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Monday, December 1, 2014

Mantua's Tomlin School opens new STEM classroom


Written by Andy Polhamus

More than 75 students and parents of J. Mason Tomlin School in Mantua headed back to class Monday night for the launch of the school's new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classroom. The lab, which features space for group projects, a smart board and two 3D printers, will allow the fourth, fifth and sixth graders to carry out hands-on science projects.

The idea for the lab goes back about least three years, when computer science teacher Meredith Martin began attending STEM conferences.

"It tied into all the things I was looking for with math and science," said Martin. "It takes what they're learning and makes it into real-world projects."

The classroom, which uses mostly materials and technology that were either already owned by the school or donated, cost only about $7,000 to get up and running. As far as Mantua administrators know, it is the first elementary school STEM lab in Gloucester county.

The open house featured several tables where students and their families could try out demonstrations similar to the ones that will take place in the new classroom, which opens this week. At one table, students were challenged to build a structure out of gumdrops and toothpicks. At another, children powered strings of Christmas lights with nine-volt batteries, while across the room, their classmates built towers out of uncooked pasta and marshmallows. Meanwhile, a 3D printer worked in the corner, slowly producing a small plastic figurine of an octopus.

"They're making connections between what they've read and what they're seeing in action," Martin said.

The lab is part of a greater initiative in the district to introduce students to math and science at an early age. All of Tomlin's 650 students, as well as the district's third graders, use a school-issued Chromebook laptop for their studies. The program also aims to reach out to young girls and encourage more women to join the engineering and science fields.

"As a female, I think it's excellent," said Susan Mammoccio, whose daughter Olivia is in fifth grade at Tomlin. "I love that my daughter's mind is being stimulated. The challenge part is what I love the most. They make it fun. I wish they'd had this when I was in school."

"There's a lot of fun activities here," said Olivia, whose favorite subject is math. "So far I like the gumdrop one. And I like the electronic parts. It's fun."

James Miller, a sixth-grader interested in science, was building an electronic buzzer.

"I haven't gotten to use the 3D printer, but when I do I know that'll be my favorite part," he said. "I could build a Star Wars character."

James said he was looking forward to having class in the lab.

"You get to do all sorts of things with lots of different types of technology," he said. "I think this will be everyone's favorite place this year."

As happy as Superintendent Bob Fisicaro was to see the lab, he said he credited most of the students' enthusiasm with the work of their teachers.

"These are great tools, but the magic happens in the work of our dedicated teachers," he said. "You're seeing the integration of STEM in a state-of-the-art lab for our students, but I always tell people the magic comes in the work you do."

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