For students at the newly-opened Gregg Anderson Academy in Palmdale, Calif., a day of learning becomes a day of fun.
The academy is a technology-based school that offers students a well-rounded education with a focus on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a curriculum more commonly referred to as STEM.
Students and teachers alike enjoy using the high-tech learning tools at their disposal, each classroom from K to the 6th grade comes equipped with what teachers and students call Smart Boards.
“It’s a board that’s really smart,” explained 7-year-old Colin Best, a second-grader at the academy.
“The Smart Board has a Smart Exchange, a Web site that provides lesson plans for teachers,” explained little Colin’s second grade teacher, Janet Diaz. Diaz said the lessons, which are interactive for children, cover all the subjects.
“The Smart Board provides lessons in math, science, language arts, geography, design, art and more,” she offered, adding that Anderson is the only school in the Westside District with smart boards, “They open up the world for children,” Diaz said.
She said teachers can also create lessons, add them to the exchange and share them with other teachers.
“I select a lesson from the exchange that meets the standard I’m teaching that day in a given subject and download the file to my documents,” Diaz explained.
By downloading the lesson she can use it as many times as she needs for review and she can also load it onto the students’ computers, which allows the children to practice the lesson.
“That way the children can practice the concepts they just learned through fun interaction,” Diaz points out.
“Most of the time the children don’t even realize they are learning,” offered Sandra Ruela, a self-described “techie” who runs the computer lab.
Diaz brings her second-graders into the computer lab twice a week and says the time spent there is a tremendous learning experience.
“Working on the computers gives the children an opportunity to view skills and they learn how to follow directions,” she said.
“The little ones think they are just playing games,” Ruela adds, explaining how learning becomes so much fun.
Teachers at Anderson embrace the concept of inspiring children at a very young age.
“Here we expose them to a lot of data and try to capture their imagination,” Diaz said.
A concept that seems to be working well – the faculty started talking to their students about NASA’s fleet of the now retired space shuttles and the end of a 30-year space shuttle program.
“We prepared them for the upcoming flyby of the space shuttle Endeavor, and they got to watch the shuttle’s final journey on the smart board,” Diaz said.
The day of the flyby the children were able to follow the shuttle’s route and when it approached Palmdale they were allowed to go outside to see it for themselves.
“It was really exciting, we went outside to see it and it flew right over us,” exclaimed an exuberant 7-year-old, Jeffery Bower.
“We were all jumping up and waving to it, and when I grow up I’m going to be an astronaut,” the second-grader proclaimed.
Diaz’s second-graders are just as involved in other STEM courses as they are in science.
“We’re bringing the STEM subject in through regular subjects using project-based learning assignments,” Diaz explained.
“We just finished a project that took a lot of engineering,” offered little Nilesh Kumar.
The 6-year-old explained, in a very grown-up tone, that she and two other classmates were assigned to work as a team and tasked to build a crate for Julius, their classroom pig.
“That was one of their project-based learning assignments,” Diaz explained. She said the children had to figure out how to build the crate using only certain tools and the crate had to be strong enough to hold Julius, who is made of plastic.
Working in teams appears to be something the children enjoy doing.
“We get help from each other to think better and share ideas,” explained little Nilesh.
Convinced the academy is for sure molding a future engineer with this little girl, one couldn’t help but ask the child what she wants to be when she grows up.
“I want to be a professor in gastroenterology,” she says without a moment’s hesitation.
Young Nilesh, it appears, has already been influenced by her father who is a gastroenterologist.
Karen Smith’s first graders aren’t far behind their older peers.
“We’re learning about the space shuttle and astronauts and the space station,” offered 6-year-old Jordon Nakagawa.
Like Diaz, Smith is also a teacher who believes in challenging her students and herself.
“I came to Gregg Anderson for the challenge,” she said.
Smith said at the academy, she knew she’d be working with people who are willing to go all the way for education.
Smith’s challenging STEM project for her class of 6 year olds was for the children to engineer a container that would float on water while carrying a payload.
Again, the children were only allowed to use certain tools. They had to come up with their own plan, brainstorm and work as a team, Smith said.
“They created a container that held 11 slices of bread without sinking,” Smith proudly shared.
The purpose of an education with a focus on STEM is to teach the country’s young people things they will need to know to take over for the aging workforce of scientists, engineers and other technology-oriented professionals.
Educators at Gregg Anderson believe that the STEM-based education needs to start early in a child’s life, and they believe that inspiring their students is just as important as educating them.
“Our classroom has a sponsor who donates model airplanes and posters to help inspire the children about flight,” Diaz said, adding that the Antelope Valley is an aerospace community and says it’s important to keep an interest in aviation going here.
One of the models that was built and donated by their sponsor, Michael Diaz, a seasoned aerospace worker and an avid fan of aviation, actually has a few working parts.
The children can push a button that will extend the landing gear or another button will start the propeller going, which gives the youngsters a sense of the power needed for flight.
Diaz said each week one of her students earns the student of the week title and that student gets to operate the model airplane.
Six grade teacher Paula Benavidez, who has 24 boys and 9 girls in her classroom says she’d like to see more girls get inspired about studying the high-tech and problem-solving skills needed to survive in today’s real-world environment.
“In the past, technology has mostly been a man’s world, but women are beginning to show an interest, Benavidez said, she said, she does push girls to get involved.
A push that seems to be working; 11-year-old Lauren Acker, whose father is a retired test pilot says she’s interested in engineering and hopes to become a test pilot herself.
“I love going fast – just like my dad does,” the sixth-grader grins.
Her friend and classmate, Kaylee Wheeler says she wants to become an aerospace engineer. “I applied to Gregg Anderson because it’s all about flight,” she said.
Jenna Kelly, also 11, and an A student in math, says she wants to be an aeronautical engineer.
These three seemingly inspired friends said the only negative thing about being in Benavidez’s class is that they only get to spend one year at their school of choice.
“It’s our first and last year here, but we’ll have the distinction of being the first graduating class,” young Wheeler said.
The academy’s principal, Shelly Dearinger, is confident that the new school will be a big success. She points out that the teaching staff come from all around the Antelope Valley and is made up of highly professional and enthusiastic educators.
“We all came here knowing it was something new, it’s a work in progress,” she said about bringing STEM into their daily curriculum.
Karen Barcus talks to her fourth-graders through a microphone and they in turn communicate their reading lessons through the use of a microphone, which Barcus says offers the children a sense of importance about what they have to say. When they aren’t doing reading lessons, these fourth-graders work on figuring out how multiplication and division relate.
“My students are learning about variables and how to use them,” Barcus says with pride.
Like the younger students, the fourth-graders figure their math problems out using the classroom smart board. Students have to figure out the correct answers before the smart board will go on to a new problem.
Dearinger said because the academy is a school of choice, students are there because it’s the educational focus their parents chose for them and as a result, the school has tremendous parental support.
The academy, which was named after Gregg Anderson, a Rancho Vista developer, held its grand opening Sept. 28. Dearinger boasts that the facility has the largest campus in the Westside Union School District and comes complete with a functional skills facility that addresses the special needs of children with profound disabilities.
“The facility is equipped with the high-tech equipment to handle those special needs,” Dearinger proudly states.
What do the children think of all the high-tech learning?
“I feel really smart and that’s a good thing,” said Erica Bellinger, one of Diaz’s second-graders. Bellinger says she likes all the projects they get to work on in class.
“They were so engaged in their projects and creating something that works, it was exciting for me as a teacher,” Diaz said.
In the months ahead Diaz plans on getting her students more involved with computer projects. She plans on having the children do research on the computer and learn how to do PowerPoint presentations.
“Little by little they will be able to use technology more efficiently,” she predicts.
The educators at the Gregg Anderson Academy are excited about bringing STEM to public education and say that is awesome.
“We’re rising to a whole new level,” said Smith. The first grade teacher said her students are thinking and what they are achieving is amazing.
“Technology is exciting,” said Diaz. “I’m excited about having the opportunity to teach in a new way and bring the STEM education here to the Gregg Anderson Academy,” she said.