Day camps sharpen elementary students' math, science skills

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comApril 5, 2012 

Fourth-grader Hunter Hughes had a problem: The robot he built wasn't working quite right.

The Coosa Elementary School student thought he followed all the directions in the Lego robotics kit, and he eagerly plugged the contraption -- a foot designed to kick things to the turn of a motor -- into the computer to program it.

But as the bright red and green plastic foot swung around and around, it hit the desk. And the motor jerked around with the momentum of the foot.

"What's wrong with it?" fourth-grade teacher Jim Olsen asked Hunter. Hunter quickly responded that the contraption's leg was too long and the weight of the motor was not properly supported.

Back to the drawing board he went.

"If it doesn't work, (the students) go back and find their mistakes," Olsen said. "It's getting him to see his design flaws."

Hunter is one of about 150 children from three Beaufort County public schools who participated in day camps this week as part of the Critical Math and Science Success program.

Students at Coosa, Broad River and Shell Point elementary schools turned popsicle sticks into bridges,built simple machines and learned how gears work.

The goal, teachers and principals at all three schools say, is to sharpen students' math and science skills, while emphasizing problem-solving and critical thinking.

"They think they are playing with Legos, but they are actually learning with Legos," Broad River principal Constance Goodwine-Lewis said. "Whatever gets them excited about learning, (we'll do)."

Critical MASS has been paid for by a U.S. Department of Defense grant. The three-year, $518,000 competitive grant was given to district schools with large populations of military dependents. The district estimates that one in four students at Broad River and Coosa, and one in five students at Shell Point come from military families.

Students involved in the program have participated in after-school activities since January, meeting as often as twice per week. They can also participate in a day camp in the late summer, before school starts again.

Teachers said they witness "light bulb" moments every day as the students connect their work to the real world and participate in activities that spark their imagination.

"The hook is that it's fun, but at the end of the day when we're reviewing, they're able to reflect on what they did," Shell Point teacher Mike Henry said. "Then, they realize they've learned the basics of how machines work."

The kids have definitely let their imaginations run wild. At Coosa Elementary on Wednesday they chattered about their Lego designs and drew concepts for bridges they might build.

"I've learned that when you use your imagination, you can accomplish almost anything," Hunter said.

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