Houston We Have Contact
By Diane DobryBy way of a computer-controlled robot and other space- age stuff, inner-city kids are learning about math, science, techno-farming and respect.
On a crisp October morning, a group of eighth graders from St. Nicholas of Tolentine School in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx are weighing fish in a greenhouse at the Rutgers University EcoComplex in New Jersey.
Armed with a long-handled net, a tall boy named Tevin Williams expertly scoops bright orange koi out of a 650-gallon tank and pours them into a water-filled pitcher perched on a scale. After he records their weight, a classmate pours the fish into the clear water of a second tank.
Teachers College graduate student Dan McVeigh, who has been fiddling with a laptop, hushes the group. On the computer's screen, fifth graders at St. Elizabeth 's School in Washington Heights come into view.
Holding a remote video camera over the second tank, St. Nicholas student Nhan Nguyen shows the St. Elizabeth's class the orange fish, which stand out clearly against the blue sides of the tank (a deliberate touch by McVeigh).
"All right, guys!" McVeigh addresses the fifth graders on the screen. "If each fish weighs 50 grams and there are 10 fish, how much food should we use if we have to give them five percent of their weight in food?"
While the fifth graders mull the answer, McVeigh sets up a robot--a bright, yellow-jointed, wired metal arm with two black, rubber-pronged grippers on one end.
"Twenty-five grams," several kids call out through the computer screen.
"That's right!" McVeigh tells them. "Now we'll put the food next to the robot, and you can command it to push the food into the tank."
A fifth grader in Washington Heights punches in the program and the black prongs at the top of the robot arm suddenly drop down in front of the corrugated cardboard that holds the food.
"Okay, push it in," McVeigh yells.
The arm moves forward and the pellets slide into the water.
ALL HANDS ON
Welcome to Young McDonald's Farm, a project that uses space-age technology to teach inner-city kids about biology, ecosystems, math, chemistry, farming and fish, while not incidentally exposing them to some fresh air and sunshine. " Many of these children have never seen a farm or a greenhouse before," says St. Nicholas principal Dr. Estelle Moffa. Many are also English language learners, and the program-- which serves about 1,200 students, drawn from 12 different New York City schools--is particularly geared to their needs.
"With some students, once they touch an object, that's when they start to understand a concept," says McVeigh, the project 's founder and guiding spirit. Indeed, touch is central to the "Young McDonald's" experience, from building robotic arms and learning to make them work in the classroom, to harvesting pumpkins and feeding fish down in Rutgers. This past summer, the St. Nicholas kids traveled to New Jersey each Tuesday to tend the fish, create a biofilter system inside the greenhouse, build an ultra-violet filter to keep the fish tanks clean and prepare the garden for the winter growing season.
Back in their classrooms, the students also tested possible consequences of their actions on an animated "virtual" fish tank created by mathematics teachers Elais Ortiz and Kim Geriner, and McVeigh and his Teachers College advisor, Professor John Black.
For example, what to do if ammonia levels in the fish tank climb significantly above the proscribed limit of .03 of total liquid volume in a tank? The received wisdom: to reduce ammonia levels, dump and replace 30 percent of the water. In the simulated tank, however, students can test alternative scenarios: What would happen if they were to dump and replace, say, 70 percent of the water?
"All the fish in the tank will die," McVeigh says. Why? Because the tank water must be kept between 78 and 82 degrees. Water from a hose is typically between 56 and 58 degrees. The wholesale introduction of colder water will simply shock the fish to death.
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
Dan McVeigh grew up in New Jersey and spent every summer helping his father plant a vegetable garden. He describes himself as having been a gadget-minded kid, the kind who liked to take things apart and, occasionally, even put them back together. He was curious about almost everything; and then, as now, almost anything could set his mind working on a new idea or get filed away for later use.
A relative taught him about troutfarming, and in college he absorbed Dewey and the notion that learning shouldn't be about life, it should be life.
But it was during the late 1980s, while studying for a master's degree at the School of Visual Arts, that McVeigh chose his current line of work. Late one night in New York City's East Village, he stepped out of a club and watched, horrified, as one 11-year-old boy shot and killed another. "I freaked out about that," McVeigh says. "I thought to myself, -'What the hell have I done to help the kids who are stuck in lousy neighborhoods in the city?'"
A friend put him in touch with a middle school in the Bronx. There, with the help of a $100,000 grant from Verizon, he set up a video conferencing project that allowed the students to dial into a marine research facility from their classroom and drive a remotely operated, camera-equipped submarine around a shark tank. "It was like looking for the Titanic," he says.
Around that time, McVeigh began asking faculty members at Teachers College about how to integrate education and technology. "Eventually, they just said, -'Why don't you just enroll and get the information first-hand?'" he recalls. Today he is finishing up his second master's degree at TC, in Computing, Education and Technology.
In 1993, McVeigh founded Ocean of Know, a non-profit organization through which he gets grants to train teachers to integrate technology into different subjects, and to show students how to use technology in creative ways.
One of his first creations was Senator Pobot--a five-foot high conglomeration of a video camera, a monitor, a keypad, metallic legs and a pipe for feeding fish attached to the top of the camera. Students controlled it by dialing in with a touch- tone phone and hitting specific numbers to make it move. By making the camera tilt forward toward the fish tank, the kids could watch the food pour out of the pipe to feed the fish.
McVeigh has since designed more sophisticated robots and written scripts that connect them, through a laptop server, to a network. (Schools can use them for free via the Web.) The software, which McVeigh teaches to his students, also allows the user to save complex movement sequences (such as feeding fish). "It's not R2D2," he says, "but it's very efficient."
THE PROOF IS IN THE PUMPKINS
Kids will be kids, and as the day at the farm in October wore on, there were plenty of unruly moments.
"You want to die, sucker?" a boy taunted, half- threatening, half afraid, as a group of girls gathered around. It wasn't a fight, though--only a spider. "Ew!" said one of the girls.
"Maybe it's a tarantula!" another chimed in. Teacher Ray Galarza walked over to investigate. "Why are you guys messing with a spider?" he said. After a few minutes, the kids were back at work, harvesting the pumpkins they'd planted months earlier. When the harvest was piled up, one boy exultantly tossed his basketball-sized pumpkin in the air and caught it one-handed.
From a behavioral standpoint alone, Young McDonald's Farm is a smashing success. It's hard work, but kids typically vie to be in the program, and they have to earn the privilege. "The 15 from our school were the most cooperative in all their lessons, while others, who were not as responsible, lost their right to be a part of it," says Estelle Moffa, the St. Nicholas principal. She adds, "I've seen kids who were very hyper in class who came back very content and excited to talk about the experience." The students learn to respect each other, McVeigh says, and themselves, as well.
But the real selling point of the project is that it is entirely standards-based--kids at each grade level learn the content they're expected to learn. They are getting a real world understanding of how a bio-system works--and how it can be kept working--by learning percentages, decimals, fractions, multiplication and division, as well as some chemistry and biology. Their literacy skills are being enhanced, too. And that's not just conjecture. McVeigh and Black conducted a study looked at how well the students in the program understood the biological system compared to students who were not using the program. They found that the combination of verbal explanations with animations, pictures and live video links helped students to create their own mental models about how systems work.
As the October light wanes, the students gather up their pumpkins and some supplies to set up a small-scale version of the project in their classroom. McVeigh beams as they get back on the bus to the Bronx. It's been a good day, and there is reason to hope that the future for these kids will be brighter because of it. Some of his recent graduates have gone on to attend Aquinas High School--one of the top-rated high schools for girls in the country.
McVeigh smiles. "In a community where the dropout rate is normally 80 percent, that's nice to see."