BERLIN — In Worcester County Public Schools (WCPS), Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Summer Academies have always tried to stay relevant to the real world. This year that’s truer than ever with Stephen Decatur Middle School (SDMS) focusing on alternative energy, particularly wind power, with their TURBO Power themed academy.
TURBO stands for Teaching Us Renewable, Better Options. It’s a broad learning program that incorporates everything from science and math to reading and problem solving, all wrapped around the central theme of understanding wind energy.
“We’re doing renewable energy sources and we’re focusing on windmills,” said Theresa Torpey, extended day administrator. “So they’re making turbines.”
The SDMS academy had about 42 students regularly attend the four-week program. The day is broken into a series of classes and activities. Approaches vary but all lessons include some element of the overlying theme of wind power. Students read books and articles related to turbines, alternative energy and accounts of how what they are learning has been put to use in the real world.
“The students go to four classes per day. We still do reading and math but that reading and math ties into renewable energy, the turbines and all of that,” said Torpey.
Students also analyze turbine designs and eventually create their own on computers. At later stages of the academy, student teams turn those designs into working windmill models and that’s when a lot of the practical education takes off, according to SDMS teacher Pat Lieb.
The models are put through their paces after being assembled. A number of experiments and tests are conducted including some that students read about during the literature portions of the academy, which links the entire experience together.
“We had set up earlier [a turbine] that would generate and we hooked up a cell phone to it. That was one of the things that the kid did in the book,” said Lieb, “and the real-life application is, ‘how do I generate enough electricity to power something for real?’”
Each student-crafted wind turbine is unique. There are differences in blade shape, size and number and the trick for each team is finding ways for their models to generate more power. Effectiveness is measured by how well the turbines can fuel small lights, lift heavy objects or pump water, among other tests.
Ella Johnson, a rising eighth grader, explained that her team has taken a “more is better” approach to the devices while also experimenting with different angles to maximize wind.
“We have six blades and we’ve figured out that the more blades the better,” she said, “but the blades have to be at a certain angle for the wind to hit it and for it to slide off at a certain point.”
After tinkering with a turbine for a few hours, Johnson said that she was impressed with how well her model could move objects and that she had “no idea that it could generate all of this power.” The teams will square off head-to-head at the end of the program on July 18 in a series of friendly turbine competitions.
Trial and error plays a big role in the academy and the philosophy is to just keep testing and applying what was learned in the classroom to the real world.
“So it’s making do with what you’ve got and where you are,” Lieb said. “That’s another problem solving skill that a lot of kids don’t see today … the problem solving is the big thing to get out of it the way I see it.”
This matches the county’s continued efforts to phase in the Common Core Curriculum to schools, a plan which emphasizes making learning work in practical ways and having students figure out how to adapt. But that’s a philosophy that the Summer STEM Academies have had for years, according to Torpey, even before Common Core entered the scene.