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Students try UML math-science plan for public schools

By From the Boston Globe

By James Vaznis, Globe Staff  

Their time was nearly up. Over the course of 90 minutes, the two sophomore girls had assembled a miniature robot from a bunch of wires, toy-size wheels, and a small circular platform. They even downloaded programs from a computer to a computer chip they attached to the robot to give an automated tour of a museum.

Yet when the two girls tested the robot for the final time, it just sat at the starting point of a doll-size museum. They had all but conceded defeat with one girl turning away to clean up their work area when -- without any warning -- the robot slowly started to move along the designated course, clunking its way by a miniature sculpture.

"It works! It works!" cheered Emily Sullivan.

Her partner, Tran Tran, rushed over to the museum course and joined the cheering, but within moments the robot veered off course and stopped abruptly in its tracks.

"No! No!" Tran exclaimed in disappointment.

Such are the trials and errors at the new Technology, Engineering, and Math-Science Academy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. The two girls are among 270 sophomores from 14 high schools north of Boston who are testing potential courses that will be offered at the TEAMS Academy next year, when organizers hope a select group of high-achieving math and science students can spend half their school day there.

The academy plans to offer courses not available at participating high schools, where financial constraints prevent schools from having courses that would attract only a handful of students. The courses will encompass such topics as alternative energy, crime scene investigation, and robotics, with the goal of getting students excited about math and science so they pursue careers in those fields.

"If we don't keep our technological edge, we will regress as an economy and from a national security standpoint," said state Senator Steven Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat who secured a $150,000 state grant to get the academy going this year and is seeking an additional $1.2 million so the academy can be a full-fledged, part-time program next year.

"There are a lot of kids with aptitude of science and math but don't pursue it," Panagiotakos said. "How do we motivate them so they know there's a career path in those subjects and that those careers are fulfilling?"

Panagiotakos made his comments as he observed a class one morning this month in which students learned about statistics and probability by determining how safe a computer password is from random guesses of a hacker.

The university is working with the high schools in developing the academy, teaming university faculty with high school teachers. The students -- being the consumers -- are testing the products, seeing if it passes muster with the notoriously short attention span of teenagers.

Those participating in the experiment are from Andover, Bedford, Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Haverhill, Lawrence, Littleton, Methuen, North Reading, Reading, Tewksbury, and Tyngsborough.

"It will open a lot of doors, especially for students coming from a school in a small town where there are a lot of money issues. Kids ask for robotics classes -- that costs thousands of dollars," Dennis Mahoney, Littleton's science department head for grades 6-12, said as he escorted a group of students from the academy's robotics class to another course in which students next year might build their own baseball bats by calculating such things as center of gravity, mass moment of inertia, and change in swing speed.

The academy is based on a similar program at Worcester Polytechnical Institute. That program is full time. UMass-Lowell decided to develop a half-time program so students could still participate in sports and extra curricular activities at the high schools in their hometowns.

John Ting, dean of the College of Engineering at UMass-Lowell, said he would like to see the academy offered eventually to middle school students.

"We need to provide something to them very early," said Ting. "There's no doubt there is demand. If you build it, they will come."

The part-time program, if ready next year, will be open to about 130 high school juniors and seniors. Some students testing the classes might find themselves enrolled at the academy next year, but the academy probably will be available to students at other schools that did not pitch in with the program's development.

So far, robotics is proving the most popular among students. Kiara Cabreja and Anthony Henriquez, both from Lawrence High School, paired up to build a robot that could conduct a search-and-rescue mission by sensing light.

"I like the Lego part of it -- building it," Henriquez said. "She likes the programming."

Later, the two visited a lab next door where they mastered how to use an electronic arm to flip over a cup and then drop a ball into it in less than seven minutes. They also viewed a computer-generated image on a white screen of Biloxi, Miss., before Hurricane Katrina struck, and then, by touching certain neighborhoods on the screen, they could see the damage afterward -- spotting how far the storm had dropped debris, such as barges, from its original location.

"This is cool," Kiara said. "I want to come here now."