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DesignLab Gets Rave Reviews

Teachers and Students Love University’s After-School Program

Teachers Kelly Graveson of Douglas High School in Douglas, and Thomas Reardon and Joseph Maffuccio of John T. Reid Middle School in Pittsfield work on their designs for a bedroom-door security sensor switch as part of their DesignLab Electrical Inventions training course at UMass Lowell.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“This is so much fun!”; “I never got to use tools like these in my life!” “This is so cool!”

These are just some of the accolades that Janice Kibbe, a 16-year veteran educator, has received from her students at STEM Middle Academy in Springfield while conducting DesignLab workshops.

DesignLab is UMass Lowell’s innovative after-school educational program offered through the University’s Future Engineers Center, which is quickly becoming one of the state’s leading providers of informal K-12 education in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

This is the first year that the Center is conducting two DesignLab courses, totaling 30 hours each. The courses train 17 middle-school teachers on two hands-on engineering workshops: electrical inventions and motorized machines. The teachers then apply what they have learned by conducting these workshops for sixth- and seventh-grade students in their respective schools. The workshops are usually held once a week for two hours after school.

“Thanks to significant corporate and foundation support, we are able to provide all teachers with classroom toolkits, and also cover the cost of all project materials, student workshop guides and teacher stipends for the first year,” says Douglas Prime, the Center’s executive director.

“My fellow teachers and I trained in a fantastic lab at UMass Lowell with two very enthusiastic instructors, Doug Prime and Michael Penta,” says Kibbe. “We received four Saturday trainings so far - lunch included - in electrical inventions. We built circuits and switches, learned to solder and completed three electrical engineering challenges. First we wired a light-up Frisbee that we could use at night. Next we designed and built a security system for a door. The final design challenge was a fortune-telling box. Each of the challenges had specifications we had to meet in our designs. We had the technical support we needed as we tried new things, but we were challenged to work out the problem-solving ourselves.”

Kibbe thought the best things about DesignLab were the tools and supplies that she and her students had received.

“Each week of the program felt like Christmas!” she says. “When my husband saw the well-stocked tool boxes, he was jealous! The invention kits were wonderful, with everything my students needed to complete the three projects. Also, the curriculum provided great instruction, with photos and even a safety video. You could tell many hours went into preparing the curriculum guides and student workbooks.”

Thomas Reardon, who teaches Technology Engineering in grades six through eight at John T. Reid Middle School in Pittsfield, agrees.

“I have been waiting for an activity like DesignLab for many years,” he says. “I cannot say enough positive things about the excellent support that has been shown and given to the teachers from Doug and his staff. DesignLab is exactly what teaching Technology Engineering is all about - hands-on problem-solving activities that are educational as well as fun for the students and teachers involved.”
Reardon says the school offered 16 slots for DesignLab to sixth- and seventh-graders, and 75 students applied.

“The level of interest was tremendous because the students are doing activities that are not offered during the day classes,” he says.

“I ran my first workshop and it went great!” says Kelly Graveson, an eighth-grade physical science teacher at Douglas High School in Douglas. “The kids loved the opportunity to solder. I had a girl tell me at the end of the session that she thought she’d never be able to do that, and another girl said, ‘This proves women can do anything!’ It sounds a little corny, but it nearly brought tears to my eyes.”

Joseph Maffuccio, who teaches eighth-grade math at John T. Reid Middle School, found his DesignLab experience unique.

“I have attended several workshops and courses that integrated engineering and technology into the classrooms, and by far this program and training is outstanding,” he says. “I’m glad I was able to take advantage of this opportunity despite the long commute to the UMass Lowell campus.”

Prime says six of the 17 teachers currently in the DesignLab courses travel more than an hour to get to UMass Lowell. “Two of them -; Tom Reardon and Joe Maffuccio - drive 2½ hours each way just to attend our Saturday training sessions,” he says.

“It is fantastic that DesignLab is set up so students can think, explore, mess up and try again,” says Jessica Sanchez, an eighth-grade physical science teacher at Joseph Case Jr. High School in Swansea. “There is no pressure for them to be right the first time and they get to work through their problems and learn from their mistakes.”

She says the hands-on brainstorming she learned at DesignLab offers a great way for students to verbalize their thoughts on how to solve a problem.

“Each person can get their ideas out and, as ideas flow from one person to another, they get to try multiple ways of tackling the issue,” she says.

This year, DesignLab received $50,000 from the American Honda Foundation and $50,000 from the Motorola Innovation Generation Grant.

“This is the second time we have received generous support from both Honda and Motorola,” says Prime. “They really are excited about what we are doing with kids.”

In 2008, Tom Bergeron of Goodrich Corp.’s ISR Systems in Chelmsford signed a four-year $100,000 commitment for the Future Engineers Center. Other major sponsors that have supported DesignLab’s development from the beginning include the Mark Gelfand Family Foundation, the Noyce Foundation, Raytheon, the National Science Foundation and UMass Lowell.

“These funds go a long way in helping realize DesignLab’s five-year, $1.4 million expansion plan to formally develop, pilot-test and publish eight after-school engineering workshops for middle schools,” says Prime. “Our plan involves training 125 teachers from more than 50 middle schools who will teach hands-on engineering programs to more than 7,500 students in Massachusetts by 2011.”
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Teachers Jamie Guile of Matthew J. Kuss Middle School in Fall River and Jessica Sanchez of Joseph Case Jr. High School in Swansea put together their electric fortune-teller boxes, the culminating design challenge in DesignLab’s Electrical Inventions workshop.
Douglas Prime, right, executive director of UMass Lowell’s Future Engineers Center, with Tom Bergeron, president of Chelmsford-based Goodrich/ISR Systems Corp., which is a major supporter of the Center.