Winning formula boosts interest in math, science for Junction kids

Cheyenne Fortin, 10, shows the earthquake-resistant structure she built with toothpicks and marshmallows, during an after-school program sponsored by the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado.

Other contraptions shook as though they were being filmed in a wind tunnel for a Jell-O commercial, but Cheyenne Fortin’s toothpick-and-marshmallow structure held together as though made of structural steel subjected to a gentle breeze.

“Eighteen, nineteen, twenty!” called out Skyler Ogden as he cranked up the shake on the earthquake machine on which Cheyenne’s structure sat, defying the machine’s power to rattle loose the toothpicks from the marshmallows that comprised the structure. “I’m only going to 21.”

Cheyenne, 10, was disappointed. She figured her design could stand up to a 23, as in 23 percent of full power for the vacuum pump that Ogden converted into the power source that shook, rattled and rolled most every other structure into limp, broken and battered piles of wood and goo.

Turns out Cheyenne did it by eye.

“I’m not the kind of person who likes to plan before I do something,” she told Reese Merrell, team leader for the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado’s fellowship program underwritten by the University of Colorado.

Merrell and Ogden are part of a team of fellows who lead classes at the math and science center, as well as at Grand Valley schools, such as the after-hours class they conducted with Cheyenne and nine other students at Clifton Elementary School last week.

Much like Cheyenne, it turns out the center is onto something perhaps not quite obvious to the untrained eye.

The average math and science scores of 15-year-olds in the United States were lower than the average scores of same-aged students in 16 other developed countries, according to The National Center for Education Statistics. And the National Defense Industry Association called the trend an “alarming fact.”

The association also grumbled, “The U.S. defense and homeland security industries face challenges in filling some of the best and most critical technical jobs in our country because the U.S. is not producing enough graduates trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics who qualify for security clearances.”

If the recent experience of the math and science center is any measure, though, there’s something Newtonian going on, as in an equal and opposite reaction, against the doom-and-gloom talk.

“As soon as I put ‘engineering’ in the name, we’re full,” Teri Coons, executive director of the math and science center, said of the center’s programs.

Thus, the center has a range of offerings, such as the “Imagineers” program for first- and second-graders, “Wild for Engineering” for third through fifth grades, and “Engineering for the Earth,” which is aimed at exploring alternative energy sources.

The center, with the help of the University of Colorado, which funds the fellowships of Merrell and Ogden and others, has put on a variety of after-school, weekend and summer activities that have captured the interest of parents and students alike.

And the interest is far from limited to Grand Valley’s top-performing schools.

Clifton Elementary, where Cheyenne and her half-sister, Shannon, attend classes, was required to draw up an improvement plan for the school because of low test scores. Merrell, Ogden and other fellows in the program conduct two consecutive after-school programs there for budding engineers looking to build quake-defying structures.

The center’s outreach has gone well enough that Coons is looking to grow the program that began with CU and expanded to include Mesa State College.

“We’ve been so successful, thanks to their support,” Coons said.

The math and science center last week demonstrated fund-raising heft when it garnered a $125,000 grant from Chevron for a program in which middle and high school students in Mesa County can take part in a project studying new energy technologies.

Coons said she will be seeking help from foundations, businesses and individual donors to broaden its base of support beyond the institutions of higher education for the center’s outreach to schoolchildren in western Colorado.

The math and science center, helped along by the CU program, is coming of age, said John “Arch” Archuleta, a CU grad and retired engineer who pushed for the establishment a CU engineering program at Mesa State.

“Part of it is a sign of the times,” Archuleta said. “Guess who’s not looking for jobs these days. Engineers are employed.”

That’s not lost on moms and dads, said Merrell as she prepared for a second after-school class of students at Clifton Elementary.

When it comes to math, science and technology, Merrell said, “Parents want to start their kids early.”


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