By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Published on Thursday, Mar 11, 2010
The all-girl Lego Queens engineering club at Akron's new National Inventors Hall of Fame School had a lot of fun programming Lego robots this year, but they also worked on a practical problem for their parents.
Nyna Sayarath, a sixth-grader at the middle school, described the project Wednesday in Akron to more than 200 educators, business people and community leaders who attended the first regional conference on teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.
Goodyear's recently retired top engineer, Sam Landers, worked with the after-school club, sponsored by the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio, on a project aimed at saving money at the gas pump.
''Mr. Landers taught the Lego Queens about how tires are made and about tire pressure,'' Nyna explained. ''He even let us measure the tire pressure of his car's tires. We learned that having good tire pressure can save money on gas. The information was used to help parents of STEM students because our parents drive us to and from school.''
Her story captured the main themes of the conference: the importance of making STEM subjects interesting and relevant to students through collaborations among schools, governments, businesses and community organizations.
Nyna was the first speaker on the agenda, followed by Matthew Esterle, a fifth-grader at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, who described his work building a model roller coaster.
He also talked of learning about French painter Henri Matisse, just in case anyone thought that STEM education doesn't include the arts and humanities.
On a recent tour of the school's almost-finished new building on Broadway at the site of the former National Inventors Hall of Fame, the fifth-graders were presented with their second big project of the year.
Part of the new building is too noisy, and the students were charged with figuring out how to improve the acoustics before they move in next fall.
The students threw out several suggestions, and Matthew suggested they ask inventor Jim West.
That was the answer the teachers were looking for, because they've asked West, an African-American inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, to work with the kids on the problem this spring.
West spent 40 years at Bell Laboratories, where he helped invent the microphone widely used today in telephones, camcorders and tape recorders. West teaches at Johns Hopkins University and described the project during his lunchtime keynote address.
''I'm going to teach them what I know about acoustics,'' West said. ''I'm going to teach them the things that they might try. I'm not going to tell them how to solve the problem because that's their responsibility.''
West said if America wants to get back to making things again, it's going to have to change attitudes about pursuing careers in science and math.
''I was classified as a nerd,'' he said. ''I got more beatings for being a nerd than you can ever imagine. Even to the point that I didn't want to make A's anymore, OK? We've got to change that paradigm in every school. That's not the attitude in our school and it should not be the attitude in any school.''
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic said he felt like he was preaching to the choir about STEM education, but he, too, emphasized the need to link research and development with actual products that can be manufactured in this country.
''If we don't as a society continue to develop people who have an imagination and who have the knowledge to put that imagination, hard work, commitment and dedication that we've had in the past to work on new products, we cannot continue to gain wealth and we will not have the kind of society that I think all of us want for our children,'' Plusquellic said.
The Akron conference is the first of several regional conferences being held this month following a statewide conference on March 2 to promote STEM initiatives such as the Inventors Hall of Fame School throughout the state.
The event included a showcase of exhibits from more than 65 groups representing schools, colleges and universities, businesses and nonprofit organizations involved in STEM projects.
Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut said that somewhere along the way, educators' approach to teaching math and science got stale and kids lost interest.
''What you're doing by reigniting that passion is you are reigniting the future economic prosperity of Ohio,'' Fingerhut said. ''Nothing less than that. Because that's what built this state. That's what made us great.''