Brooklyn’s Youngest Engineers

When you first think of Brooklyn, maybe what comes to mind is brownstones or cheesecake or hipsters, but if Ben Esner, a lifelong resident of the borough, had his way, K12 STEM education would be on that list too. Esner, the director of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s Center for K12 STEM Education, says, “We’re coming up with ideas and formulating programs that are making an impact right here in Brooklyn and spreading throughout the world.”

Esner can attest first-hand just how far some of the Center’s home-grown ideas have traveled: he spent part of last year in the Malaysian state of Selangor, where the Science of Smart Cities (SoSC) curriculum—which employs hands-on explorative activities in the fields of urban infrastructure, transportation, energy, and wireless communications and teaches middle-schoolers what goes into building livable, efficient, sustainable and resilient cities--was adopted and modified by the Education Faculty at the National University of Malaysia.

No less exciting, however, is the learning going on in the Brooklyn public schools that take part in another of the Center’s programs: the Applying Mechatronics to Promote Science (AMPS)/Central Brooklyn STEM Initiative (CBSI), which pairs teachers with graduate student fellows to design dynamic, hands-on classroom lessons in a variety of disciplines. (The AMPS receives funding from the National Science Foundation, while the CBSI portion of the program is supported by private philanthropies.)

Russell Holstein, a veteran tech teacher at the Eugenio Maria De Hostos Intermediate School 318, in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, calls having a fellow helping in his classroom and coaching the school’s robotics team a win-win situation for all. “By working with middle-school students, the graduate fellows hone their presentation skills and learn to convey complex information to a lay audience without using jargon,” he says. “And my kids--from the highly motivated members of the robotics team, who take part in the FIRST Lego League competition, to those who purport to not even like science or math--get a lot out of their interactions with the fellows, who are wonderful role models for them. The AMPS/CBSI is helping produce the scientifically and technologically literate citizens that the world needs.”

Holstein’s assertion that his students are benefiting is borne out by hard data: In a three-year study that tracked some 3,000 young participants, 70% of them increased by at least a half of a letter grade (or more) in not only math and science but other subjects as well.

The fellow assigned to his classroom this year, Giselle Cunningham, who is earning a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and who works with a teacher at Bushwick’s IS 383 in addition to Holstein, believes that such improvement is a natural by-product of raised expectations. She says, “I work with some very bright kids and some who need more of a push, but what they all have in common is that they achieve the most when the bar is set high for them.” Other fellows strongly concur. Sophia Mercurio, who is assigned to the Bedford Village School (PS 3) and the Brooklyn Brownstone School (PS 628) in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area, says, “It’s amazing what some of my students can do when their imaginations are sparked. One student who became interested in robotics prepared a science fair project for which he independently built four robots of varying types.”

Joseph Frezzo, a fellow at PS 399 and PS 213, points out that robots are a great way to get students interested in almost any subject, including math. “I recently did a lesson on fractions,” he explains. “I had a robot walk across the classroom floor in increments, and we calculated what fraction of the distance it covered each time. By the end of the class, the kids were really getting the hang of it.”

For more stories on NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering's K-12 STEM initiatives, take a look at Summer's Heating up with STEM and Reaching the CrEST.