School Notes: Thayer Students Get Elementary With Science

Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Of all the musical instruments the first- and second-grade students at Thetford Elementary School played after school last Wednesday, their preferred instrument seemed to be their own voices.

After a long school day, running around and being noisy was top priority for a group of students in the inaugural session of the Thayer School After School Science and Engineering program in Thetford. So to start, Valerie Hanson, a Thayer master’s degree student, introduced the youngsters to their own musical instruments by having them place their fingers on their necks and hum.

“Do you feel it vibrating?” she asked. Those were the molecules moving around to create a sound, she explained.

Better yet, “we’re going to make our own type of musical instrument,” Hanson told the students. Knowing both the energy level of the children and their propensity for making noise, Thayer students came prepared with rubber bands, red Solo cups and popsicle sticks for the students to create makeshift kazoos and guitars — rudimentary instruments, to be sure, but they would help them understand why, for example, a guitar has strings of different widths.

An extracurricular science program, held in the after-school hours when some students want nothing more to do with learning, may not strike one as an especially popular way for elementary schoolers to spend free time. Yet when word got out about the program at Thetford, “there was a stampede of interest,” said Pam Podger, a Thetford Elementary parent who helped bring the program to the school.

The Thayer program had immediate appeal for Podger, who first learned about it when she accompanied a robotics team from Thetford to the First Lego League competition held last fall at Thayer. Knowing the elementary school was placing emphasis on so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, “We thought, Our kids love science, love building things. Let’s bring it up here and see what happens,” she said.

It turned out that 50 Thetford students were ready to give after-school science a go. But for the first session of after-school science at Thetford, organizers decided to limit the number of students to just 13 in the first and second grades, so Thayer students could work with a manageable number.

The theme of the science program changes from week to week, but there’s an emphasis on teaching via the inquiry method, which encourages students to come up with their own hypotheses for the scientific quandaries they encounter. Last Wednesday, Hanson held an electric guitar in front of the students and began plucking its strings, asking them what the difference between the strings were. It took a few guesses, but one student observed that some strings were thinner than others. “They all make different sounds,” said first-grader Jack Cramer. Working together, the students concluded that the thinner strings produced higher notes.

Trying out chemical reactions on her own was what sparked Hanson’s interest in science at a young age. “I was always in the backyard, building things. I had more tools than my dad by the time I was 12,” she said. In working with students at Rivendell Interstate School District schools and Thetford, Hanson and other volunteers have tried to instill an understanding of science by having them build different items. In the first week of the program at Thetford, the students built their own batteries to power light bulbs.

“When they can see something happening or hear something happening,” Hanson said, children can the rules of science better than if they were reading a textbook or watching a teacher perform a demonstration.

To create the kazoos, every student received two popsicle sticks, and wrapped a rubber band around the length of one, then inserted plastic straw pieces between the two sticks. They affixed the second popsicle stick by wrapping a rubber band around the width of both ends.

“That looks good,” Hanson said to second-grader Madelyn Durkee. “Try it out and see how it works.”

Nearby, Durkee’s classmate Kway Antwi was giving his own kazoo a try. “That was Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he said, before launching into a rendition of the Alphabet song. Around Antwi, his classmates blew sounds both familiar and indecipherable into their kazoos. Hanson decided to get the group to perform in a more cohesive manner.

“Instead of making random noises, we’re going to make certain sounds,” Hanson said. She turned to second-grader Addy Holzer. “Addy, do you have a favorite song?”

“Happy Birthday!” Holzer said. With Thayer school employee Christian Ortiz singing the lyrics to the song, the first- and second-graders blew into their kazoos, until they had the hang of the familiar melody.

By giving students a chance to build everyday objects and helping them discover the science behind them, the organizers of After School Science and Engineering hope to help young children develop a desire to pursue one of the STEM fields. More than anything, they want to see students get excited about science the same way they do about recess.

Robotics Victory

Having driven their robot to victory in the Connecticut regional finals of the FIRST Robotics Competition, the Grasshoppers, a team competing as part of the Upper Valley Robotics program, is now bound for St. Louis and the national championships of the FIRST Robotics Competition.

Like all the teams competing, the grasshoppers responded to the challenge of building a robot that could either shoot Frisbees into a stationary goal, or climb a metal pyramid. The 15 members of the team, who come from all corners of the Upper Valley, opted for the latter challenge. The teams that did the best would have their choice of pairing with a team that created a Frisbee-tossing robot. “We thought if we had a good pyramid climbing robot, we would have a good chance to choose a good shooting robot in the elimination matches,” said James Cole-Henry, the head coach of Upper Valley Robotics.

The team overcame a disappointing finish at the Granite State regional competition held in Manchester, N.H., earlier this year to dominate the contest in Hartford, Conn., held the last weekend of March, and learned some valuable lessons from the New Hampshire competition. “We redesigned several parts and brought them with us to Connecticut, installed them during practice and then the robot worked finally on the last day of the Connecticut regional,” said Cole-Henry.

In Hartford, the performance of the Grasshoppers’ robot impressed the members of The Rocketeers, a robotics team from Clifton Park, N.Y. The members of the Rocketeers chose the Grasshoppers and another team to serve in their “alliance team.” Together, the three teams in the alliance achieved a 6-0 record in Hartford to clinch the regional championship. In St. Louis, the Grasshoppers will be one of 345 teams competing.

The Upper Valley Robotics Team was formed in 1996 by Jim Lever, Dodd Stacey and Pam Franklin, and last made a trip to the national robotics championship in 2005.

The team is always looking for new members, as well as adults to serve as mentors and coaches, and no technical background is required. For more information, contact Cole-Henry at

School Notes appears each Tuesday. Send news and announcements to schoolnotes@


Jeanelle Achee of Rochester, Vt., a graduate of The Sharon Academy and junior at the University of Vermont, has been named as of 62 recipients in the 2013 Harry S. Truman Scholar program. The prestigious national scholarship provides financial support for graduate study to students who aspire to public service. Achee, who is studying nursing at UVM, was recognized for her work as a cousselor to and an advocate for victims of sexual violence. She has also been involved with Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, an organization that works with girls who have imprisoned parents, and as a high-schooler, co-founded the Vermont Student Summit for Building Peace in Iraq.

 David Auerbach, an eighth grade teacher at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, is one of 50 middle and high school teachers in the country to receive the Siemens STEM Institute fellowship. With the other recipients, Auerbach will travel to Washington, D.C. in early August to meet with scientists, innovators and educators, and gather ideas and inspiration for new methods of teaching the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

 Roderick Emley, an eighth-grader at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School, won first place in the Junior High School Oratorical Program, sponsored by the American Legion of New Hampshire and held April 6 at St. Anselm College. Emley won a $500 prize for his speech on the 2nd Amendment. Taking fourth place in the competition was Virginia Drye, a home-schooled student from Plainfield, who won $200 for her speech devoted to the 18th Amendment. Drye also received the Darrell S. Sykes Memorial Award Plaque for winning the New Hampshire Legion’s District 6 Junior High Oratorical Contest.

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