TRUXTON — The gymnasium in Hartnett Elementary, which was closed in June 2015, was abuzz with joyous banter of fourth- to seventh-graders Friday, as they engineered balloon-powered rockets and car safety systems.
The event was part of the Summer Science Extravaganza, a required class for graduate students in the science teaching department at Syracuse University.
John Tillotson, chair of the department, is also a member of the Truxton Academy school board, which is working on turning Hartnett Elementary into a charter school.
Because of this connection, Tillotson has been holding classes for the extravaganza program at the former Hartnett Elementary School for the past two weeks.
Tillotson said instead of giving a final exam, he decided to have his four students in the program develop their own class modeling the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum. They then had to teach the class to area students.
As each student in the program plans to become a science teacher, Tillotson said he thought it would be a good idea to have them experience what teaching in a rural environment would be like. It was also an opportunity for the 21 fourth- through seventh-graders who took part in the program to get a hands-on experience with science and engineering.
“It is the direction schools need to head in,” Tillotson said of the hands-on experience. “Many schools just do reading lessons. Kids don’t always respond well to that.”
Many of the kids in the program reiterated his sentiment.
“This is more fun than sitting in class listening to the teacher,” said Liam Austen, of Homer, who is going into sixth grade this coming school year.
Austen said what he enjoys most is getting to be creative and testing his mind.
The creativity of the projects and the results of their creations are what kept the kids excited and focused on doing their best work. Their most challenging task was developing a safety system for a toy monster truck, with an egg strapped to the back of it. The truck would be sent down a ramp, and if the designed system worked effectively, the egg would not break.
That was not always the case, but the kids never gave up.
“At first if you fail, you can still win by being able to regroup and rework on your design,” Amber Le Brown, a sixth-grader from Tully, said about what she has learned from the program.
One of the graduate students in the program, Phil Kuhn, of Dewitt, said he sees the students fully immersing themselves in the activities.
“The kids like to be able to touch the materials and engineer their own designs. And then experiment with them,” Kuhn said.
The curriculum the students created was developed to match the next generation of science teaching standards, which includes the hands-on activities, according to Kuhn.
Teamwork is also a significant part of the learning experience. For seventh-grader Nicholas Lines, of Truxton, he said working with other kids was one of his favorite parts of the project.
Lines added that he was having fun learning through the hands-on activities, and would like to see more projects like that in school. But he said he would also like to go back to having school in Truxton as it is a “pain” to have to go to Homer.
Students have been sent to the Homer School District since the fall of last year after Hartnett Elementary School closed in June 2015.
Tillotson said the science teaching department at Syracuse University is in full support of a charter school in Truxton, with plans already in place to help train teachers and provide more programs like the Summer Science Extravaganza at the school, if it is approved.
The charter school board received approved of its letter of intent late July by the state Education Department. But it is still working on a full proposal.