Academy uses hands-on methods to teach students science, math

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Donyeau Bruce, a fourth-grader at Cornell Intermediate School in McKeesport, said he wants to be a scientist, one who "tests a lot of things" and makes new discoveries.

A student in the school's Academy in Math and Science program, Donyeau has already gotten the opportunity to do just that. In one afternoon last week, he and about 10 other students built miniature water wheels to see how hydropower worked. In another experiment, students compared the way soil and gravel absorb water to learn about the water cycle.

The AIMS program takes these students, Cornell fourth-graders who have an interest in science, out of their regular academic rotation and puts them in special science and math courses that emphasize hands-on learning.

Students in the program cover twice as much science material as their peers over the course of the year and do far more experiments, in addition to taking extra field trips.

Almost unanimously, kids declared this science class "funner" than last year's, when most of the learning was done out of books and less time was spent on science.

"There's more things to do, and you learn more," said Keirston Spiewack, 9, who said she wants to be a scientist who "does all the chemicals and makes things" when she grows up.

"It's more funner. You get to do hands-on experiments."

AIMS is in its first year, but this fall the district will expand the program to include a fifth-grade class. A sixth-grade class will join in the year after that.

Starting in the fall, students in the program also will get a laptop computer and special lab jacket, and two classrooms will be outfitted with sinks, shelves, lab tables and SMART boards, which are special interactive white boards.

Funded through federal school improvement money, AIMS intends to enhance the image of a school that has been known more for its struggles than its successes.

"We wanted a program that would challenge the students at Cornell, that would give them and their community something to be proud of," said Michael Matta, director of federal programs for the McKeesport Area School District.

Cornell has failed to make Annual Yearly Progress in each of the past six years. To make AYP, all of a school's designated sub-groups -- in this case, white students, black students and special education students -- have to measure up. Often times, the school has gotten one group up to speed, only to see another fall below state standards.

Failing to make AYP means students who are in Cornell's neighborhood can choose to go to the district's other intermediate school, Francis McClure, a much newer facility in White Oak where about 30 students a year decide to transfer.

Mr. Matta said part of the reason the program was introduced was to encourage kids to go to school in the neighborhood.

School officials said they're also trying to prepare students to work in more high-tech fields.

"Like hydroelectric power," said Jill Brewster, the AIMS teacher. "We need people who are interested in that for the future."

The program is mostly geared toward students who score proficient or advanced on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams. But those who score basic are allowed into the program if they show a special interest in science.

Mr. Matta said that AIMS lessons are more integrative than in a standard curriculum. Next school year, for example, most of the science curriculum will be science-oriented. Students, for example, will work on reading skills by reading stories that have a science lesson included.

In this class, after the students finish their experiments, they will document their results in their science notebooks, practicing their language arts skills.

The school improvement money going to AIMS will nearly triple -- from $24,000 this school year to about $75,000 in the next. But Mr. Matta said other programs paid for by the same funding, such as intensive tutoring for low-performing students, will get the same amount of money.

Moriah Balingit can be reached at or 412-263-2533.


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