ATLANTIC CITY — The Convention Center exhibit hall was packed with technology Thursday as about 30,000 teachers arrived for the annual New Jersey Education Association Convention.
But it was a box of popsicle sticks that had the full attention of 12-year-olds Liam Hogan and Brian Millward, of Plumsted Township, who created catapults from the sticks and some rubber bands, then gleefully shot plastic eyeballs across the exhibit area.
“This is what they are interested in,” said Liam’s mother, Renee, a teacher. “They need hands-on learning, too.”
The catapults were part of a Makerspace exhibit created by the NJEA this year to promote STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
“Dollar Store Science” was Mantua Township teacher Meredith Martin’s effort to show that STEM can be taught on a budget.
“You don’t need to go out and buy robots,” she said. “People will say they don’t have money to go out and buy 3D printers, but you don’t need them to teach STEM. STEM is about problem-solving, not buying things.”
Teachers at the annual event had their choice of hundreds of workshops, many having to do with the new state PARCC tests.
New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe is scheduled to speak Friday morning and will likely outline the recently released statewide PARCC results and talk about how teachers can use the results to improve learning. School districts are expected to get their students’ PARCC results this month.
Testing aside, teachers focused on how to make lessons effective and interesting for students.
“The challenge is to get beyond the fun factor,” said Northfield Community School computer and technology teacher Kevin Jarrett, who watched as Matthew Malespina, 12, of South Orange, used the Tickle app on an tablet to program a Sphero robot. When it ran off on him, Jarrett challenged Matthew to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
“This is a great way to learn programming,” Matthew said of the app.
Over in a corner, Steve Crawley, of Piscataway, used an old cardboard box, some dowels and clothespins to create a foosball game for his children, Aidon, 7, and Kathryn, 5, who twirled the dowels to make the clothespins strike a pumpkin-shaped candy. Other families built a maze out of cardboard pieces and created electrcial circuits.
Martin said the most important word in STEM education is FAIL, which for her stands for First Attempt In Learning. She expects students to fail. Then she expects them to figure out why they failed, and how to fix it.
“Too often kids shut down if they fail,” she said. “I actually do projects designed to fail so they have to think about what do they do next.”