Robots and rockets
‘Science Week’ ends the school year with a bang
by Art Schwartz
Reporter staff writer
Jul 13, 2014 | 8901 views | 0 0 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ROBOT PROGRAMMERS – Jake Zhagui, 5th grade teacher Jennie Strobel, Thando Nkala, and Samuel Arias tell the Finch robot what to do.
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For students in North Bergen’s elementary schools, the academic year ended with robots and rockets and cool experiments. It was all part of “Science Week,” an intriguing way to wrap up the year with something both informative and fun.

“This is essentially project-based assessment instead of another big test in the fourth marking period,” said Danny Guzman, science teacher at Robert Fulton School. “Because at this point in the year they’re tested out. And the temperatures are not conducive to sitting in a room and taking a two-hour test.”

Instead the younger kids worked on class projects assigned by the teachers, while the older ones got to pick individual projects and carry out experiments on their own. The excitement in the hallways was apparent as the students showed off their handiwork and received grades for their creativity and imagination.

Programming Finches

Stephanie Stern teaches computer education at Franklin School. “A few years ago I won a fellowship with NASA Endeavor,” she said, referring to the science teaching certificate project. “And for graduation I had to build a district-wide unit.”

A unit is basically a program of study for students containing all four educational STEM fields: science technology, engineering, and math. Al Orlando, science supervisor for the district, charged Stern with creating a unit for two grades, and she instituted programs for the third and fourth grades based on space milestones and the lunar rover.

From there it grew.
“Everything is about synthesizing and creating and building.” –Danny Guzman
Nowadays, “Each grade has its own challenge,” she said. “So third grade we’re building rovers. Fourth grade we’re building landers. Fifth grade we’re learning robotics. Sixth grade we’re learning drag with parachutes. And the seventh and eighth grades are holding science fairs.”

The students work on projects involving the challenge assigned to their grade. “Based on the outcome of the project and the steps they take, they’re assessed, and then a grade is produced in each of the disciplines: English, math, social studies, science,” said Stern. “It’s completely cross-curricular.”

This year the fifth graders at Franklin School had a special treat: they got to work with actual robots.

The Finch is a small robot shaped roughly like an oversized computer mouse, designed by a company called BirdBrain Technologies. “They worked with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a robot that could teach children how to code computers,” said Stern.

The company’s “1,000 Robots” program loans Finches to schools for a few weeks. Franklin School got them to coincide with science week.

Students learned to move the Finches using Snap! coding, a programming language developed at Berkeley.

“It’s all code, so they have to know the mathematics and the logical thinking of coding,” said Stern. “The unit’s built around it, teaching them math, the historical perspective of robots vs. man in social studies, and the engineering is the coding. And then the scientific concept they’re learning is inductive and deductive reasoning.” Resulting in a complete STEM course.

So what do the kids think of it? “It’s the best class in the fifth grade,” said student Thando Nkala, as she worked on programming problems. “If you want to control the robot you have to put the right commands into the computer, because if you put the wrong commands it won’t do exactly what you want it to do. You have to be careful. Learn from your mistakes.”

In addition to programming the Finch, students read articles, wrote essays, and worked on modules from Khan Academy. Fifth grader Nicole Arevalo applied what she learned in a creative way. “I do programming at home,” she said. “Creating games. I made a Mario game.”

“I wish we could do something like this all the time,” said their teacher, Jennie Strobel, adding with a laugh, “It keeps them engaged, because they don’t want to listen to me.”

Student experiments

At the same time that fifth graders fed commands to Finches, another entire hallway at Franklin School was filled with student projects for the seventh and eighth grade science fair.

“The students were encouraged to either answer a question or build something,” said Science Teacher Danny Guzman, who oversaw the event.

As an example he displayed a project consisting of a glove with red lights on the palm and green lights on the back, controlled by sensors in the fingers to assist policemen in directing traffic. Each project is fully explained on an illustrated board designed by the student.

“They’re getting a separate grade for every one of the four major areas,” said Guzman. “Science, math, social studies, English language arts. All the projects must have charts or graphs to show the math involved. For English language arts and social studies they’re actually handing in a written essay report.”

“With the new science standards coming out and the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessment down the road, everything is about synthesizing and creating and building, it’s no longer about defining this or where do you find that. Now it’s more about making, creating, building,” he said.

“Programs like this allow our students to get acquainted with the vitally important STEM disciplines at an early age and in a fun, hands-on environment,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. George Solter. “We are training them to have the in-demand skills necessary for the jobs of tomorrow and hopefully encouraging more of our students to pursue further study in science, mathematics, engineering, computer programming, and related fields.”

Bottle rockets and more

Over at Robert Fulton Elementary School, the gym was overflowing with over 200 science projects and students excitedly conducting experiments.

“A lot of people have depression and low self-esteem, lack of confidence,” explained seventh grader Sarah Bacha about her project. “And so I made a computer application, a program, like a game, and without the player knowing, it cures depression.”

Bacha’s program, called IDEA (Impressive Depression Execution Application), offers two boxes on a computer screen and asks users to select which one is correct. No matter which one is chosen, the user wins.

“These subjects, they played it and they noticed they kept winning,” she said. “They don’t know that I made it so they win. They all felt a lessening of depression and an increase of confidence.”

Seventh grader Susan Chen built a rocket out of a soda bottle and shot it across the gym, to the enthusiastic applause of her schoolmates. “You know those bottles with the Mentos and the Coke kind of things?” she said, referring to a common experiment causing geysers to erupt spontaneously. “I used to always do those, but those didn’t really shoot that high up, so I was thinking maybe store the air into something else and then shoot it.”

It worked.

Eighth grader Matthew Ortiz attempted something similar, shooting projectiles out of a bottle using warm water and Alka Seltzer. “It’s not going to explode this time,” he assured bystanders. Discolored spots on the ceiling attested to the repeated success of his experiment.

“Last year I did one about gaming,” he said. “It’s pretty fun. We had an excuse to play Xbox.”

The science fair was coordinated by Fulton School Science Teachers Erin Quinones and Francisco Mascarehnas. Judges evaluated all the projects and assigned winners in different categories.

“They have a lot of impressive projects here,” said Principal Noreen Thelma Garcia. It was the evening of June 17 and the science fair was open to the public for one night only. “They’re bringing grandma, grandpa, everybody, the neighbors, which is the whole idea. They’re all trying to show off.”

Art Schwartz may be reached at

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