Getting excited about science at Morgan Elementary

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Sarah Nagem
Sharon Spidell was thrilled to see her grandson, a fifth-grader at Morgan Elementary, get excited about science last week.
He came home from school one day and decided to conduct an experiment: put a string through a drinking straw and attach it to an inflated balloon, then let go and witness the rush of air from the balloon force the straw down the string.
“We did it three times because the first time didn’t satisfy him,” Spidell said Friday. She was at Morgan for the fifth-graders’ conclusion of a week-long focus on math and science.
The StarBase program, a government-funded initiative to get kids interested in science, math and technology, took over the fifth-grade classes at Morgan last week.
Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, helped start the North Carolina chapter of the military-based program about 15 years ago. A retired educator, Emerson is a major general in the Army.
He stepped down from his position in StarBase when he became active in the military again. But he made a deal with other StarBase leaders that they would conduct the program at whatever school Emerson’s son attended.
Now his son, Ike, is a fifth-grader at Morgan. Emerson hadn’t forgotten the promise StarBase made 10 years ago.
“That’s how we got here,” said Barbara Miller, director of StarBase in North Carolina.
About half a dozen or so instructors from the program’s Charlotte base spent the week at Morgan. They turned the lesson plans into a “flight plan,” made up of hands-on activities.
On Friday, students launched rockets, which they made from kits StarBase provided. Students worked in teams and served different roles ó pilots, co-pilots, navigators and load masters.
The rockets soared high into the air and then floated downward when the little parachutes came out.
The activity forced students to work together, which is part of the StarBase focus, Miller said.
StarBase, which began in 1989, aims to push more youngsters into math and science educations.
“We’re aware that there’s such a lack of qualified young people coming out of college with a degree in math or science,” Miller said.
Having plenty of people with knowledge in those subjects is key to our future, she said. That’s where StarBase comes in.
Instructors show students how technology and scientific laws affect our everyday lives. Students learn, for example, how airplanes fly.
“Hopefully that’s going to ignite them enough that they’re going to want to pursue math and science in higher education,” Miller said.
The rocket launches were the conclusion of a series of experiments throughout the week.
Students studied scientist Isaac Newton’s laws of motion by testing inertia. They strapped an egg into a seat belt-like contraption and sent it down a wire straight into a concrete block.
Something in motion will stay in motion, they learned, so the key was to keep that egg from lurching forward in its cushioned seat.
“My egg survived,” Ike proudly said.
The StarBase model provides opportunities for kids to be successful at projects, whether they’re sending an egg into possible danger or launching a rocket. Having small successes builds self-esteem, Miller said.
StarBase also has a computer technology component, but fifth-graders at Morgan couldn’t participate. The StarBase software isn’t compatible with the school’s Mac computers, Miller said.Some students said launching the rockets was their favorite activity of the week. Another highlight was climbing aboard the Blackhawk helicopter that flew in Tuesday, although they didn’t go in the air.
Sigmon, along with the school’s assistant principal and the fifth-grade teachers, did take a ride in the helicopter, though.
Sigmon said she was happy her fifth-grade students got the chance to engage in StarBase activities.
“This has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our kids,” she said. “It’s a great way to start the year.”