Fostering Partnerships Between MIT Alumni & Gloucester Public Schools

By Amanda Gruhl, Edgerton Center Alumni Coordinator

Imagine being a sixth grader with an MIT graduate at your side helping you build your very own rocket launcher, underwater robot, or boat from scratch. This fantasy is becoming a reality for many Gloucester students thanks to a collaboration between the Gloucester Public School system, the Gloucester Education Foundation, and the MIT Edgerton Center. The goal of this collaboration is to explore new ways to reach out and engage Gloucester students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) through new STEM curriculum, teacher professional development, student programs, and most recently, interaction with MIT alumni volunteers.

    Alumni discusses ideas with high school teacher  
  MIT alumnus Eric Mears, Class of ‘80, listens as Gloucester High School students CJ Mustone (right) and Brandon Henry (left) talk about their engineering projects   Gloucester High School Chemistry teacher Traci-Lynn Lowthers discusses chemistry ideas with MIT alumnus, Michael Campbell, Class of ‘76  

Jessica Garrett, the MIT Edgerton Center pilot project coordinator, began working with the Gloucester Public Schools Superintendent, Christopher Farmer, and his senior staff in early February last year. The next step in this pilot project is testing how MIT alumni - with their strong math, science, and engineering backgrounds - can best support Gloucester schools. To that end, the MIT Edgerton Center hosted an evening reception on March 12, 2009, at the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center in Gloucester, MA, intended as a multi-generational celebration of project-based teaching and learning, and to inform MIT alumni about ways to contribute to the pilot. About two dozen local MIT alumni and their family members were present, along with teachers from both the middle and high schools; and other members of the Gloucester Public School community.

During the evening, the attendees had the chance to look at the hands-on tools and literature that various groups brought to the reception. Ed Moriarty, an MIT alumnus and a staff member at the Edgerton Center, works with the O’Bryant School in Roxbury to motivate students to excel in science, engineering, and math by creating their own hands-on engineering and technology-based art projects. He brought several of the fun and creative projects his students built, hoping to inspire the MIT alumni. Kathy Vandiver brought materials from her LEGO educational kits that are being used in the Edgerton Center, the MIT Museum, and this spring, in several Gloucester Public School classrooms. The LEGO kits that Gloucester has begun using this year help teach the cell division processes of mitosis and meiosis by having the students create LEGO fish and their corresponding chromosomes, then performing a classroom breeding experiment to explore the genotypes and phenotypes of the next generation of fish. John Madama, the Science Coordinator for Gloucester Public Schools, brought various artifacts he wants to incorporate into the new Technology and Engineering Resource Center at the O’Maley Middle School. The idea is to create a staffed center with enough resources to meet all the Massachusetts Standards for Technology for grades 6-8. MIT alumni volunteers will be asked to give special demonstrations and seminars to students, parents, and the public on topics such as innovative transportation vehicles, renewable energy systems, robotics, and bioengineering.

Kurt Lichtenwald, a Gloucester High School Physics teacher, who also coaches an after-school robotics club, spoke to attendees about the remarkable benefits of using hands-on curriculum in the classroom. He talk about how several students who previously were uninterested in math or science have turned around since working on their own robotics projects. The father of one of Kurt’s students piped up and said what an incredible change he’s seen in his son’s academic performance and ambition after working with Kurt. A few of Kurt’s students were also in attendance, and brought their projects (see photo). Kurt has been working with an MIT alumnus, Peter Gaston, and spoke about how invaluable Peter’s presence was after Kurt’s students started developing more advanced programming skills.

Jessica introduced the teachers in attendance and gave a short description of the projects that could use some alumni support. One of the teachers was Traci-Lynn Lowthers, a Gloucester High School Chemistry teacher, was looking for help engaging the girls in her class. She spoke at length with MIT alumnus Mike Campbell, (see photo below), who had some ideas for her. Since the reception, Mike accompanied Traci to a meeting of the New England Society of Cosmetic Chemists, and introduced her to several members. There was strong interest in what she wanted to do in her classroom, and the possibility of a class visit to one of the local cosmetic chemistry sites.

Several other fruitful connections were made that night. Two other MIT alumni, Bob Clarke and Lester Gimpelson, ended up sharing their love of technology at teacher Caitlin Sumner’s 6th grade science fair at the O’Maley Middle School by bringing demonstrations and technological tools that students could touch. MIT alumnus, and Associate Director of Reactor Engineering and Operations, Tom Newton, arranged for Amy Donnely’s 8th grade class to visit the Nuclear Reactor and Plasma Science Lab. Given the number of positive educational relationships that originated from the evening of March 12th, it seems to have been a very successful venture, and hopefully the interactions between MIT alumni and the Gloucester Public School system will continue to grow and flourish.