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Carmel students pave the way for new physics curriculum

February 22, 2013
photo - Carmel Middle School seventh graders Mikala Bliahu, right, and Ashley Davis work together Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Ron Bush's physics class. Students were using a bicycle to study effort distance and resistance distance.  Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette
Carmel Middle School seventh graders Mikala Bliahu, right, and Ashley Davis work together Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Ron Bush's physics class. Students were using a bicycle to study effort distance and resistance distance. Photo by MARK REIS/The Gazette 

Some Carmel Middle School seventh graders were gathered around a snazzy green mountain bike parked in the back of their classroom. They were talking excitedly, but not about style, color or even the best biking trails.

“We need to take the radius times two times pi,” explained one student, taking a measuring stick to gears and tire. They were working out problems on velocity and acceleration and something called “mechanical advantage.”

This is a physics class, and an unusual one at that.

The required three-year course for all middle schoolers is thought to be the only such program in Colorado and possibly the nation.

Typically, American students don’t take a physics class until they are in 11th grade, except for a few lessons here and there. But that timing is often too late to be of much workforce and economic value to students or the community, said the program creator Anatoliy Glushchenko,a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs associate physics professor.

The middle school effort is getting plenty of attention from state and national educators who have been visiting Carmel to see the classes in action.

The middle school curriculum will soon be offered statewide and nationally. Glushchenko and Dave Csintyan, former CEO of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, have created a charitable non-profit, See the Change USA, to promote student advancement in science and engineering.

They got the idea for the foundation last year at a chamber meeting where business leaders were urged to get more involved in education and create partnerships that would benefit students and businesses.

The two men were intrigued by the community approach to education. Glushchenko told Csintyan about his idea of getting physics in the classroom at an early age — and their foundation was born.

The money to start See the Change came from businessman Jim Johnson, of G.E. Johnson Construction, who donated $100,000.

The men asked Harrison School District 2 to pilot the program, and last fall the physics classes were launched.

“The students are excited about the physics classes, and their grades are showing it,” says Principal Ted Knight. So far, there is an 80 percent proficiency rate among students.

Ron Bush, who heads the physics department, says the class is training for life. “We are big on real life experiences,” he said. Using his bicycle is an example of how kids can see how their world works. During the lesson, they even talked about cyclist Lance Armstrong, and what drugs can do to the body.

Mikala Bliahu, a seventh grader, was totally engrossed in the lesson. She explained why: “I just love physics. It shows me the depths of the world, and how everything happens.”

This type of attention to science, engineering and math is badly needed, say educators and the business community.

The U.S. is a dismal 25th among the world’s countries in math, and 17th in science. Forty-percent of students drop out of science and engineering majors within the first year or two of study, because they don’t have a solid background in physical science. Glushchenko noted.

That also means students don’t have what employers need. By 2018,1.8 million jobs will be needed in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Schools have turned their attention to this problem and are putting more emphasis on graduating students who are ready for jobs or college.

The goal for See the Change is to have 25,000 middle schoolers in Colorado Springs taking the course within the next four years, and 180,000 statewide within 10 years. It is expected that national expansion will be simultaneous.

Carmel might be considered an unusual target for the physics program. It is the second most at-risk school in the city, with 84 percent of the students impoverished. Poor students most often start school well behind their peers, lag on achievement tests and are more likely to drop out.

But D-2 officials had no qualms about setting up this science requirement. The school has other workforce-geared curriculum such as economics and globalization classes, Chinese and information literacy. The school has improved on the state academic scale that measure achievement, growth and narrowing achievement gaps, going from a priority improvement plan to one of performance — a jump of two levels in one year.

“A lot of this is giving our kids something to level the playing field,” explains Knight, the Carmel principal. “We knew they could do the work.”

The physics classes are required all three years of middle school. It take the place of other required science classes, but integrates other science knowledge into it.

“We look at other sciences through the physics lens,” explains Rob Bush, Carmel’s physics department head.

The administrators believe that besides developing math and science skills, it will help raise scores across the board in state achievement tests that call for critical thinking.

About 100 of Carmel’s 400 students have low math skills, and the school has been giving them double doses of math to catch up. Eventually they are transferred into physics.

The school, like others in Harrison, tracks students’ achievement daily in every class on elaborate data or “war” boards as they call them.

Carmel has four full time physics teachers. None of them were physics or science majors. They received training from Glushchenko. He meets with them once a week and tweaks the program where needed.

Once the program expands, teachers will have an online webinar platform to guide them. “It was created so it doesn’t require a physics or science background, just straight forward teacher preparation,” Csintyan says.

CiCi Costa, 13, says she wants to be an oncologist and do cancer research.

“I can see this fitting in. It helps my math skills, and physics can be used to understand radiation, atomic theory, light waves.”

Ade Wijaya, 13, explains it this way, “ Some of the math parts are hard. But it gets me involved in what the world is and how it works.”

The teachers are not surprised at the intensity of focus the students have brought to the topic. “They really like it because it has practical applications,” Knight says, noting they can see how it effects everyday life. “Physics is how the universe works, which is seen in every day life.”

Glushchenko is heartened by the results of the pilot program thus far.

“I know I will have Carmel students in my college physics class in a few years,” he says.

Corpus Christi on board

Corpus Christi Catholic School in Colorado Springs is the second school to have the program. Its physics classes started in January. Eighth graders have the class every day, and sixth and seventh graders take it along with earth and life sciences.

“The students are really enjoying it,” says Maxine Hennessey, Corpus Christi science teacher.

“We sat in on the Carmel classes and were intrigued because physics is the underlying science for all other sciences. God speaks to us using physics.”

See the Change

See the Change will encourage businesses to partner with such schools, a win for them since it is in essence employee training — and a well-trained workforce will help improve the local economy, Csintyan said.

A business or several business could cover start up fees for more schools to add the program.

The cost when the plan goes national will be around $50,000 in one-time start up fee including materials. Local schools will get a break on the cost, particularly the early ones that  pave the way for the program,he said.

Schools and businesses wanting to participate in the See the Change USA program
can visit the website,   or call 1-888-843-0671.

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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