Sparking an interest in science for children

Lindsay Nahm turned off the lights in her first-grade classroom and her students immediately stopped chattering. Calmly, quietly, each student sat still in his or her seat – until one child flicked on a flashlight, held up a black colored-paper cutout of a fish, and started casting shadows on the blackboard.

He was quickly joined by other students and their paper puppets and began putting on a simple show that evoked giggles and wonder from the rest of the classmates.

Their antics didn’t elicit a scolding from Ms. Nahm, or worse – detention or extra homework. In fact their show was so entertaining that New Jersey Network (NJN) requested to videotape their performance for a segment on their documentary, “Classroom Closeup – NJ.”

The puppet show wasn’t random obnoxious child play. It was a 3-week-long program called “Bright Ideas Playhouse” that was a unit, or lesson, of Children Designing and Engineering – a program developed by the department of technological studies at the College that attempts to challenge young students to solve practical problems related to real-world settings.

“They learned the science of light and shadows, and they learned math and how to gather info,” Pat Hutchinson, developer of the Children Designing and Engineering (CDE) program, said. “What they learned, they used to make the puppets and that’s the technology part.”

Ms. Nahm’s students at the Spruce Run School in Clinton Township, N.J., put on their performance for the NJN cameras over the course of a day, showing off the skills they learned from the Bright Ideas Playhouse unit. Their task was to turn a nursery rhyme into a shadow puppet show, calculating lighting and shadows to produce the desired effects on the screen.

For a half-hour every day over a period of three weeks, Nahm taught the lessons of the Bright Ideas Playhouse unit, which involved exploring the properties of light, creating storyboards and learning how shadow puppets are made. For instance, if a puppet is made out of an opaque material, it will cast a black shadow, but if the puppet is translucent, a different color will appear when lit.

“It’s amazing for kids to understand that,” Hutchinson said. “We give them tests before (the units) and after, and if you just give the post-test to most adults, they usually scratch their heads trying to figure out what happens.”

Children Designing and Engineering is a collaboration of the Technological Studies department and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation. The program is divided into several units, K-2 or 3-5 grade-specific, where each unit is based on a “big challenge” that is inspired by a real New Jersey business. Johnson & Johnson, OceanSpray, Marcal and PSE&G are a few participants. For the Bright Ideas Playhouse unit, CDE worked with Lucent Technologies.

Hutchinson, along with teachers, students and curriculum specialists, spent a day at Lucent Technologies to tour the company and evaluate how they could tie its technologies into something that can be used in every classroom. This was especially complex for Hutchinson, who said that the company gave a “gee whiz” science show that entailed lasers and other extravagant technological devices.

“We had to explain to them that we were trying to find what kind of things they were doing there where kids could use math, science and technology to solve problems,” Hutchinson said. “They said that’s different from what they normally do with schools. They usually just put on a show and if when they leave, the kids are going ‘wow,’ they feel they’ve done their bit.”

What CDE hopes to accomplish is a scientific and mathematical approach to technology that gives kids a hands-on experience rather than just a flashy light show. While children are used to being ‘wowed,’ especially in a culture abound with visual effects, their excitement peaks with hands-on experience.

“Every day, (the kids) asked if we were going to take out the flashlights,” Nahm said. “(The unit) is a motivator to get through the day. Even the toughest kids loved it.”

As the cameras rolled, students tried to impress with their knowledge. Nahm was impressed by the willingness of her students to participate – even that of her “toughest” student.

“He doesn’t usually want to work,” she said. “But he went up to (the cameraman) and asked him to film him.”

The show, “Classroom Closeup – N.J.,” is a magazine program that focuses on innovative education in New Jersey. The 30-minute weekly program features students, teachers and communities who create and participate in successful school projects and events. Nahm’s classroom project will be featured in a 5-minute segment of the show.

Such publicity is a great aid to Hutchinson, who is in the process of marketing the educational units. Tucked inside the distant Armstrong Hall, Hutchinson’s project operates out of what the department of technological studies informally refers to as the “Center for Design and Technology,” which more likely resembles an editorial office than a college department.

The center publishes an online magazine, called Ties, and has a critical mass of writers, graphic designers and support staff who train teachers in the CDE program and publicize their educational endeavor that has been in the works for nearly five years.

“We’re currently making presentations to all kinds of groups – school boards, technology education associations, science teacher conventions – that have an interest in supporting these things in school,” Hutchinson said. “It’s fun. The kids are enjoying it, and when they take science, English and math tests in the future, (it shows) they’ve really gained in their understanding of these subjects.”

The program wil air Mondays at 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 7 a.m.