ELKTON — Amid a semester fraught with challenge and frustration, the Business and Education Partnership Advisory Council (BEPAC) awarded $21,000 through its annual Classroom Partnership Grants to 32 instructors across Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS).

Kelly Keeton, BEPAC coordinator and CCPS public information officer, explained that the decision committee tries to distribute the funds evenly.

“They really like programs and projects that have a lasting impact, as opposed to a one-time opportunity,” Keeton said. “Schools do such an amazing job of really maximizing the dollars that they receive through these grants.”

BEPAC received 62 applications for up to $1,000. The funds were raised at BEPAC’s Preakness Pride fundraiser, where attendees gather for an event centered on the Preakness Stakes, the second competition in the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse races. Defense company Northrop Grumman partnered with BEPAC this year to contribute $5,700 earmarked for STEM programs.

These funds were raised at last year’s Preakness Pride, and BEPAC decided to distribute them during this school year after the Preakness Stakes, typically held in May, was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Keeton, the grants are an important way for the community to support projects that enrich learning in and outside the classroom, providing opportunities to students that schools with limited funds may not otherwise be able to offer.

“When people can see exactly the types of projects that these grants go to fund, it allows them to be involved in a really big way by just attending an event,” she said. “We have 32 projects here for this particular year that are going to impact schools across our system.”

Robotics Club — Calvert Elementary School

Constance Seibert, the media specialist at Calvert Elementary School, started up her robotics club last year after borrowing a LEGO Education WeDo 2.0 kit through the gifted and talented program. By all accounts, it was a raging success. With more and more students interested in joining, though, she realized that she needed her own equipment.

With a BEPAC grant, Seibert purchased her own LEGO Education kits, doubling the number of students she can bring into the club. At the elementary level, the designs and challenges aren’t too complicated, but they still develop key engineering and programming skills.

“It takes them through the action of building, but then combines that with coding the robot to do specific actions,” she said, adding that she could build from the kits with returning students to get more creative. “They have a lot of open-ended activities as well, so that students are creating things once they learn how the pieces actually work together.”

Glowing snails, a cooling fan, a spy robot, a moon rover — all built from basic LEGO kits, powered by batteries and controlled by sensors.

The basic software is easy to install on Chromebooks, she said, and she typically divides students into partners to make sure students can learn from one another even as everyone gets hands-on time building the actual robots.

As far as investments go, Seibert joked that playing with LEGO isn’t going out of style any time soon. She expects students to be using the materials purchased through the grant for years and years to come, and also hopes that nurturing an interest in robotics can broaden the horizons of what they might do in life.

“My goal is just to get them interested in seeing this as a potential for a job, for a career or going to college to do this,” she said. “It gets them excited about these careers and gets them thinking, ‘I could do this as a job, it’s fun.’”

FIRST Tech Challenge — Perryville Middle School

Michael Hinton, a computers teacher at Perryville Middle School, has run a robotics team in one form or another since 2003. For years, his students have competed in First LEGO League, but he invested his BEPAC grant in kits for FIRST Tech Challenge, upping the level of competition with more flexible materials and more difficult challenges.

FIRST Tech Challenge kits blend hardware and software, giving students the chance to build robots out of wire and metal as well as write programs which remotely guide the robots through completing tasks. Hinton said he encourages students to learn from one another during practice, building their skills in engineering, programming and problem solving.

Usually, the competitions work up from regional to national conferences, and competing teams often learn from one another even as they vie for victory. Despite the range of virtual options, Hinton decided to hold off until teams can get back together in-person to make sure students are getting the best value.

“I feel compelled to make sure I don’t just compete in something that’s really not good for the students,” he said. “I want to make sure that the money lasts these kids as long as it possibly can, so I was waiting to see what happens in the spring.”

Hinton had actually just finished tryouts for the team in March the week before schools abruptly switched to virtual learning. While he is frustrated that the kit is currently collecting dust, he’s hopeful that more students will be able to take advantage of it when it’s safe to return.

Teams in FIRST Tech Challenge competitions are capped at 15, an increase from the First LEGO League limit of 10, and because the competition runs through middle and high school, students can stay involved for longer.

In the ring, Hinton usually withholds his own ideas, preferring to guide students to overcome challenges with their own creative solutions. He hopes to inspire bigger aspirations by developing skills that aren’t typically taught in the classroom.

“I try to show all levels of what you can do,” he said. “There’s tons of jobs out there, from the simplest computers like the ones that run around Giant cleaning the floors all the way up to NASA.”

Girls STEM Club — Cherry Hill Middle School

Stacy Pixler, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Cherry Hill Middle School, led a two-day girls in STEM event with her colleague Sierra Lano back in 2016. The girls had fun, and wanted to do it again, so Pixler and Lano started up a club meeting twice a month. With the BEPAC grant, they can buy materials like batteries or tin foil needed for the club’s activities.

Getting girls excited about STEM is important for Pixler, but she also wants to broaden what STEM means — it’s about resourcefulness, creative problem solving and teamwork, not just specialized math knowledge.

“We really want to engage girls in science, technology, engineering and math for future career paths, because we don’t have that many role models,” Pixler said. “We try to get them excited about the careers that are out there that they don’t even think about, that they don’t even know exist.”

As many as 25 girls attend each club meeting, tackling a range of projects, challenges or creative ideas incorporating different aspects of STEM education — everything from building gingerbread houses to investigating a mock crime scene to designing a working LEGO car.

A popular challenge is the marble run, in which students have to figure out how to get a marble from a starting point to the floor with limited materials in thirty seconds — no less. Pixler said it’s rewarding to see the moments when students figure out solutions.

“It’s really good to see them finally figure it out — that ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “In the classroom, we don’t always get to see those fun moments, because there’s a lot going on.”

While the club meetings are currently on pause, Pixler hopes the demand will grow as students return to schools. Funding from the BEPAC grant will let her invest in new activities to get the students fired up.

“Some of the girls asked if we were going to do it again,” she said, explaining that she switched from sixth grade science to eighth grade social studies this year but emphasizing that STEM is part of every school subject. “We will do STEM projects in social studies too, just to show them that STEM is in everything, not just science and math.”

DNA Gel — North East High School

Brian Richardson, a science teacher at North East High School, likes to get hands-on in his biology lab. He invested his BEPAC grant in a kit that will let students run simulations of gel electrophoresis, a process used by forensics teams to match DNA samples.

“The kit has enough parts to get us started, and fills in some of the gaps of the materials that we were missing at the high school,” Richardson said. “From here, the cost going forward will be a lot smaller to resupply the disposable materials that we need.”

With the kit, students can embed DNA in a collection gel and then use micro-pipettes to insert samples into an electrophoresis chamber. Students then charge the samples with an electric current which separates out individual segments of DNA, which they can inspect and match up under a microscope.

The grant funding allowed Richardson to buy a larger electrophoresis chamber which can be used by many students at once, making sure everyone has a chance to dig into some practical science during class. He anticipates that students across all grades will be able to use the equipment for years to come.

Offering hands-on learning helps break up the routine of sitting in desks, he said, and gets kids excited about science.

“A lot of our biology curriculum is on the microscopic level, and so it’s hard to make that tangible,” he said, adding that working in the lab offers a new type of learning. “You see some light bulbs go on, and you see engagement from kids who aren’t typically engaged in the other day-to-day stuff because they’re tired of taking notes or writing.”

Richardson hopes that students will get in the lab, get excited and realize that they could make a career out of it.

“Practice with some of these hands-on activities will excite them and encourage them to go on to higher level sciences,” he said. “It opens the door for a lot of our students to be successful.”

Mock Restaurant — Cecil County School of Technology

Michael Cheesman, a Learning for Independence instructor at Cecil County School of Technology, helps students develop job skills so that they are prepared to support themselves after graduation. His BEPAC grant allows him to purchase tablecloths, aprons, checkbooks and other equipment to simulate restaurant vocational training.

The mock restaurant is just one of the programs Cheesman runs in his classroom — students have also worked on a mock laundromat, flower shop, even an Amazon fulfillment center.

“A lot of times, school goes through this prism of math, science and reading, and that’s important, but our kids need skills that you might not think about,” Cheesman said. “This is a way for them to work, build skills, build a resume and get real job experience.”

For Cheesman, the social and vocational skills are equally important. In addition to learning the back-end of how a restaurant works, students also familiarize themselves with the social etiquette of eating out, processes which some people may take for granted.

“The idea of the restaurant is to prepare kids to go out to dinner, to look at a menu, to understand making purchases,” he said. “On the other end, it helps them learn skills like setting the table, restocking condiments, taking orders or understanding what a check looks like.”

The materials will be used by students every day for years to come, Cheesman said, once they can come back into schools safely.

By simulating real social and work environments, the programs allow students to work on what they need most.

“Our goal is to make sure that the kids have the opportunity to be included in their community meaningfully after they leave us,” he said. “Sometimes it might be really frustrating for kids to do some of these skills, but it’s really rewarding for them when they get a chance to practice and realize that, maybe they need practice, but it’s within them to make it happen.”

Bettie Murray Classroom Partnership Grant — Bay View Elementary School

Barbara Pahutski, a speech language pathologist at Bay View Elementary School, works with many language-impaired preschool students who learn to communicate with visual and auditory tools. With her grant, Pahutski purchased buttons that activate key phrases for social interaction — ‘here you go,’ for example, or ‘my turn.’

When she applied for the funding, Pahutski didn’t expect to receive the first annual grant in memory of the late Bettie Murray, a retired CCPS speech pathologist. When the recipients were announced, Pahutski cried at her desk. She worked closely with Murray, and sees the grant as a way to honor her legacy.

“In the way that she lived and the way she provided her therapy, communication was at the heart of everything she did — she was a fantastic communicator, and she was a fantastic friend,” Pahutski said. “She’s with me, helping me make these decisions. I just know that this would be right in her wheelhouse, and she would be right there cheering us on.”

Students entering Pahutski’s classroom are as young as three. Throughout the day, they work on learning to get the attention of other students, playing together and sharing toys, increasing their own attention spans. The voice output buttons are a key resource for social development.

The buttons are placed throughout the classroom alongside pictures, and the phrases are drawn from the most common interactions between preschool-age students. Pahutski and her colleagues recorded the phrases, and will collect data around how often the buttons are pushed, as well as the behaviors associated with different needs.

Pahutski believes the buttons will help students get more comfortable with verbal communication, which may also lead to improved behavior.

“If a child needs to push a button to communicate, that’s wonderful — we have given them a way to communicate,” she said. “But what we sometimes also see is, when they go ahead and they use those buttons repeatedly, they start to develop oral language and they start to repeat those words.”

Her hope is that the model could be expanded to classrooms throughout the district.

“I’m absolutely honored to be the first recipient of this grant,” Pahutski said. “I’m really hoping that the work we’re doing makes Betty and her family proud.”

Grants were also distributed to—

  • Cecil Manor Elementary for filament pens;
  • Chesapeake City Elementary for drawing tablets and a fluency and fitness program;
  • Elk Neck Elementary for Earth Day activities;
  • Gilpin Manor Elementary for riding equipment;
  • Leeds Elementary for a take-home library;
  • North East Elementary for a green school initiative and a one school, one book program;
  • Rising Sun Elementary for a light table and the Emmy’s Way project;
  • Cherry Hill Middle for special education curriculum kits;
  • Elkton Middle for a full-scale skeletal model and an Elk Landing service learning project;
  • North East Middle for an ELMO document camera, band instrument upgrades and drama club equipment;
  • Perryville Middle for a book club;
  • Elkton High for science lab equipment;
  • Perryville High for stage equipment;
  • Rising Sun High for science lab equipment and an MCAP tutoring program;
  • Cecil County School of Technology for fire science equipment, a life-size manikin and a 3D heart model.

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