Informing the Future

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avanue. Photos by Jennifer A. Cline.

“I’m concentrating so hard, trying to figure this out,” a student from Williamsport’s Andrew G. Curtin Middle School explains to a curious photographer who has come to visit an after-school program initiated by the local school district.

In a Pennsylvania College of Technology classroom, she and 10 other Curtin students are testing a hypothesis. After looking at a Lego creation for several minutes, they work in teams of various sizes – from a “group” of one to a crew of five – to determine whether the task of rebuilding the model without looking at it again is done best alone or with others.

The leader for the session is Mark A. Ciavarella, assistant professor of business administration and management.

“In business, decisions have to be made every day,” Ciavarella explained. “Something business leaders have to decide is whether to make decisions themselves or use a group of people to make decisions.”

During a business workshop, middle schoolers collaborate to test a hypothesis about the most effective size for a workgroup. Down the hall, another group of Curtin students is working with Denise S. Leete, associate professor of computer science, using Legos to test their skill at the most basic principle of programming – writing effective instructions. In other rooms this day, other Curtin students are learning about codes and how they keep our electronic information secure, and about developing video games.

The students think hard about the task at hand: They laugh, they get a bit frustrated, and they express pride in the progress they make. And each one asked offers praise for the program.

On four Thursdays each quarter, the Curtin students travel by bus to the Penn College campus as part of the program, launched by the Williamsport Area School District through a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant. The district’s Lycoming Valley Middle School students visit the campus on Wednesdays. The program is voluntary.

During the remaining days of the week, the children spend the after-school hours at their middle school, where they are offered mini-courses, time and help for homework completion, and structured physical activities. The program also provides an after-school snack and supper.

Among the goals of the Middle School After-School program – and the purpose of partnering with Penn College in the endeavor – is to expose middle school students to postsecondary and career opportunities, especially those lesser-known but highly viable fields in science, technology, engineering and math.

“This exposure should help to shape these students’ future educational plans,” said Stephanie Pardoe, grant coordinator for the school district.

While the students visit the campus four times each quarter – thanks to the coordination efforts of the college’s Outreach for K-12 Office – they also visit area industry sites to help demonstrate the connection between their sessions and real possibilities in the world of work. Those tours are also coordinated by the college’s Outreach for K-12 staff.

“We want to provide the opportunity for our students to obtain the necessary skills to be competitive beyond high school.”

“Careers now and in the future will include many different STEM and career and technical education components,” Pardoe said. “It is beneficial for students to see what these look like to help better inform them on future career choices.”

The new program is expected to continue two more years, thanks to the three-year grant, which is provided by the U.S. Department of Education through the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The relationship between the college and the Williamsport Area School District is a long one – the college’s roots were formed in the district’s vocational-education program. The association between the institutions continues to evolve with the changing education and cultural landscape.

Other Penn College initiatives in which the district participates include annual Career Days for high school and middle school students, Plastics Experience, and Penn College NOW dual-enrollment offerings. Through Penn College NOW, 23 Penn College courses are offered at the high school during the school day, taught by Williamsport Area High School teachers.

Courses in accounting, computer-aided drafting, information technology, early childhood education, electronics, machining, plastics, welding and, most recently, mathematics comprise the offerings.

The new mathematics courses are part of another initiative by the school district to help ensure its students are prepared for life after high school. While the state requires only three years of math education to graduate, the district has decided to require four and has called on Penn College to help develop plans to assess – and meet – students’ math needs before they head off to college.

Curtin students Alexandria Williams and Destiny Laielli track the time it takes their team to recreate a Lego model from memory.“We want to provide the opportunity for our students to obtain the necessary skills to be competitive beyond high school,” said Williamsport Area High School Head Principal Mike Reed. “Whether students are pursuing a postsecondary degree or going straight to work, the additional math responsibilities will assist with personal and professional development. Because it was not previously required, too many students were simply opting out of this challenge.”

And it often shows when students across the state who take algebra in their ninth- or 10th-grade year and then choose to complete their requirements in nonalgebra-based courses, such as statistics or business math, arrive at their chosen colleges with rusty skills. Many are placed in developmental courses to boost their proficiency before they are permitted to take the higher-level math courses required for their major.

To start, Williamsport Area High School administered sample Penn College math placement tests to a large group of junior students in 2011-12 to establish their skill levels.

“We are trying to identify each student’s current working knowledge and provide the opportunity for them to move beyond that point,” said Edwin G. Owens, Penn College’s assistant dean of integrated studies-liberal arts and sciences.

Based on the sample test results, a smaller group of students was selected to take the full mathematics placement test administered to new Penn College students. Those who met prerequisites were offered the opportunity to take the Penn College math course Technical Algebra and Trigonometry I during the fall semester of their senior year as part of Penn College NOW. Those who passed Technical Algebra and Trigonometry I in the fall semester were offered the college’s Technical Algebra and Trigonometry II course in the spring.

Chef Sue Major, assistant professor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts, demonstrates a cupcake-decorating project for Lycoming Valley Middle School students.“Students and parents have expressed gratitude for the opportunity, and our students are doing quite well in the course,” Reed said.

Owens and Paul R. Watson II, Penn College’s assistant dean of integrated studies-programs, visited the high school to meet individually with those students who did not meet the prerequisites to take the course, recommending ways for the students to remediate their skills and prepare for the next offering of the course at the high school in Spring 2013. Williamsport Area High School teachers, in consultation with Penn College’s math department, are planning steps to get them on track.

“They have clearly identified areas that need specific focus,” Watson said. “The students during that senior year will now have an opportunity to better prepare themselves for the transition to postsecondary education.”

Through this program, students may receive up to six college math credits or receive the remediation they need to avoid taking developmental courses when they arrive at college, saving on the cost of education for both students and colleges.

It also can provide a confidence boost to those who might not be considering a college degree.

“It eliminates the fear – now they have a college course under their belt,” Owens said.

Owens and Watson were impressed with the cooperation and the active role being played by math teachers both at the college and the high school.

“We’ve had a good, intercollegiate discussion,” Owens said. “Without the cooperation of faculty, it wouldn’t happen. Those are things you sometimes don’t find other places.”

“In partnership with Penn College, we are able to more closely align our curricula to match the skills necessary for collegiate success,” Reed said. “The college courses give students a great preview of expectations and save students and families a significant amount of money.”

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