Becky Drexler admits she enjoys science. As a fifth-grader at Avon’s St. Agnes School last school year, she participated with six other students in the Stellar Space Days 2006 Design Challenges Project.
“My teacher put me on the team,” Becky, 11, said. “Science is one of my favorite subjects, and I’m also interested in space.”
The Space Days project is an award-winning educational initiative that seeks to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Students in grades 4 through 8 employ math and science concepts to create innovative solutions to the challenges of space exploration.
St. Agnes School’s “Space Spectors” team was chosen as one of 21 “Stellar” Design Challenges teams for Space Day 2006. A team of educational experts selected winners from a field of 259 submissions from 23 states and one foreign country. Astronauts and other dignitaries honored the winners in May during a special ceremony hosted by NASA.
“It took us the whole year to come up with our solution,” Becky explained. “We worked hard, but I enjoyed being with my friends. I felt proud, and it was fun too.”
St. Agnes’ team consisted of Becky, Jesse Bennett, David Maginn, Graham Masi, Zachary Rizzolo and Nathan Taylor. The group designed a mechanical device, TONY, that astronauts could quickly and easily operate to retrieve an object that is out of reach. The design needed to be able to extend at least 100 centimeters beyond its size when closed or collapsed.
David, a fifth-grader, was excited about the team’s success.
“It was really fun, and I got to be with one of my best friends,” he said. “I like science and space, so I felt proud. And I thought ‘I finally won something!’”
Teacher Melissa Savino was equally proud.
“This challenge not only promotes an interdisciplinary approach to learning in technology, science, math and language arts, but also the opportunity for learning to work cooperatively to solve problems,” she said.
Many diocesan schools encourage — or even require — students to participate in academic competitions.
Fifth-graders at St. Agnes were required to participate in the space competition. Other schools promote this program as well as such programs as Odyssey of the Mind, which allows students to work cooperatively to solve a problem. Teams choose between different problems in different categories, such as math, technology and classics. The teams have eight minutes to present their solution to a panel of judges, and their scores are based on creativity, teamwork and other principles related to the problem. In addition, the teams compete in spontaneous problem-solving situations.
In May, fifth-graders at St. Louis School in Pittsford placed 12th in the world finals of Odyssey of the Mind.
Nicholas Potter, Zach Kanaley, Erin Clark, Emma Gordon, Megan McNiffe, Shania Garfield and Adam Kerr were the St. Louis team members, with coaches Wendy Kerr and Kelly Kanaley.
Nicholas Potter decided early in the school year he wanted to join Odyssey of the Mind.
“I saw a lot of friends doing it, and building things,” he said. “I thought it would be fun. It was so exciting, especially to qualify for the world finals.”
Sixth-graders at St. Joseph School also participated in Odyssey of the Mind and won third place in their region.
This fall, St. Margaret Mary School will participate in a new program using Legos. The Lego League will give students the opportunity to solve real-world problems using math, science and technology. Students will use special Lego robotics kits to design a robot and program it to perform certain tasks.
Whatever the academic pursuits, teachers and parents agree that fostering teamwork and critical thinking benefits students in all grades.
“We are so proud of our students,” Savino said. “It just adds a whole layer to their learning experience, and they really do enjoy themselves. It’s just a win-win situation.”
Parent Maria Potter agreed.
“We are so proud of their achievements. The kids expand upon their knowledge while working with others, and they are having fun,” she said.