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Groton students learn about STEM at new summer academy

Groton — About a dozen first-graders shouted in wonderment as they stepped outside of Charles Barnum Elementary School on Wednesday and the bracelets of white beads they were wearing turned into a rainbow of colors in the bright sunlight.

Teacher Jane Potts then ushered them back indoors to see what would happen when the bracelets were without sunlight.

"Let's see what it does," said Potts, a first grade teacher at Mary Morrisson Elementary School. "Is it going to stay the same color?"

The students saw the colors of the beads, made of materials sensitive to ultraviolet light, fading when indoors during the lesson about ultraviolet light.

Groton kindergarten through fifth-grade students were participating this week in a four-day Summer STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — Academy at Charles Barnum Elementary School, which the district is offering for the first time this year as part of a Department of Defense Education Activity grant. In addition to the Summer STEM Academy, the five-year $750,000 grant, announced in the fall, also provides STEM enrichment programs during the year, professional development for teachers in Next Generation Science Standards and supports Project Lead the Way and an International Baccalaureate Career-related program at the high school, Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin said.

The new STEM Academy is modeled after the district's Summer Writing Academy, which is offered to students in kindergarten through fifth grade and also has a component for middle school students. The writing academy is funded through a Department of Defense Education Activity grant the district received four years ago. The teachers received training from a program through Columbia University's Teachers College, said Val Nelson, project manager for the language arts grant.

The summer programs, both held this week, bring together students from schools throughout the district for four days of enrichment taught in small classes by Groton Public Schools teachers, said Nelson and Carol Marsiglio, the district STEM grant project director.

A total of 386 students are participating in the academies this week, with 102 participating in writing only, 75 participating in STEM, and 209 participating in both, Nelson said.

In STEM classes this week, students used pool noodles to construct roller coasters for marbles and built prototypes of boats, and went outdoors to explore topics from solar energy to pollination in the school's garden. All the activities involve hands-on, project-based learning, Marsiglio said.

In a fifth grade classroom on Wednesday, students worked on helmets to protect eggs that were to be dropped from different heights, under the guidance of Jacques Beriau, an eighth grade science teacher at Cutler Arts and Humanities Middle School. The students said they were learning about how engineers design helmets and about speed and momentum.

"I like everything about science and STEAM, so I wanted to come here because it sounded like a lot of fun," said Kenzie Gulluscio, 10, adding that she likes doing engineering projects such as this one because it's fun to use her ideas in the real world. STEAM includes the arts.

"I love science," said Jeremiah Shafer, 11, who excitedly talked about the experiment they did on Tuesday, when the students built boats and tested how many marbles the vessels could carry. The top score for the morning class was 200 marbles, he said.

Divya Varadharajan, 10, said she loves engineering, which requires a big process to follow before getting to the last step of building something that stays strong and safe.

In writing classes, students were equally engaged, writing autobiographies, making book boxes and listening to Jason Deeble, the author of the children's book "Sir Ryan's Quest," talk about his creative process, among other activities.

Danielle Deeble, who is a teacher at Claude Chester Elementary School and is married to Jason Deeble, said the second-grade students she's teaching in the academy love to write and want a lot of time to work and improve. She said having a small group of students allows her to sit down with them individually and help them grow their writing skills.

"Even though it’s only been two and a half days, I'm already seeing incredible progress, and they’re just so excited to be here and so passionate," she said.

Nelson noted that more than 300 students come to the program and want to write in the summer. She said many of them have attended in previous years, as well.

Austin said the school district is always looking for ways to ignite a child's inquisitiveness and curiosity, and the teachers have developed creative lessons.

"Teaching is such a creative endeavor and the teachers really take some time to develop this camp experience and enrichment programs before and after school, and they really have so much fun with the ideas and the activities they’re doing with the children," Austin said. "It makes for wonderful summer learning."

More information on learning opportunities throughout the district this summer is available at


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