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Science not so square
Program in area schools brings fun to learning
By KAREN AYRES
WEST WINDSOR - The goal of the experiment was rather complex, but young Casey Schoenholtz wasn't intimidated.
She gathered her tools - paper clips, cothespins and a paper crayfish - and carefully and methodicaly put her product together so that it would balance on the tip of her tiny finger.
After a few attempts, the weight of several paper clips on one side of the crayfish balanced the heavy clothespin placed on the other side.
"You need to experiment because if you experiment you can figure things out," said 7-year old Casey, a second-grader at Maurice Hawk Elementary School in West Windsor.
Casey and her classmates spent yesterday morning learning about balancing and weighing, but instead of working with typical science textbooks they experimented with materials supplied through a unique program titled E Equals MC Squared.
The program provides kits of science materials to students in kindergarten through sixth grade to encourage inquiry-based science, where students can learn by experimentation.
I'm just the guide on the side," said Barbara Pakradooni, Casey's teacher, who was one of the first teachers trained in teh program. "They're involved in the explorations."
The program is funded by a 1.7 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation that was obtained in 1997. The local school district and contributions from several major companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Educational Testing Service, Princeton University, and Rider University, also help pay for it.
Right now, the program is limited to elementary school students in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional, Ewing, and Lawrence school districts.
But a new $510,000 federal grant may allow the program to expand into schools in Princeton, Montgomery, Hopewell and Washington Township, as well as some middle schools, said Sona Polakowski, the program's director.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township, who obtained the grant, is scheduled to present it today at Maurice Hawk Elementary School.
Polakowski said the program has helped foster an interest in science for younger students and has increased test scores in the elementary schools.
"The science is also teaching them life skills by encouraging them to ask questions and by working in groups," said Polakowski, a first-grade teacher in Lawrence who took a leave of absence to direct the program. "Parents in the middle schools are now clamoring for this."
More than 570 teachers will have received about 100 hours of training in this program by the time the initial grant expires next year. Polakowski said she is in the process of obtaining more grants to keep the program running so students like 8-year-old Erika Deetjen can continue their science experiments.
It's really fun because you get to do a lot and you learn a lot," Erika said yesterday. "We learned that you can hold the crayfish with only one finger."
Pakradooni's class will finish its balancing unit by March, when the kit will be replenished and rotated to the next classroom.
Each classroom completes a unit on life, earth, and physical sciences every year. Up next for the second-graders will be a unit on either physical changes or soil.