated project that teacher Chris Erickson said would take them at least the rest of the afternoon Wednesday.

The experience would translate beyond high school, he said. Students would be better prepared for college engineering and to be able to take care of some basic electrical problems in their own homes in the future.

Oleksander Shykh, 14, said he chose the class because he liked to work with his hands.

"I'm interested in computers and engineering," he said.

These summer projects will help with classes and project in the coming school year, several students said. They didn't seem to be intimidated by the prospect of starting magnet school this fall, since many said they applied because they had been bored in middle school, even after taking the most advanced classes.

"I wanted to take a challenge," said Katy Poteet, 14, who also hoped the magnet would bring scholarship opportunities for college. "There's less kids in each class, and more help. It's a better education."

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