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STEM Academy, Where Students Reach for the Sky

The country is undertaking a major effort to improve students' skills in science, technology, engineering and math. Monroe is a district at the forefront.

A wing of Masuk High School carries a roadway theme, where the main hallway is called Inquiry Alley and the classrooms are named after teachers. This space makes up the new Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Academy.

On Tuesday morning, Bonnie Mauer walked down Inquiry Alley and turned onto Carter Causeway, where a group of teacher Melissa Carter's sixth graders worked on videos on their laptop computers. One girl uploaded photos on Edmodo.

"It looks like Facebook, but it's a safe environment where they can just communicate with each other and their teachers," Mauer said of Edmodo.

"You can only privately message the teacher with your assignments, so people can't copy them," one girl explained.

Among some of the programs Carter's students are learning are Glogster, Story Jump, Animoto and Photo Story 3. On Tuesday, her students were making a video presentation for parents that would be shown on Back to School Night.

Earlier in the day, Mauer, science and inquiry education coordinator for Monroe Public Schools, opened a box of Senteos, hand-held devices that look like controllers, on a table in her office.

Students use the devices to punch in their answers to a teacher's question and ...

"Right away teachers know what they know and what they don't know," Mauer said with a smile. "Last year a Masuk teacher used it."

STEM is an inquiry based education program, where children explore topics such as how science and math relate and how can we build a better tomorrow? Children in grades 6 to 8 have used math table in Excel using science class data and written a journal on their computers, so far.

Among visitors expected this year are representatives from Leggo and by Donald Rethke, a.k.a. Dr. Flush, a NASA engineer who invented the first space toilet.

"We had a great first week," Mauer said. "A reallly good first week. The kids were excited. We are using techology in every class. It's amazing to see the excitement of the kids. I have children saying it doesn't even feel like school."

She is active in STEM with the academy's director, Leigh Ances.

When the Board of Education decided to close Chalk Hill as a school and move its students to Jockey Hollow Middle School last year, Supt. of Schools Dr. Colleen Palmer spearheaded plans to start the new academy at Masuk for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

At least 150 students needed to express interest in order for the STEM Academy to get off the ground, but demand was high and children had to be chosen in a lottery held at Monroe Elementary School. This fall, 225 students are enrolled.

"I don't think we could be more pleased with how the first week went," said Ances.

Ances, Jockey Hollow Principal Jack Ceccolini and Masuk Principal John Battista, who is also acting interim superintendent of schools, led a tour of STEM Academy after a recent Board of Education meeting.

Battista said it is truly a school-within-a-school with its own entrance, bathrooms and an "age-appropriate" section of books in the school media center.

Bonnie Goes to Washington

Mauer went to Washington, D.C., as part of a four-day education policy conference in July.

"Our charge was to meet with legislators in order to discuss the STEM education policies that government should be looking at, and to explain what STEM is," Mauer said.

The federal No Child Left Behind law embraced by former President George W. Bush has expired and Mauer said lawmakers are seeking input from educators before re-authorizing it as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"We were talking about what should and shouldn't be included," Mauer said. "And we talked about having science included as as part of student performance — a core element of the accountability system."

Another aspect the conference covered was the training and development of STEM educators. During his State of the Union Address, President Obama stated a goal of training 100,000 STEM educators.

"STEM is a concept that President Obama identified as a national priority," Mauer said. "We are behind in science and math in comparison with the rest of the world. STEM became well known as an initiative from the White House."

The conference was sponsored by The STEM Education Coalition, the National Science Teachers Association, The American Chemical Society, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics ... "Stakeholders in math, science and technology education," Mauer said.

Speakers included Obama's aids and senators and members of Congress.

"We broke up into groups and had discussions on STEM education," Mauer said. "It was a wonderful way to connect with others in STEM across the country."

Monroe Leads the Way

Other than the Annie Fisher School, a grade K-8 magnate school in Hartford, Monroe's STEM Academy is the only place in Connecticut with a complete educational program is designed around STEM, according to Mauer.

"Our STEM Academy is already being recognized," she said. "We're getting requests for visits from educators around the state. We're front runners in STEM education. I think it's fabulous."

Mauer herself will be a presenter at the National Science Teachers Association's Regional Conference in Hartford in October. But Mauer said the real focus of this movement in on Monroe's students.

"We want them to reach for the sky," she said. "I want children to believe that anything is possible."

barbara September 15, 2011 at 07:05 PM
I don't like the fact that it's by lottery. I would like to see enough openings for all interested and qualified Monroe students.
Annie N September 15, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Barb, what would define "qualified"?
Amy Shelin Primorac September 15, 2011 at 08:15 PM
Barbara, while the lottery system was put in place, it ended up being a non issue for this year....every student who wanted to attend the STEM academy was able to attend. The only grade where there was a wait list was 6th grade, but because of students moving out of MPS, every student who wanted a spot was given a spot. At least that is my understanding; my daughter was wait listed for STEM and was able to attend after several students at her grade level ended up moving out of the system.
barbara September 15, 2011 at 08:55 PM
I'm glad to hear that, Amy. Annie, maybe I chose the wrong word when I said "qualified". But initially I had heard that the STEM program was for students who had strong mathmatical and science skills. I was wondering if students who were weaker in those areas might have been chosen by lottery over students who excelled at math and science.
Alan Vaglivelo September 15, 2011 at 10:00 PM
Barbara, STEM is open to everyone. It is an inquiry based learning program. Students are asked to draw on their imagination and creativity to solve problems given in class. Students are also given opportunities to apply math, science, and technology in real-world problem-solving applications during classroom and homework learning experiences.
Jennifer Read September 16, 2011 at 05:00 PM
Wouldn’t it be great if upgrades could be made to Chalk Hill and it could house the STEM program? The middle-schoolers would then have their own campus, and the STEM program could be opened to those out of town, which could help cover improvement and operating costs.
Charlie Brown September 16, 2011 at 05:12 PM
@Jenn - I agree. However, Steve Vavrek does not support education and forced Chalk Hill to be closed with his unprecedented budget cuts. Vavrek stated in PUBLIC that "parents don't matter." This is what happens when you get a First Selectman who does not care.
Jennifer Read September 16, 2011 at 05:35 PM
The finger-pointing doesn't get us anywhere. Let's try to use this space to work together to plan for the future. It appears that Jockey Hollow was built without plans for improvements to Chalk Hill or a possible decrease in enrollment. It would be a shame to lose Chalk Hill since it sits on a campus with 2 other schools. The article even states: Other than the Annie Fisher School, a grade K-8 magnate school in Hartford, Monroe's STEM Academy is the only place in Connecticut with a complete educational program is designed around STEM, according to Mauer. "Our STEM Academy is already being recognized," she said. "We're getting requests for visits from educators around the state. We're front runners in STEM education. I think it's fabulous." That sounds like an opportunity to me! It's time to look ahead, use our resources, and move forward with a plan.
Life By The Green September 16, 2011 at 06:34 PM
Enough with perpetuating the lie that Vavrek closed Chalk Hill. The Superintendent and BOE closed it. Their choice, not the First Selectman's. You'd have us believe that the fat compensation and benefits package that the teacher's union refused to deal back had nothing to do with the financial pinch. Palmer proposed the easiest solution - close a school rather than make cuts elsewhere. Plus, it was on the docket to be closed anyway due to declining enrollment. The budget cost us a year, maybe two at the most.
Charlie Brown September 16, 2011 at 07:51 PM
Life by the green (aka Scott) the BOE had no other option due to a 2.4 million dollar cut by Vavrek. Are you still bitter over your wife not getting a raise in Stratford? Is that why you are so angry about teachers in Monroe?
Life By The Green September 16, 2011 at 11:51 PM
Love the personal attacks Charlie or whoever the hell you are. How is it that liberals can so easily devolve an argument from the factual to the fantastic. You and "Peter Woods" have decided to make this all personal without divulging who you really are. Man up and tell me who you really are, or are you afraid?
Anna J September 17, 2011 at 01:00 AM
Wait a minute, Green. Charlie here seems to think he knows who you are, but for all anyone out in Patch Land knows, he's just guessing. You want him to "man up" and reveal his true identity, but what about you? If you're going to call someone out for using an alias, you should probably tell us all who you are first. And what's with the generalizing with the "liberal" comment? I am a proud liberal and I make a point not to stray from the facts. I would assume from the tone of your statement that you are a conservative. Should I also assume that you are a Tea Party member that clings to his gun and his religion while demanding that evolution not be taught in schools? No? Then please...don't generalize. It just devalues your comments. Thanks!
Life By The Green September 17, 2011 at 01:32 AM
If he (or she) wants to "out" me, and also attack my wife (who has never once been mentioned in any of my posts), hiding behind a false name is about as cowardly as you can get. I chose my screen name because it accurately describes my perspective on the town and serves as a creative but not impossible to figure out nom de plume, not so that I could make personal attacks and hide behind a shield of total anonymity as "Charlie" so often does. Fortunately, with this latest attack I now have a pretty good idea who "Charlie" really is - read his/her list of posts from start to finish and almost anyone can figure it out. When he/she throws in irrelevant, not to mention completely off the mark family details, it becomes all too clear who the real "Charlie" is. All of this proves my point about straying from the facts - "Charlie" couldn't win on the truth, so instantly devolved the argument into a personal attack, that had nothing to do with the point being debated. In my experience, that is very often a liberal trait. I apologize if Anna J does not work from the same playbook, in your honorable debate you prove yourself above your peers. I welcome open discourse with anyone based on facts, and even opinion. We're all entitled to have a viewpoint and if they were all the same, what a boring world it would be. When you ramp it up to personal attacks on family members, I'll sharpen my claws for a longer and less civil fight.
Cindy Cervini September 17, 2011 at 03:40 PM
Although it's a shame that these past few comments have nothing to do with the article about STEM, it's a great demonstration of why real user names should be a requirement for anyone posting on this site.
Christine E. September 17, 2011 at 06:05 PM
Knowing Life By The Green's real name doesn't change the content of his or her posts. In fact, not knowing who he or she is forces me to look at the posts objectively because I have no preconceived judgements. I'm more interested in what's brought to the table, not in who brings it.
Rt25 September 17, 2011 at 11:17 PM
Wow! Who cares who who is? Use your name or don't use your name. But for heaven's sake can't we have civil discussions? Yes, Charlie is anti-Vavrek and Life/Green is pro-Vavrek. That is what makes politics interesting. Just think, if we all agreed and there was no opposition I think we would create an emperor. I agree that individuals in families should not be attacked. But Life/Green how do you know that Charlie is not a teacher in Monroe and took offense at your comments, just as you took offense at his/hers? The bashing of teachers should stop. Teachers are worth every penny paid and every benefit earned, period. Life/Green did you read about the test scores from Monroe in the paper today? Don't you think teachers had something to do with that? In my life, teachers made all the difference. I would never, every, bash a teacher and shame on both of you for teacher-bashing.
Cindy Cervini September 18, 2011 at 12:37 AM
I strongly disagree--I believe that anonymity is a tool which is used to provide false courage. In turn, this fuels people to say things they would never, ever say in public if their identity was known. It's my opinion that one should have both the character and maturity enough to either identify oneself or refrain from personal bashing. I wasn't directing my comment directly to LBTG, but just making a general observation that I've noticed on so many threads here--it's easy to say mean things when your identity isn't revealed. I believe that if real names were required, the ridiculous personal attacks on one another would be greatly decreased, which would allow the real issues (rather than schoolyard bullying) to be debated in a civil manner.
Life By The Green September 18, 2011 at 02:23 AM
First off, I'm not pro-Vavrek. I'm pro-Monroe, and Vavrek happens to be moving the town in a direction that I'm happy with. If I see a candidate who can do it better, I'm all for them. Sadly, on this site, very few posters want to believe that anything good is happening at all. The great part about elections is everybody gets to have a final say. Now, second, I never bashed a teacher or teachers in general. Some want you to think thats my message because it is an unpopular notion and would degrade my point. And, yes, my wife is a teacher and I do not think that she or many of her colleagues are overpaid. My kids have had quite a few great teachers who earned every penny of their wage. Unfortunately, Monroe union leadership simply refused to negotiate when the money tightened up, taking the choice away from the teachers as individuals. In my wife's town, the leadership was both more pragmatic, and more representative of its membership, agreeing to several years worth of deep concessions in order to avoid laying off even one teacher. Ask some of those younger Monroe teachers who were laid off how they feel about their union. Were their interests represented? Were the interests of the children considered?
Lizzy September 18, 2011 at 01:10 PM
Am I mistaken? I thought I read that the teachers gave up any salary increase this year and deep cuts in insurance. My children love their teachers here in Monroe and I think my children are doing well with them. My husband is in a union and he said that unions will only do givebacks in a year when their contract is up and I think that is what the teachers did.
Steve Kirsch September 18, 2011 at 03:48 PM
Lizzy, you are correct in that the new teachers contract which started this year (July 1) has no pay increases over the prior year. I think that the point which others were making is that the teacher's union held firm to increases in the past couple of years when the BOE asked for some type of give-back. It is not true that unions will only do give-backs when their contract is up. All you have to do is look at the give-backs of the administrator's union here in Monroe over the last couple of years.
jim laguardia September 19, 2011 at 04:04 PM
life by the green.... really was it not you who attacked a persons politics in an article about her child ??? while using a fake name???
Carl Kolchak September 19, 2011 at 04:54 PM
Ever since Steve Vavrek shaved his moustache, things have been a little strange in this town. I'm just saying.
karen c September 19, 2011 at 08:03 PM
My stem children are appalled at these posts. They think u are nuts. They are very grateful for the opportunities they have been offered by stem.

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