Area students go hands-on

LEICESTER — In front of a group of his peers on Tuesday morning, third-grader Noah Witt’s hair was standing on end.
This wasn’t just some kind of pre-Halloween trick. Standing in the National Science Center Mobile Discovery Unit — an 18-wheeler — Witt was feeling the effects of static electricity being pumped through his body by a Van de Graaf generator.
Students from Leicester Central School, Whiting Elementary School and Sudbury Country School gathered in Leicester on Tuesday to spend an hour inside the semi-trailer truck equipped with a full array of science gadgets.
The instructors, Rich Cadwell and Henry Ayala, are two of a handful of people who travel the country in the National Science Center trucks, bringing hands-on science lessons to elementary and middle schools that request their presence through the center’s website.
Last week, Cadwell and Ayala were at St. Mary’s School in Middlebury, and they’ll be continuing their southward trek, moving on to New Jersey at the end of this week.
“This is mandatory fun,” said Ayala to the third- and fourth-graders lined up on the benches.
He had the students shout out colors on the screen at the front of the room as he pointed at them with a pointer in the shape of a hand named “Sarge.”
The catch: The word “red” was green, the word “yellow” was blue, and the students’ first instinct was to read the words instead of naming the colors.
Ayala is serving as a science instructor as part of his service in the U.S. Army, which helps to fund the mobile discovery labs. Cadwell has been traveling and doing the science demonstrations for the past five years, ever since he retired from the Army.
Cadwell said it’s not hard to see how much the students learn during the comparatively short sessions — the average grade on a three-question quiz that the fifth- and sixth-graders took before the test was close to 40 percent, a number that jumped above 60 percent at the end of the session.
Cadwell and Ayala are required to give the survey for funding purposes, to demonstrate the unit’s effectiveness to the National Science Center and the U.S. Army. But Cadwell said that’s not the real indication of the program’s purpose.
“Yes, there’s a percentage difference,” he said. “But the (kids’) excitement is what makes it worth it. When you get a reaction, they remember it a little more.”
Leicester Co-principal Kate Grodin said the visit was an opportunity to extend student learning beyond her building.
“It turned into a great opportunity to have the three schools come together,” said Grodin.
She said that Leicester Central has been working to rewrite the school’s science curriculum over the course of the last year, with the help of professional development trainings offered by Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. The goal, she said, is to make the curriculum more engaging for the students. The Mobile Discovery Unit fits right into this.
“It’s just another piece to add, to make (science) engaging and fun,” said Grodin. “It’s great to see what you’re learning in a different environment, where it reaches beyond the walls of the school.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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