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Campus students begin GECKO demonstrations at local elementary schools

4/13/2011 —



In an effort to stimulate an interest in math and science, Penn State New Kensington students are sharing their educational experiences with the youngsters in elementary schools as a part of the Green Environmental Challenge for Kids Outreach (GECKO) program. Conducted during the academic year and administered at local schools during science class periods, the program is structured to foster an understanding of local and global ecological systems and natural resources.

Freshman Skyler Leiser and sophomore Josh Swinehart visited Martin Elementary School in the New Kensington-Arnold School District on April 12 for an on-site demonstration called "Unleash the Power of the Sun." The hands-on experiments demonstrated the advantages of solar power in capturing the sun's energy to produce electricity and reduce energy costs.

In one of the experiments, the 16 third-grade students, who were divided into groups of four and teams of two, assembled small plastic cars and attached miniature solar-panels to the roofs. The teams then focused a beam from a flashlight onto the solar-panel, moving the cars across desks and up inclines.

"The best part of the demo was seeing the faces of the kids when the solar powered cars started to work," said Leiser, a secondary education major. "I feel like the kids learned a lot and had a lot of fun.  Afterwards, they were able to describe renewable and nonrenewable resources."

The GECKO initiative is a new STEM education collaboration with local school districts. The program is a concerted effort among K-8 students and teachers and New Kensington campus undergraduates and faculty.

For campus students, it is an opportunity to gain teaching experience. Many are facing a classroom for the first time.

"Martin school was my first demonstration, and all the planning and coordinating was worth it," said Leiser, a graduate of Kiski Area High School.  "I was nervous, but after we entered the classroom I felt in my element and I loved teaching and instructing the kids."

For grade-school students, it is designed to enrich learning and heighten awareness of environmental issues, including conservation, ecosystems, and waste and recycling. Students explore environmental and ecology science through hands-on demonstrations and activities. For teachers, the program provides an activity-based teaching resource. Teachers will have the opportunity to select from five environmental demonstrations which are intended to support environmental science concepts that already exist within a school's science curriculum.

Leading the on-site demonstrations are math, biology, physics, chemistry or education majors who design and present class content.  Besides the solar experiments, the other demonstrations explore the chemical breakdown of waste materials, the impact of oil spills on plants, animals and humans, the exchange of energy between the sun and the earth's surface, and the recycling process. All content is reviewed by Penn State faculty for compliance with Pennsylvania academic standards.

Ten campus students, under the direction of Maureen Ryan, STEM coordinator at campus, and Linda Maquire, instructor in education, are involved in the GECKO projects. More than 30 demonstrations are scheduled during the upcoming weeks. Numerous school districts are involved, including the kindergarten class in Freeport Area, Center Elementary in Plum, Penn Hebron Elementary in Penn Hills, and Kittanning Elementary in Armstrong.

"Our students are thrilled by the overwhelming number of school that have requested GECKO demonstrations," said Ryan.  "Additional demonstrations are currently being added to the schedule."

GECKO is sponsored by a grant from the Buhl Foundation, a private entity that is headquartered in Pittsburgh. Founded in 1927 and funded through the estate of Henry Buhl Jr., a retail store magnate, the foundation contributes to the sustainability and vitality of the community. Its four areas of interest are education, youth development, human services, and economic and community development.

For more information on GECKO, contact Ryan at mar49@psu.edu via e-mail.

For photos of the Martin School demo, visit http://www.nk.psu.edu/Information/News/photogallery.htm#id=15T5ND1AA-0&num=15T5ND1AA-1 online.

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