Distance Learning Program Links Rural Students to Vanderbilt Students and Research Faculty

By Walsh, Tom | Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), March 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

Distance Learning Program Links Rural Students to Vanderbilt Students and Research Faculty


Walsh, Tom, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)


SURRY, Maine -- Imagine a fourth-grader getting off a school bus and offering this response to a parent asking what went on at school today: "We designed and we built and then we tested a new artificial leg."

It's a response that could have come last Friday from any of the 22 Surry Elementary School fourth- and fifth-graders who are participating in a new interactive distance learning curriculum. For an hour every Friday afternoon the program allows students to videoconference with undergraduate and graduate students and with research scientists and faculty at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

The Vanderbilt University Medical Center created its Aspirnaut program to partner with rural K-12 schools as a means of encouraging student interests and aptitudes in skills required for real-world jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The program specifically targets economically, ethnically and geographically diverse students, providing 25 STEM-based laboratory sessions a year to elementary and high schools in seven states, with lab lessons customized to dovetail into each school's curriculum.

In Maine, the program is now in place in elementary schools in Dedham, Frenchboro, Hancock, Indian Township, Islesboro, Milbridge, North Haven, Otis and Vinalhaven. It's also available to Ellsworth High School students and to students participating in the after- school programs sponsored by the EdGE project of the Bar Harbor- based Maine Seacoast Mission.

The Aspirnaut program came to Surry with the arrival last fall of Cathy Lewis, the K-8 school's new principal. She was the principal of the Beech Hill K-8 school in Otis in 2010, when the program was first introduced in Maine. Fourth-grade teacher Libby Bishop and her fifth-grade counterpart, Joan Dwyer, oversee the electronic lab sessions at Surry's 105-student elementary school.

Lewis made sure that there was a white lab coat for each student and that the coats were embroidered not only with a Vanderbilt logo, but with each student's name. Last week, students seemed to be wearing their lab coats with as much pride as a star athlete sporting a high school letter jacket. When this school year's Aspirnaut curriculum has run its course, students will get "diplomas" from Vanderbilt.

"This program is about more than science and math," Lewis said Friday. "It's about life and career preparation. Every Vanderbilt instructor starts the lesson by discussing with the kids his or her own personal interest in science or math and what career field they're in. Kids start to think, 'Hey, that could be me.'

"It's funny," Lewis said, "but the Skype [videoconferencing] technology we use doesn't always work. That's a lesson, too. We want them to see that's what sometimes happens."

The in-school electronics were working fine for an Aspirnaut Beaming STEM Lab unit on skeletal mechanics that provided four teams of students with the challenge of engineering, building and road- testing their own designs for a prosthetic leg, using common household items -- toilet plungers, sponges, bubble wrap, heavy cardboard tubes and, of course, duct tape. …

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