4-H steps up its STEM education efforts
Science has been a focus in 4-H for more than a century. But today, in addition to the traditional forms of science, including animal husbandry and other aspects of agriculture, 4-H also is about such fields as robotics, alternative energy and GPS technology.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 21 percent of high school seniors are proficient in science, but only 1 percent perform at an advanced level.
Through a variety of 4-H Science initiatives, University of Maine Cooperative Extension hopes to help reverse that trend by preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers.
“We want to get kids excited about science,” says John Rebar, executive director of UMaine Extension. “We want kids to understand its relevance in their lives and the opportunities for science in their careers. Maine has a growing high-tech sector and a huge healthcare sector. How do we get people excited about those careers?”
The 4-H answer? Start early.
In 2011, 4-H Science outreach efforts served 29,000 Maine youths ages 5 to 18. Among the most successful new endeavors is the 4-H Afterschool Academy, a professional development program that trained some 380 after-school providers in its first year. Those providers then shared their knowledge with 18,000 Maine children.
“We know there’s a huge issue with a shortage of scientists in the United States — that’s no big secret,” says Lisa Phelps, 4-H program administrator for UMaine Extension. “With 4-H Science, we have the ability to provide hands-on learning for kids. Anything we can do to supplement learning in the classroom is important.”
That learning extends into the community. On Maine lakes, teams of youths and adults have used GIS technology to map invasive species. In fact, on Bryant Pond, 4-H campers have used engineering technologies to deploy submersible robots in an effort to identify and eradicate milfoil.
In 2012, Cooperative Extension plans to more fully align UMaine’s teaching and research expertise in science and engineering with the needs of Maine children. A new coordinator, based at UMaine, will identify projects and professors who may be a good fit for 4-H programs.

Phelps and her colleagues hope that the effort will bring more youths to campus and inspire them to consider science careers. 



Teachers and Researchers Attend STEM Education Conference at UMaine


A meeting of the minds is going on at UMaine in Orono this week. Those in attendance are the ones shaping the young minds of Maine's students and they're hoping to solve a big problem.

"I think the state of science and mathematics education in this country is reaching an emergency level," said David Harmon, Senior Engineer at IBM.

The group at the Research in STEM Education (RISE) conference knows there just aren't enough students entering the STEM fields, which are science, technology, engineering and math. So they're trying to find new ways to teach these subjects to make them more appealing to K-12 students.

"If we can figure out how to teach these subjects in ways that really help excite students, engage students, let them see the value of these subjects and the skills that they learn as they work in these areas, then I think we'll have many more students who choose to follow these kinds of career areas," said Susan McKay, Director of the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education and UMaine physics professor.

To help figure it out, this conference brings together researchers who study how students learn these subjects and those who teach them.

"We can try to get the practices that are supported by research into the teaching venues and we can also understand from the educators' standpoint what are the important questions that need to be answered through research," said McKay.

Given the nature of these subjects, things are changing constantly.

"We have new tools, technologies, etc. and then there's new math and science all the time and some of that will work its way into the K-12 curriculum," said Karen King, Director of Research at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Though many in this group are usually the ones teaching, they know that in the STEM fields there's always more to learn.



LEGO schedule announced

Maine Robotics announced its fall workshop schedule for teachers, parents and coaches who want to get started with the LEGO MindStorms Kit, or who are interested in participating in the FIRST LEGO League in Maine.

The workshops will be held in Falmouth, Auburn, Farmington, Bangor and Farmingdale. Participants will spend the day building and learning to program the LEGO robots to do simple and intermediate tasks. No previous experience or equipment is needed, all equipment is provided by Maine Robotics.

Maine Robotics is a provider of robotics and engineering after school programs, It works with more than 1,300 students and teachers each year in developing a higher degree of STEM literacy.

The schedule is:

• Falmouth: UMaine Regional Learning Center, 75 Clearwater Drive, Monday, Sept. 12.

• Auburn: Auburn Land Lab, 15 Andrew Drive, Tuesday, Sept. 13.

• Farmington: University of Maine Farmington, North Dining Hall, Section A, Thursday, Sept. 15.

• Bangor: Maine Discovery Museum, Conference Rooms, 74 Main St., Monday,Sept. 19.

• Farmingdale: HallDale Middle School, 111 Maple St., Saturday, Sept. 24.

• Bath: Bath Area YMCA, 303 Center St., Bath, Oct. 1.

Workshops run 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m., except the Bath workshop which ends at 2:30 p.m. Bring a lunch. Preregistration is required. Registration is $35 adults, $20 high school mentor, but must be accompanied by an adult if under 18.

For more information, visit, or call 866-4340.



Maine Robotics to use grants for youth work


The nonprofit organization that encourages Maine youth ages 8 to 18 to have an active interest in science, engineering, computers and technology has received seven grants to support 2008-09 programs and new initiatives.

Grants will support the purchase of technology equipment for Maine Robotics’ summer programs:

• Oak Grove School Foundation, $2,500.

• Rotary Club of Bangor, $4,010.

• The Perloff Family Foundation, $1,400,

• The Wing-Benjamin Trust, $500.

Robotics Summer Camp programs draw boys and girls ages 9 to 15 at six locations — Bangor, Orono, Portland, Gorham, Readfield and Ellsworth.

Robotics Camp provides a safe and nurturing environment where children are allowed to learn at their own pace with the help of knowledgeable and helpful adult mentors.

The program is non-competitive and children work in groups of two, and occasionally groups of three if they choose. Each group works on projects and “missions” assigned at the beginning of the day and continues through the day and into the week. As they acquire more skills, they have the opportunity to work on their own projects.

Grants also have been received from:

• The Fisher Charitable Foundation, $5,000.

• The Libra Foundation $10,000.

These will fund free state registration for 70 teams to participate in the FIRST LEGO League program in December.

FIRST is an acronym — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and was started by U.S. inventor Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway, entrepreneur and a tireless advocate for science and technology.

LEGOs are known around the world as the plastic toy developed in the 1960s. Over the decades, the LEGO bricks have moved from the toy chest and into the realm of robotic models and education.

FLL teams are composed of two to 10 children who represent schools, after school clubs, home-schoolers, neighborhoods, families and community organizations. Every year the FLL announces a new theme for that year’s tournament.

Each team works from September to December preparing for the tournament.

Teams conduct research and at the FLL tournament give a presentation based on the year’s theme. Teams build, test and program robots made entirely from LEGOs. Other areas the teams are evaluated on include team spirit, teamwork, programming and design.

Another grant received is:

• The Davis Family Foundation, $15,000.

Maine Robotics will use the grant to develop statewide online training opportunities for Maine primary and secondary teachers and robotics coaches on The online training will help teachers increase their skills in the principles of robotics, engineering and computer science at no cost to them or their school district.




LePage continues promotion of STEM education; unveils first recipients of youth awards

Building a robot that rebounds basketballs is no small task, but for 15-year-old Dakota Condon and her friends from Messalonskee High School, it was all in good fun.

The school’s Infinite Loop Robotics team isn’t part of any class, and the students receive nothing in return for their dedication other than the fulfilling nature of problem-solving and the personal satisfaction of seeing the results of their hard work actually function.

“I loved so much about working with the machinery,” Condon said as the mobile rebounding machine sucked up basketballs and lobbed them to folks in the crowd. “It also serves as a great incentive to keep up with your schoolwork. If you fail a quarter, you can’t be on the team.”

The merits of STEM education — which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — have been widely touted in recent years as businesses and governments struggle to keep up with an increasingly technology-driven world, and Maine is no exception. Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen promote STEM education aggressively as part of their education reform ideas, which were spelled out explicitly earlier this year in a strategic plan released by the Department of Education.

Condon and dozens of other students from Jay, Farmington, Oakland and Falmouth gathered with LePage and Bowen Tuesday in the State House to demonstrate their robots and tout the merits of STEM education. LePage, in turn, presented the first-ever Governor’s Promising STEM Youth Awards.

According to Condon, her team’s biggest challenges didn’t come during the design and building stages, but later during troubleshooting. With a regional robotics competition in Boston just hours away, the team found itself using frantic tune-up time to rebuild major parts of their machine. In the competition, it worked.

“It was a great confidence booster,” Condon said. “Going through that sort of thing is just good for you.”

LePage agreed that teamwork and problem solving were two valuable side effects of the robotics projects undertaken by the students.

“Beyond just STEM, you are proving something else to yourselves: that you’re able to work in a group and you’re able to share knowledge,” LePage said to the students. “By sharing the knowledge that each of you brings to the table, you become profoundly strong as a unit. That’s what’s going to make you so powerful and successful as you move forward.”

LePage stressed that technical skills and anyone who has them will be top-tier contributors to the future economy.

“You’re the people who are going to build our bridges, design our buildings, solve our energy needs and run our computer networks,” he said. “You are the future of this state, make no mistake about that. You will be moving our state forward.”

George Hogan, vice president of Wright Express, a technology-driven firm in South Portland, agreed.

“These are exactly the types of skills that will drive our country and businesses to the next level as we compete globally,” Hogan said. “Today, virtually every country in the world is trying to reinvent themselves. … They’re using technology to reinvent themselves every five years. The STEM disciplines play a huge role in that endeavor.”

LePage presented awards to three robotics teams who participated in the FIRST Robotics World Championships in St. Louis two months ago. The teams included the “SMART” robotics team from Spruce Mountain High School in Jay; the “Sunnyside Up” team from elementary and middle schools in the Farmington area; and the “Infinite Loop” team from Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Teams from Mount Desert Island and South Portland also participated in the competitions, but were unable to attend Tuesday’s ceremonies.

Other honorees included Taylor Rogers of Dixmont and Ma Wei Feng of Portland, who will participate in the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia this summer; and “The Paper Planes,” a Falmouth High School team who in April competed in the Real World Design Challenge in Washington, D.C.

Some of the students at the State House Tuesday said they fully intend to pursue STEM careers. Some of them indicated they might put their educations to use here in Maine. Nick Ferguson of Sidney and Derek Caron of Oakland, both seniors at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, said they intend to study chemical engineering and computer engineering, respectively, at the University of Maine.

“STEM is important to me personally because I really want a greener Earth,” Ferguson said. “I want to go into renewable energy and help society invest in new types of energy.”

Caron said he wants to someday design medical robotics systems, though they’ll have to be far more precise than the basketball rebounder he helped design this year.

“The experience I got from this is something that can follow me for a long time,” he said. “If you’d talked to me in middle school, I never thought I’d do anything like this. We built a robot from the ground up. With this stuff, your mind is the only limit.”




Not reading science, doing science: Maine students try new program

BELFAST, Maine — Last year, Jordan Dunlap of Belfast didn’t really like learning about science.

But this year, things are different, conceded the 15-year-old from Belfast, a student at Troy Howard Middle School.

“I understand a lot of it,” he said last week in his science class while measuring the results of an experiment on thermal energy. “It’s just fun.”

Jordan is one of about 1,300 middle school students in the state who are participating in a pilot program that aims to change the way Maine youngsters are taught science. TheMaine Physical Sciences Partnership has brought together nearly 50 rural Maine middle schools, the University of Maine and the Maine Department of Education for a five-year study that was funded through a $12.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Susan McKay is a University of Maine physics professor and director of the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education, or RiSE. She said that in the first year of the partnership, a task force made up of science and math teachers investigated ways to improve science classes in the state. This year, the second year, students across the state are designing their own science experiments as they dive into what she described as “project-based inquiry science.” The university has provided materials to help the students do these science labs.

All of this, experts believe, will help Maine students look at science in a different way — and become more likely to choose science- and math-based careers later on. And if Maine has a work force that is well-educated in the sciences, it could help entice more companies to the state, she said.

“There’s definitely concern around the country. It doesn’t matter what test you look at — our students don’t match up to international standards,” McKay said. “In Maine, it’s almost more of a concern that students are not choosing to go into science or math or engineering-related fields. And yet, this is an area where there’s job growth.”

She said she has enjoyed visiting participating schools this year and watching the science classes at work while she has evaluated the teaching techniques.

“There’s such a feeling of excitement and authenticity about what the students are doing — the scientific process,” she said. “They’re learning how to think and figure things out.”

Last week, three sixth graders at the Troy Howard School were so excited about an upcoming experiment to watch and sketch the phases of the moon, their words tumbled over each other as they described it.

“We’re going to look at the moon every single night!” exclaimed Eliot Ripley, 11, of Belfast.

Opening the door

Middle school is a perfect age for this kind of research effort, according to McKay.

“A lot of students in middle school might just close that door on math and science, saying, ‘I’m not good at this. I’m just not going to apply myself in these areas,’” she said. “But those subjects build on each other. It’s hard to catch up later on.”

The pilot program also will pay particular attention to attracting girls to science.

“We’ll be breaking down all of the data we collect by gender, to make sure that everybody gets something out of this,” she said.

Eliot Ripley and two of her friends certainly seemed to be getting something out of their science studies. The girls were delighted to talk about the volcanoes, wind, erosion, weather, soil, plate tectonics, rocks and minerals they’ve been learning about so far.

Allison DeFeo, 11, of Belmont, said her favorite subjects were “a tie” between language arts and science.

Carrie Walker, 12, of Searsmont said she has been enjoying the year.

“It’s a lot better than in the past. It’s a lot more fun,” she said. “I think people get a lot more out of it.”

Jen Curtis, a science teacher at Troy Howard Middle School, said it is exhilarating to have her students learn through designing and following through with their own experiments.

“The students don’t need to open a textbook daily,” she said. “They’re not reading science. They’re doing science.”

Her classroom was a focused, busy place the week before April vacation, as her seventh and eighth grade students began work on a thermal energy unit. They broke up into small groups and gathered bags of ice, hot water, beakers and thermometers as they prepared to begin by testing how ice affects the heat of water.

“Groups are not all going to be successful,” Curtis warned. “Science doesn’t work every single time you do it. You’re going to see some frustration, which is fine.”

As the students in her classroom made predictions, weighed the mass in the bags of ice and otherwise buckled down to work, the teacher said she has been enjoying being part of the pilot program.

“I think that what’s going on is the process of science,” she said. “What you’re seeing is social learning that’s hands-on.”

The students aren’t the only participants who have been busy collaborating this year, she said. Teachers have been sharing their knowledge and experiences also.

“The university is saying that we want science teachers to talk to each other. We want science teachers to collaborate,” Curtis said. “I can talk to other teachers in Bar Harbor or in Hampden. My collaboration’s not just in this building. There’s a wealth of knowledge. And none of us are working in isolation.”

According to McKay, having teachers around the state work closely together is positive.

“The idea of districts working together and using the same instructional resources is really powerful,” she said.

Some students might move from one district to another — and if the schools had similar science curricula, they likely would keep their momentum going.

Hunter Merchant, a 13-year-old from Belfast, said she has been enjoying all the experiments.

“I like science a lot better this year,” she said. “Last year, all we really did was worksheets.”

For McKay, this is a hopeful kind of feedback.

“It’s really all about working with the schools,” she said of the partnership. “Helping students learn science — and also love science.”




STEM education proliferating in Maine

BANGOR, Maine — The shortage of experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is very real in Maine as it is across the United States, a fact which has led to calls for action everywhere from the White House to the Maine governor’s mansion.

This has led to the proliferation of so-called STEM programs in Maine and across the country.

Anita Bernhardt, a science and technology specialist for the Maine Department of Education, said the average age of an engineer in the United States is 47. In Maine, she predicts job openings in technology and engineering careers will increase by nearly 50 percent by 2018 because of retirements in those fields and new jobs created. According to figures from the Department of Labor, which indicate there are some 20,000 STEM-related jobs in Maine, that could mean there will be an additional 10,000 jobs in the future.

“We’ve been hearing about this consistently over the past 10 years,” said Bernhardt. “Our country will have trouble trying to fill jobs in STEM in the near future. That begs the question, ‘What do we do about it?’”

STEM is not a particular program of a specific design, but it has become a bit of a household word among educators. Part of the reason for that has been a building chorus that the United States is falling behind other countries when it comes to students pursuing careers in science, technology and mathematics. According to Bernhardt, the problem is most pronounced in government agencies and and industries that handle defense contracts, many of which she said require U.S. citizenship for employees.

Andrew Anderson, dean and professor of technology for the University of Southern Maine, said a building chorus at every level of education is raising awareness about the need for STEM professionals.

“It’s a subject that is now being talked about at all levels,” said Anderson. “From that standpoint we’re making a good effort to raise awareness. When I look at the opportunities out there for students in STEM, I wonder why they are not knocking down our doors.”

Despite that, Anderson said enrollment in USM’s STEM-related programs is “steadily going up,” but the school is still nowhere near capacity.

STEM-related careers have been identified as major growth sectors in Maine, particularly in heath care and precision manufacturing, according to Adam Fisher, spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor. There are currently about 20,000 Mainers working in STEM-related jobs, which Fisher said pay an average of 60 percent higher than other jobs that require the same level of college training.

“There are a lot of retirements coming,” said Fisher. “That’s an issue across all industries here. Maine has one of the oldest, if not the oldest, work forces in the country.”

Anderson said the shortage of students interested in STEM is exacerbated — especially in New England — by the fact that high school enrollments are decreasing overall and many students are more interested in other career paths.

“There’s some preliminary data out there that shows that by middle school, many students are not interested in STEM as a career,” he said. “They think it’s too hard.”

Though Maine schools are at various stages of implementing STEM programs, initiatives have charged ahead in some geographic areas.

In Portland, a nonprofit group that seeks to create a charter school called the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science inked a real estate deal last month for a headquarters for the school, which intends to enroll its first students next fall. In Bangor, the school department receivedconceptual approval from the school committee in late November to create an intensive and specialized course of study for students interested in STEM-related fields.

Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said the initiative in Bangor was triggered by a recognition that the state not only needs to improve its efforts on the education front, it also needs to take steps to interest students in STEM-related careers in the first place.

“The timing is right,” said Webb. “We have listened closely to the state’s call to action from the governor to the commissioner of education to higher education institutions.”

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy recommended in an extensive report that immediate measures be taken to improve STEM technology. Those measures included recruiting and training 100,000 new STEM teachers and developing incentives for them to succeed, and creating 1,000 new STEM-focused schools over the next 10 years.

According to Bernhardt, Maine is at an advantage when it comes to improving STEM education.

“The fact that Maine is a small state is a real advantage to us,” she said. “In order to make this work you have to reach out and make connections. Maine is a small community, which means we have the potential to really have a common vision to move forward and work together in a coherent way.”

Work to that end already is under way in several locations. Southern Maine Community College recently founded The Reach Center, which is a partnership between the college, the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. The goal, which was bolstered recently with a $3.2 million anonymous gift, is to make The Reach Center a resource for schools statewide that are trying to create new STEM programs.

Officials at Bangor High School, which is not as far along as The Reach Center, said they envision a program that focuses in both directions on the educational ladder for success. According to Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler, the district is working with the University of Maine on several fronts, including formation of a program that will allow students to enter college with enough credits to be sophomores. Conversely, high school students involved in the Bangor High School STEM Academy will be tutors and mentors for children in the younger grades with the hope of planting the STEM seed as early as possible.

“This program will be open to all students but it’s going to be a heavy curriculum academically,” said Butler. “For a student to march through this, he or she will be really challenging himself over four years.”

Among the academy’s requirements will be that students take physics — which is usually reserved for the junior or senior year, and often only for highly motivated students — during their freshman year.

At York High School, the STEM program isn’t as clearly delineated as Bangor’s is, according to York Principal Robert Stevens, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t undertaking many of the same initiatives. About 10 years ago, according to Stevens, administrators and staff vowed to make preparing kids for higher education across all vocations a priority. The result is a higher education sending rate that varies between 85 and 93 percent, said Stevens.

Instead of instituting a requirement that all students take four years of science and math, Stevens said teachers simply opted to try simple encouragement. The result has been an increase at York High School from one physics class with 20 students to six full physics classes plus an advanced-placement course. Stevens said about 99 percent of York students take physics before they graduate.

“There’s nothing sexy about what we’re doing; we’re just kind of feeling our way,” said Stevens. “Unfortunately, we really haven’t been able to look at the engineering side of things very much. We just haven’t had the economic resources to bring a program like that forward.”

STEM education is taking hold at the lower levels, as well. At the kindergarten-through-grade-eight Durham Community School, older students have access to various STEM-related classes, including one called STEM, according to Principal Will Pidden.

“All of our seventh- and eighth-graders have that class as part of their years,” said Pidden, who said subjects taught include robotics, computer programming and various other disciplines. The theme, he said, is incorporating hands-on science and math projects as opposed to focusing on classroom lectures.

“Imagine learning about measurement but never measuring anything,” said Pidden. “These are skills that all students need regardless of what career path they’re taking. As colleges look for kids’ expertise and experiences in these skills, high schools will start offering more. We don’t STEM education to stop at the eighth grade.”

Bernhardt, at the Department of Education, said the difference between the York and Bangor programs is illustrative of the many approaches being taken in Maine schools. If there is a common theme, it is that the most successful programs partner with the business community.

“Very many kids in our state know that STEM subjects are important but they think it’s not for them,” she said. “We know that kids who participate in real research are more likely to pursue STEM career pathways.”

According to Butler, Bangor High School has a strong tradition of students doing original research, ranging from one student’s contribution to a hot sauce ranking system a decade ago to a current student’s work on water science. In four of the past five years, a Bangor student has been chosen as Maine’s winner of the U.S. Stockholm Water Prize. In 2011, the winner was 16-year-old graduating senior Leila Musavi, whose project involved finding pathogens such as cholera and E. coli in water. Musavi is now studying medicine at Columbia University.

Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Steven Bowen have repeatedly said that one of the keys to educational success is grabbing the interest of students when they’re young. Bowen is in the midst of developing an educational strategy document for the state and has said that individualized learning will be at its center.

Bernhardt said she sees that as a positive.

“Resources are slender right now,” she said. “One of the most important things we can do is to help raise awareness.”




Maine Adult Education Office Harnesses Broadband for Students and Teachers

Maine’s Office of Community and Adult Education is leading an effort that will harness broadband technology to benefit adult students statewide. The office recently received nearly $750,000 in funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), to be paired with $254,682 in state adult education funds, over four years. The grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will expand the Maine Adult Regional Technology Initiative (MARTI) by providing intensive, ongoing training and mentoring in educational uses of technology to 112 adult educators across the state. Ten trainer-mentors will review existing state curricula and develop blended models of face-to-face and online adult education instruction. Teachers will use techniques such as creating and sharing documents through, exploring research studies with WebQuest, and using other online tools. Funds also will be available to MARTI classrooms to improve access to broadband and technology tools. The new grant supports Maine’s existing effort to expand statewide broadband access by building out from local adult education programs that agree to become community centers for local access to broadband training and online connections offered in every corner of the state.


Education or potatoes


A bill being considered in Maine would seek to establish a uniform school schedule for each district. The number of dissimilar days allowed to a school will be brought down to five, thereby giving all students greater access to classes at Career and Technical Education Centers, which tend to be shared by districts.

  “If school A is out of session and the others are not, that counts as one dissimilar day. And if school B has another day off and school A doesn’t, that counts as a second day. The calendars have to be almost perfectly aligned,” explained David Connerty-Martin, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education.

The bill is meant to minimize scheduling conflicts between traditional and technical schools but has created a different dispute altogether. Some districts in rural Maine honor the custom of taking a week-long break from classes for the potato harvest while others have given up the habit. Such a disparity would negate the purposes of the bill at the same time every year.

The harvest break is more of a ritual than a way of life these days. Last fall the Houlton district recorded that only 19 students in grades 7-12 had taken part in the harvest. There is also criticism that the harvest has just become a way for farmers to find cheap labor. Students have been known to make $3.65 an hour working from dusk until dawn.