Thousands of Newark students exposed to STEM with hands-on program

NEWARK -- Hunched over desks with pencils in hand, students in Ridge Street School set out Monday morning to simulate what most seasoned scientists are still wrestling to accomplish: building a colony on the Moon.

Equipped only with cotton balls, coffee filters, sand and their brains, the 7th graders began the week designing water purifiers that could clean contaminated water on a lunar planet.

By Thursday, mini-marshmallows littered desks as groups built model protective astronaut suits. 

It may sound unconventional, but it's all part of Newark Public School's first-ever STEM week, in which teachers at 26 middle schools across the city halted regular science classes to offer a hands-on engineering-based curriculum developed by MIT and STEM organization i2 Learning. More than 2,000 students participated.

For the founder of i2 Learning Ethan Berman, the city was the perfect place to launch the company's second pilot program. Newark schools, he says, are brimming with untapped potential.

"Our focus has basically been urban environments," Berman said. "Kids who don't usually have exposure to many of these things."

Test scores have reflected this lack of exposure. Out of 15 of Newark's "renew" schools, only three performed above the state average for math in 2016.

Targeting middle schoolers was no coincidence either. Studies show girls begin to lose interest in science, technology, engineering and math around the ages 11 to 15, but STEM week could curb that trend. 

An outside evaluation of the program found an increased interest in engineering-related fields among girls, Berman said. 

"If that can spill over, that can be quite powerful," he said. "Getting kids at least exposed to it is what's important."

Newark Public Schools officially partnered with i2 Learning in March after applying for a grant with the district. More than 80 educators received two to three days of training needed to carry out the 21st century lesson plans. 

And the move has made a big impact on at least one 7th grader.

At only 13-years-old, Jhosue Rubio dreams of attending Harvard University and one day exploring outer space as the world's first Dominican astronaut to visit the moon. When he heard STEM week was coming to Newark, he said his excitement was indescribable. 

"I've dreamed of being an astronaut since I was seven-years-old," he said. "I feel like this is an opportunity for me to learn more about what's out there and what my chances are outside of school." 

Geared toward non-traditional learners, Berman said his future goal is to have a nationwide middle school STEM week-- and Ridge Street School is already on board for next year.

Still, it's only one component of a larger push by the Newark school district to bring engineering into classrooms. The district is opening a state-of-the-art laboratory near Broad Street and expanding its after-school robotics programs. 

i2 Learning first partnered with Boston schools last October. Public Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf approached Berman during the Massachusetts city's week-long event to discuss bringing the program to Newark. 

In a statement, Superintendent Christopher Cerf said, "We are making major investments in STEM education across the city because we believe it is more important than ever."

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