Recognizing young scientists

Local students' work in STEM subjects credited

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — Science teachers and students took center stage at the Bliss Auditorium last night for an inaugural STEM Challenge Initiative (SCI) Recognition Night, where Swanton science teacher Christine Depatie was given the first Mary S. Babcock Teaching award.

Also on hand was Missisquoi Valley Union (MVU) alum who now works for NASA, Michael Moureau.

“There’s all these sports banquets in all the schools for all these sports initiatives, but we never have educational banquets — I think this is a prime opportunity to start that discussion and then move it forward,” said Tim Smith, chair of the STEM Challenge Initiative board.

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The STEM Challenge Initiative grew from an effort to bring a Challenger Learning Center, an aerospace-themed educational program, to Franklin County. “We did some initial fundraising, we had some great events,” Smith explained, “but over time, as we began to scrutinize the potential for the learning center, we found that not only was the cost to construct one substantial but the ongoing expense for operating on a yearly basis was going to be expensive as well.”

Guidance from what is now the SCI Board, as well as donors, inspired a shift in their efforts. “We chose to create the STEM Challenge Initiative, which will have a great effect on the students and schools of Franklin and Grand Isle counties,” Smith said.

The SCI’s mission covers four basic areas. First, extending educational programs within local schools and schools’ summer camps. “Without the STEM Challenge Initiative’s participation, many of these programs might not be possible,” Smith said. Second, SCI supports the incorporation of cutting-edge STEM curriculum. Third, SCI helps provide funds for students who want to attend STEM camps in the region.

Fourth, and finally, SCI works closely with Mylan Technologies and Superior Technical Ceramics in St. Albans, as well as other local businesses, to train the emerging workforce.

“Let people know that there are funds to assist in STEM education in Vermont,” Smith told the audience.

Developing scientists

Five presentations followed, from educators who have received SCI’s assistance. Three of BFA St. Albans students who work with science teacher Jeff Rouleau, Logan Gaboury, Jordyn Dukas and Emily Benkert, described their experiment measuring zooplankton concentrations in the St. Albans bay and Mill River.

“These are microorganisms that serve as food for various consumers in the lake,” Gaboury explained. The students were surprised to find a much stronger concentration of zooplankton in Mill River than in the bay.

Carol Lizotte described a forthcoming summer makers fair at MVU, a 20-hour program. “Each day would be a different program, and then students would build their own projects,” Lizotte said. Possible programs include 3D printing and connecting miniature circuits.

Highgate librarian Liza Comiskey said the Highgate Public Library was one of 25 state libraries selected to receive a three-year federal grant for STEM education. Comiskey said young students will be working on projects ranging from LEGO building to “solving the trash problem.”

“It would be great if they could solve that,” Comiskey said.

Sara Day, who operates the Franklin Grand Isle Bookmobile, said the bookmobile is hosting a summer program on healthy lifestyles and agricultural dependency in an effort to combat “summer learning loss,” a developmental speed bump in the long break between school years.

Depatie is helping Swanton School students research solar panels. “We have a group of young men who have blown me away,” Depatie said. She said her students have measured “every single inch” of the Swanton school’s “very unusual roof structure,” then recreated the facility in a scale model using cardboard, hot glue and bubblewrap.

“They have been very precise about all of it,” she said. “If we’ve needed anything, they’ve run and found what we’ve needed.”

MVU science teacher Steve McKenzie brought up three of his students, Olivia McGovern, Cameron Nielsen and Mikaela Magnant, to show their award-winning science projects: “Effectiveness of Garlic as a Bactericide” (McGovern), “Reaction Time Analysis” (Nielsen) and “Effects of Acid Gibberellic on Plant Development” (Magnant).

“We had about 100 entries in the science fair this year,” McKenzie said. “Next year, the goal is to be bigger and better. We’re expecting 150 next year at least. We may have to move out of the commons.”

Advice and recognition

Later in the evening, McKenzie introduced guest speaker Moreau, who serves as the Flight Dynamics Systems Lead on NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex project. OSIRIS-Rex aims to land on the near-earth asteroid Bennu, a behemoth roughly the size of five football fields, and obtain sample material for study. Moreau said there is a one in 1,000 chance Bennu could collide with Earth 200 years from now; another purpose of the mission is to scrutinize that chance.

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Swanton,” Moreau told the audience. “You might ask how did I grow up to work on one of the most challenging planetary science missions NASA has ever done. Kids even here in Franklin County can do anything. There are opportunities out there. The real challenge is whether kids will be able to see what those opportunities are.”

The evening concluded with the presentation of the Mary S. Babcock Award, a “legendary” educator in Swanton who donated a whopping $25,000 to the SCI Board “in hope that STEM education might reach more young girls… and hands-on learners.”

“She was a hands-on teacher before hands-on learning was in,” Swanton Elementary Principal Dena St. Amour said.

St. Amour presented the Babcock Award to Depatie, who she described as a “combination of Ms. Frizzle and Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

“If it wasn’t for Christine, it would be really hard to get this new exciting content into the minds of our teachers, which are thus helping more and more kids,” St. Amour said. “That excitement, that collaborative nature, that ability to share her knowledge, is outstanding, not only for Swanton School but for Franklin Northwest as a whole.”

The standing ovation left Depatie beaming.

“This is amazing,” she said, holding her award. “Mrs. Babcock was my second grade teacher.”