March STEAM Madness: Jumping ahead to the “M”!

True to form, March 2017 blew in like a lion and out like a lamb . . . but this year, a numbers-minded marsupial bounced into the middle—at The New Century School, anyway!

Math Kangaroo Comes to Baltimore

For the first time in Baltimore, TNCS hosted Math Kangaroo, an International Competition for 1st- through 12-grade students whose mission is to:

  • Encourage students to master their mathematical knowledge.
  • Give them confidence in their ability for comprehending mathematics.
  • Help them understand how mathematics applies in nature’s laws and human activities.
  • Develop their ability to derive pleasure and satisfaction through intellectual life.
  • Show that mathematical education is significant in every part of the world.

imgres“Bringing an international math competition to Baltimore has been a dream of mine for a long time,” said TNCS Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director and former math teacher Jennifer Lawner.

A challenge for Baltimore as more people are choosing to stay and raise their families here is offering appropriate activities for them that are currently available in the county. Organizations like the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and Coppermine Fieldhouse have been critical in trying to recruit activities for Baltimore so that we can have our children participate in engaging pursuits and sports leagues, and I think TNCS also helps with extracurricular activities. For me, math competitions are also in the realm of things that Baltimore needs to function as a livable place for families.

Why Math Kangaroo

TNCS hopes to offer the competition annually henceforth, and participation will be open to students from schools city-wide. This first event was somewhat of a trial run, though, before actively recruiting other schools. Ms. Lawner said she wanted to first make sure that the event “lifted students up rather than discouraging them. What we’re trying to do is get children interested in math at early ages so that they might consider intensive study or careers in math-related fields in the future.” Math Kangaroo had the benefit of opening participation in 1st grade, whereas many other math competitions, such as Math Olympiads, start at 4th grade. “They have to be old enough to be able to read the problems and instructions,” explained Ms. Lawner, “but the first and second level exams also offer a lot of visual problems for younger students.”

 

The biggest appeal of Math Kangaroo, however, is the approach to doing math. For example, the problems start easy and get progressively harder so that there will always be enough problems for the individual student to be able to work out and feel successful enough to keep going. “Encountering problems they have never been exposed to before is a really good experience for students,” added Ms. Lawner, “because they have mastered at least enough skills to try, and that’s our primary goal for them—to be motivated to try but be okay with possibly not being able to get it the first time.” TNCS’s regular math curriculum consists of skill-building and problem-solving, but Math Kangaroo provided a fresh kind of problem for students to tackle. Said Ms. Lawner:

The problems are formulated in such a way that, for example, multiplication might be necessary for the solution, but it won’t be immediately obvious that multiplication is required. The student has to fundamentally understand what multiplication accomplishes in order to use it in the context of the problem. It’s not just working through 50 arithmetic problems in a fixed amount of time, as people might imagine. These problems might involve multiple steps, each requiring a mathematical tool that the students have been learning to use, which gets them figuring out how these skills fit into solving the problem. It’s not a repetitive thing; with actual problem-solving, you have to use logic in addition to traditional math skills. The strength of these problems is that they must be understood very deeply to be solved, and that’s really what is being tested.

Math Kangaroo 2015 Sample Questions

In the weeks leading up to the March 16th competition, TNCS teachers worked with students to give them practice breaking down these kinds of problems into discrete steps and organizing their work. Reading the problem carefully is key in problems such as what are listed below. Go on, give it a shot! (Answers are given at the end of the post in case you get stumped.)

Level 1/2

1. Look closely at these four pictures.

image01
Which figure is missing from one of the pictures?

image02

Level 3/4

2. Peter has ten balls, numbered from 0 to 9. He gave four of the balls to George and three to Ann. Then each of the three friends multiplied the numbers on their balls. As the result, Peter got 0, George got 72, and Ann got 90. What is the sum of the numbers on the balls that Peter kept for himself?

image010

A) 11               B) 12               C) 13               D) 14              E) 15

Level 5/6

3. Four points lie on a line. The distances between them are, in increasing order: 2, 3, k, 11, 12, 14. What is the value of k?

A) 5                 B) 6                 C) 7                 D) 8                 E) 9

Level 7/8

4. In a group of kangaroos, the two lightest kangaroos weigh 25% of the total weight of the group. The three heaviest kangaroos weigh 60% of the total weight. How many kangaroos are in the group?

A) 6                 B) 7                 C) 8                 D) 15               E) 20

Level 9/10

5. The figure shows seven regions formed by three intersecting circles. A number is written in each region. It is known that the number in any region is equal to the sum of the numbers in all neighboring regions. (We call two regions neighboring if their boundaries have more than one common point.) Two of the numbers are known (see the figure). Which number is written in the central region?

image018

A) 0                 B) – 3               C) 3                 D) – 6               E) 6

Level 11/12

6. When reading the following statements from the left to the right, what is the first statement that is true?

A) C) is true.    B) A) is true.    C) E) is false.   D) B) is false. E) 1 + 1 = 2

Competition Outcomes

Parents may have been skeptical about the idea of their kids sitting down to take what, in effect, was a 90-minute math exam, complete with answer bubbles carefully filled in with no. 2 pencils, especially because this is something they had not been asked to do thus far at TNCS. But, perhaps surprisingly, the students not only handled it without issue, but actually enjoyed it, more importantly, which was the primary goal. It’s easy to speculate on why—it’s a competition—a game—not an anxiety-inducing test, and kids brought lots of positivity to the experience. The challenge is itself motivating, in the same way sports can be for the physical body. Participation, moreover, is optional.
They also received a T-shirt, a pencil, a tattoo, and a certificate of participation for joining in, so those inducements may be responsible for some of the joie de math.  Another reason, explained Ms. Lawner, “is that children all over the world were participating, so our students felt very special to be a part of this. Mathematics is done all over the world, and Math Kangaroo wants to make students aware of that connection and prepare them for that global challenge.”
One thing that is important to bear in mind about this kind of endeavor is that the score, seemingly paradoxically, is largely beside the point. Because the exam is intended to challenge, many students might not score even above 50%, but, said Ms. Lawner, “the value was that students had the opportunity to step out of the curriculum and face new problems, and they got excited about math. Parents and teachers also got excited and participated. I think the experience elevated the students’ interest in mathematics and awareness of mathematics as an international activity—great benefits, to be sure.”
The primary goals of fun and engagement were achieved, if how excited students were both before and after the event are any indication. Some parents even report being given math tests of their children’s devising. Nevertheless, it might seem counterintuitive for a school that does not adopt standardized tests to go in for this kind of math exam. “The baggage that goes along with the word ‘test’ is a lot,” said Ms. Lawner, “when what we’re really trying to do is give students a period of challenge. It’s not so much a test on material that they’ve learned and are supposed to regurgitate as an experience with challenging problems and what they can do with them.” Another kind of “score,” in other words. “How hard they worked was so impressive,” said Ms. Lawner who was on hand to help out during exam administration. “They used all their time and were so determined to do this thing.”
IMG_1440 1
Even so, students who do score well will be rewarded with prizes. There are medals for the top three students in the country, and ribbons for the top three in the state. Other prizes include books, games, gift cards, and toys. Students who demonstrate high achievement over multiple years are eligible for college grants.

The Future of Math Kangaroo at TNCS

Previous Maryland winners seem to cluster in Montgomery county—“It’s time for Baltimore to challenge that!” said Ms. Lawner. With the inaugural event being so well-received by TNCS students, next year, the hope is to offer two public sessions for non-TNCS students in addition to the in-school exam.
There’s so much talent in Baltimore, in our children, and I would just love for them to be encouraged to come show their stuff. Sometimes all children need is to be asked to participate. It might start somebody down a path that could lead to his or her life’s passion. I think it’s really important to encourage math, especially as students get older and the math gets harder. Our goal here is for students to get a really solid foundation in math so that later they’re able to make choices and that multiple future paths are open to them. A career in engineering, for example, requires a certain level of math skill. So, we always want to promote the possibility that you can do it—you can stare at a problem long enough, given the right tools, to find a creative solution.
Answers to Practice Questions
1. D) image005 2. E) 15 3. E) 9 4. A) 6 5. A) 0 6. D) B) is false.

March STEAM Madness at TNCS!

As The New Century School entered the third quarter of the 2016–2017 school year, things started to get pretty “STEAM-y” for elementary students, curriculum-wise, that is. This post will be the first in a series that explores some of the many Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math–related activities they undertook.

“Cool” Engineering Challenge

In science class, STEM teacher Dan McGonigal transitioned into a unit on heat energy and how it transfers. He gave students a fun engineering challenge to “save the penguins.” Working in pairs, students were tasked with developing a dwelling that would keep a penguin made of ice from melting. To do so, they investigated how different materials act as insulators against different types of heat transfer.

Field Trip!

As February wound down, elementary students began looking ahead a bit to their fourth-quarter science unit: the Industrial Revolution. On February 28th, 2nd- through 6th-graders took a field trip to The Baltimore Museum of Industry to learn more about energy as well as to experience what the Industrial Revolution was like in Baltimore: “The Baltimore Museum of Industry celebrates Maryland’s industrial legacy and shows how innovation fuels ongoing progress. . . exhibitions, educational programs, and collections engage visitors in the stories of the people who built Baltimore and those who shape the region’s future.”

In addition to touring all of the amazing galleries that allowed TNCS students to relive Baltimore’s early days as a trading port and manufacturing hub and featuring the authentic tools and machines used back then, they also got to put their engineering skills to work.

First, they learned how mass production revolutionized the car industry and manned their own assembly line.

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They were also given the chance to engineer a ramp to send cars down and see who’s car traveled farthest and to design other transportation-related innovations. Time-traveling back to the present day temporarily, they also got to design their own video games.

Next they got a close-up of what it would be like to work in 1929 in the garment industry, which Baltimore was a major player in, in the 18th and 19th centuries. TNCS students were spun a tale of strenuous but monotonous toil for very long hours, poor working conditions including overcrowding and extreme heat, and little pay. Although fascinated, none of them will be sitting down at a sewing machine anytime soon!

Other interactive exhibits they toured included the 1865 Platt and Company oyster cannery (the only surviving cannery building in Baltimore and the museum building), a 1910 pharmacy (or “Druggist’s shop,” much like the one where Noxzema skin cream was invented), a print shop (the linotype was also invented in Baltimore), and a machine shop.

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TNCS elementary students enjoyed their taste of old industrial Baltimore and learning the roots of their 21st-century engineering projects. More importantly, they were inspired by this special field trip to begin working on their STEM Fair projects the very next week and threw themselves into those endeavors with zeal—stay tuned for more on the TNCS 2017 STEM Fair as well as posts featuring other elements of STEAM (hint, Math and Art)!

Meet the Teacher: Elementary STEM Instructor Dan McGonigal Joins TNCS

elementary-stem-teacher

Dan McGonigal, TNCS’s new elementary STEM teacher. Mr. McGonigal is married and the father of two young boys. He enjoys sports, working on home improvement projects, and spending time outdoors.

“I like spending time with people,” said Dan McGonigal who joined The New Century School as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teacher for the 2014–2015 school year. “With just about any job I’ve had, I’ve always helped or trained new people to do the job. I really like that aspect, so getting into education was a natural fit for me.” Before coming to TNCS, Mr. McGonigal taught in the Harford and Baltimore County school public systems for the prior 7 years. He began his professional life as a newspaper journalist, however. Originally from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, his first stint was interning at The Daily Item in Sunbury, PA. He quickly realized that job wasn’t going to cut it. “I spent 90% of my time sitting at my desk talking on the phone,” he said. “That was not the direction I wanted my career to go in. It’s not what I had imagined it would be.”

Background

With a degree in communications from Bloomsburg University, he next joined the Nielsen Company as a field representative, doing market research for television ratings. After various promotions, he became a supervisor, but eventually the long hours, the constant travel, and the stress of hiring and firing people grew tiresome. “I got to the point where I felt like I wasn’t doing any good for anybody. At the end of the day I felt unfulfilled,” he said. Knowing how much he enjoyed the training side of supervising, he decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in education at Notre Dame of Maryland University. “Because of work, I found myself moving around the country a lot. I’ve lived in seven different states, and I’ve come back to Maryland three different times. Now it’s meant to be and it’s for good!”

Having found his true calling, he next had to figure out what grades and subjects he was best suited to teach. Those realizations came very quickly. “I wasn’t initially sure about what my target age group was going to be but I discovered that 3rd through 5th grade areas are where I feel most comfortable. My comfort zone is with this age group. They are easy to inspire but still need my help—they are very teachable.”

As for what to teach, he says he feels a special affinity for STEM subjects. “I really enjoy math and especially science. I like the hands-on aspect that science can bring to education, and I feel that’s not only how I learn best, but it’s also my natural teaching style.”

The road to TNCS where he could give free rein to his inquiry-driven teaching approach was not a straight path, however. Although he knew he liked teaching and he liked the schools where he worked, morale had sunk quite low among his fellow teachers for a variety of reasons, but not least because the rate of compensation remained static for years, while resources dwindled and expectations rose. “It became challenging to work in that environment,” he said. “The administration was very difficult to work with in terms of being very restrictive with what I could teach and what kind of approach I could use. You had to be very much inside the box.” The final straw was when “teaching to the test” began to override any hands-on or project-based learning. “Not enough time or focus was devoted to science.”

In the meantime, he had joined a pilot program at Towson University for STEM certification. His cohort will be the very first to earn the new Maryland State Department of Education endorsement, “Instructional Leader—STEM (Pre K‑6)” in Spring 2015.

I wanted to practice some of this project-based learning I was studying, and Baltimore County hired me as a STEM teacher. I worked there for a year, but it was a pretty similar situation to what I experienced in Harford County—math was ‘in the box,’ and science was not supported. Many times I wouldn’t even get to science because I had to teach so much math. Also, it was a high-needs school, so I had to spend most of my time on test-taking strategies. The pressures that are put on elementary school teachers and kids with standardized testing lead to mutual frustration. Students start getting burned out; that joy of learning and love of coming to school is dying out earlier and earlier for some of these kids. It used to be not until middle school when students would hit that proverbial wall, but now it’s in elementary that kids start to feel all the pressure and stop enjoying school. Inevitably, this leads to major behavior problems.

Common Core also presented challenges insofar as it changed how everything is done and not necessarily in a readily executable way. “There are definitely some good aspects to it,”said Mr. McGonigal, “it encourages more depth versus breadth in studying topics, but everything is getting pushed down to younger and younger ages, and some kids aren’t developmentally ready to master certain skills that CC calls for. It was not developed by professional educators, so there was really no voice for teachers.”

Arrival at TNCS

By contrast, he is very happy at TNCS, where he is given the space to actually teach STEM. He says, “I love the small, intimate class size that lets you really get to know the students. There’s so much freedom with the curriculum. The owners and the administration have really embraced trying new things. If something doesn’t work, we adapt—learn from the experience and try it differently next time.” He sees the students also benefiting from this approach. “The students really like the opportunity to work together and to be hands-on,” he said. “They get really excited anytime I tell them we’re doing a design or engineering challenge—in-depth, 1-day teamwork/teambuilding activities that engage them, intrigue them, and get them looking for different solutions to various problems.” He uses Engineering is Elementary (EiE) in his classroom, with the goal of incorporating at least four of their units of study per grade level; these range from electricity to the human body to astronomy, etc.

Says Mr. McGonigal,” We’re encouraged to try something different, even if it’s out of our comfort zone, so I really appreciate that. When I was interviewing and being hired, they were very supportive of me instituting STEM. There’s a lot to like here—in addition to the class size, a lot of stress is taken off the teachers so the workload is manageable. My biggest issue is time—I wish I had more time with my students, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. I want to do more with the time that I have.” In his first year so far, he has spent time getting to know the school and what works for the different age groups. “It’s my first time teaching 1st- and 2nd-graders, so I’m figuring what to bring to their level and how best to bring it to their level,” he said.

Another thing he appreciates about TNCS is the synergy created by combining STEM and multilingual education: “Problem-solving skills are definitely being applied during language learning. Overall, that positively impacts brain development and how you learn. The kids are enthusiastic about it—they seem to enjoy it!”

Mostly he’s just glad that he gets the opportunity at TNCS to be the instructor he is at heart:

Part of why I like this hands-on style of learning is that the 21st-century skills that students are going to need to be competitive in the job market, they learn from problem-based learning experiences. It’s not just play or for fun. There are a lot of skills that go into it—cooperation, learning to resolve problems, how to meet and stay within certain parameters, how to think creatively—that are met by doing these challenges. I’ve really enjoyed learning about engineering, and I might have even chosen that as a career path if I had the chance to learn it as a student in school. That’s part of why I want to be in STEM education—to enlighten kids about what’s out there—what options and different career choices are open to them now.

Welcome to TNCS, Mr. McGonigal! It’s so nice to have you! And the projects are awesome!

STEM Teacher Arrives at TNCS!

Ms. Roberts is thrilled to be part of TNCS

Ms. Roberts is thrilled to be part of TNCS

With the arrival of Ms. Alisha Roberts to The New Century School this year, the elementary program goes higher-tech. Ms. Roberts will teach primarily Math and Science (and Technology and Engineering, the other STEM subjects), while Mrs. Adriana DuPrau will focus on English Language Arts/Literacy and Global Studies. Elementary enrollment has expanded, requiring an additional teacher, so Head of School Alicia Danyali seized the opportunity to branch out in this way and allow each elementary teacher to focus on her preferred subjects, while still maintaing the all-around connectedness TNCS’s successful curriculum is based on. “Within each subject,” says Mrs. Danyali, “there are plenty of intersections with other subjects, so that students learning about how a bridge is built in Ms. Roberts’ class might then write a paragraph or essay about bridges with Mrs. DuPrau or even build his or her own bridge in art class with Mrs. Raccuglia.”

The timing is ideal. STEM is all over the media, and with good reason. STEM subjects are inherently investigative in nature, cultivating self-guided exploration and producing a greater understanding of the physical world. Ms. Roberts says, “STEM is important for everyday life; for example, we use math at the grocery store and at the bank. And science explains how the world works.” Another appeal of early STEM learning is the downstream payoff. Recently, NPR did a Planet Money story about what job fields yield the highest incomes. In “The Most (And Least) Lucrative College Majors, In 1 Graph,” STEM came out almost scarily far ahead (that discrepancy is another story). The focus of other media coverage is the nation’s big move to catch up to other developed countries, whom the United States currently lags far behind in depth and breadth of STEM education.

Even Elmo is getting in on the act. Sesame Street began incorporating STEM into their shows in 2009 with great success (and the usual helpings of silliness and multicolor fur) with segments like Super Grover 2.0 and his investigation superpowers; Murray the Monster’s science experiments; Elmo’s math musicals (“in ‘Guacamole,’ he quizzes the ‘Rhombus of Recipes’ and adds up the avocados on two trees”); and guest appearances from big stars like Jimmy Fallon, who played Wild Nature Survivor Guy. On September 24th, Sesame Street will add a component to their website called “Little Discoverers: Big Fun With Science, Math and More” with STEM-related games and activities for kids.

Why the big push all of a sudden? Studies show that U.S. kids lost interest in science by 4th grade under the former curriculum paradigm in which STEM subjects were completely segregated. They should be—and fundamentally are—connected with other disciplines (as TNCS is doing). As a result, this country will soon have a deficit of graduates with degrees in these subjects and may begin to falter in making those important innovations and discoveries that bolster humanity.

Hyperbole aside, Ms. Roberts says she came to science and math quite naturally, with her father and brother both in engineering. “It must run in the family!” she says and goes on to recount that after becoming consumed with physics in high school thanks to a very dedicated teacher, she entered college as a physics major, switched to biology, and did lots of chemistry along the way. She’s a model of the curiosity and engagement we hope TNCS students also demonstrate! But when some of her peers spoke to her about the education programs they were majoring in, she decided to give that a try, too, and ultimately fell completely in love with teaching. At TNCS, she unites both of her passions to our great fortune. “I love it,” she says. “I love the kids—they’re so motivated to learn more and it’s so easy to get them to work. The more work I give them, the more they want—it’s true! They love the work!”

A typical day for Ms. Roberts begins with her homeroom students, comprising the 2nd through 4th graders (pre-1st and 1st graders have homeroom with Mrs. DuPrau). They start with a list of “Must Dos and May Dos,” which consist of working with math and science topics in their workbooks, on the computer, at their work tables, and throughout the classroom and school grounds. May Dos often involve learning games through SuccessMaker (our Gracie’s favorite). The Scientific Method is emphasized, the step-by-step approach to problem-solving that Mrs. DuPrau introduced them to the prior year during Science Fair preparations. Ms. Roberts confirms that we can look forward to another Science Fair project for this school year as well and that her goal is for the students to come up with their own experiment to perform.

She then has 90 minutes with the younger elementary group, which she humorously compares to being in a Nationwide commercial (you know, the ones in which the kids say the funniest things?). In an exploration of “What’s in Your Lunchbox?” (a lesson on where our food comes from and how it’s processed for consumption), she asked the kids about the origins of chocolate, anticipating a discussion of the cocoa bean. She had to switch tack, however, when someone ventured that chocolate comes from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and everyone gratefully chimed agreement. . . Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.

As mentioned, each lesson is integrated with whatever else the student happens to be learning, so there’s plenty of reading happening during Ms. Roberts’ class and likewise plenty of scientific discovery during Mrs. DuPrau’s time with the students. The STEM subjects are themselves also integrated, so that they are “tied together as one big whole,” in Ms. Roberts’ words. “I love working with the children,” she concludes. “They all have unique personalities and rates of learning, and I just love seeing them ‘get it’!”

Welcome to TNCS, Ms. Roberts!