Hammond boat-building class draws national interest

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By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

Sixth graders in Matt Cupple’s Introduction to Technology class at Francis C. Hammond Middle School got a surprise visit from Aneesh Chopra, President Barack Obama’s chief technology officer last week.

Chopra was invited to sit in on the youngsters’ math class by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, a non-profit organization whose focus is to provide hands-on learning to at-risk youth with low math achievement scores.

Walking around the room to talk with students, Chopra asked sixth grader Diego Lopez what he thought about the class.

“It’s both a math class and a building class,” Diego said. “It’s more fun than my regular math class, but harder.”

Chopra was familiar with the foundation’s Building to Teach model of hands-on learning, but it was his first time seeing the middle school math program in action and the beginnings of a new curriculum made possible by grant monies.

The Alexandria Seaport Foundation recently won a 501cTECH grant for their program STEM on the Potomac — science, technology, engineering and math education —enabling the group to purchase 24 SeaPerch Remotely Operated Vehicles and kits allowing upwards of 100 students the opportunity to build the underwater vessels.

Foundation executive director, Mari Lou Livingood, explained the students would build the watercraft and, in the process, learn science, robotics, engineering and math skills. Once completed, the students will launch the SeaPerches into the Potomac. The vehicles can conduct water quality testing, measure temperature, and provide salinity readings.

“My dream is to run this information remotely from the water to the boat to the classroom so there is experiential learning,” Livingood said. “[We] want to bring the Potomac River into the classroom,” Livingood said.

Livingood wants to expand and augment the middle school math program to incorporate more technology because one out of four jobs today has to do with STEM, she said.

After learning more about the foundation’s programs, Chopra asked how students were selected to be in the class. Cupple explained that students with math scores between 380 and 410 on the state Standards of Learning exams are seen as the kids with the most need.

“This class is a substitute for sixth-graders being pulled out to go in a math support class, so instead, they take boat building,” he said.

Chopra has two children in Arlington schools, and quickly saw the potential of the program. Noting the SOL data goes down to question-by-question level, Chopra remarked each question could be mapped to a state standard allowing schools to see exactly where students are struggling.

“If we had better data, after they finish the course … you could really show … early warning signs that these kids have a probability of struggling,” Chopra said. “Rather than have them waste years and eventually drop out … in a sense, one could recommend like a doctor prescribing, hey, I recommend you take this. I’m wondering how hard to turn that service on?

“If you’re a doctor, you have hundreds of things you could prescribe for them. You could choose a drug, or choose something else. In education, we don’t have the same. Diagnose the patient. Diagnose the student. Prescribe options.”

Chopra said his enthusiasm for the seaport foundation comes down to its original goal: getting young people ready for the real world.

“What I loved about the original vision for the Alexandria Seaport Foundation … you’re just sort of learning about life, what you’re doing is a substitute approach to learn a subset of the math standards,” he said. “I see a world where we have hundreds of options to learn math, because the goal is, everyone should have a base understanding of math.”

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