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VALLEY COTTAGE — Nearly 40 kindergartners at Valley Cottage Elementary School sat at tiny tables Friday, big boxes of LEGOS in front of them, working in pairs, unaware that they were getting a lesson in robotics.
Their little fingers used the colored blocks to create a sheltered structure, something vaguely resembling an oil rig. Their teachers, Shari Colucci and Debbie Larison, eased engineering language into the exercise.
“What’s the big piece we build on?” Mrs. Colucci asked.
“A plate,” said 6-year-old Brian Hyland, who was working intently with Aaron Tiesler, who is 5.
Aaron noted the smallest piece was called a brick, the longer piece was known as a beam, and studs held the pieces together
The Nyack school district celebrated science at its three elementary schools on Friday as part of “Inspire Nyack Day.”
The Foundation to Inspire Excellence In Nyack Schools, a private nonprofit group that raises money for the district’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, contributed $3,000 for the day. There was an assembly on electricity and gas at Liberty Elementary School in Nyack, a presentation that explored the force of gravity and sound at Upper Nyack Elementary School and an expo to honor Thomas Edison — Friday was the famed inventor’s birthday — at Valley Cottage.
The foundation’s biggest contribution will come Tuesday when it donates $40,000 to the district at the school board meeting. Inspire Nyack, as it is also known, has previously given $110,000 given to the district, primarily for its robotics program.
Gina Cappiello, Nyack’s director of curriculum and professional development, said because the program was started in kindergarten, the district has been able to give its students a strong foundation in science and math.
“They’re learning by doing,” Cappiello said. “The other thing is working in teams so they’re learning to work collaboratively.”
The robotics curriculum began at the kindergarten level in the 2007-08 school year and is now taught from kindergarten to third grade. The district plans to expand it to fourth grade next year, and to fifth grade after that.
Robotics also has been integrated into the technology curriculum taught at the middle school, and is part of Nyack High School science competitions.
Michael Leifer, Inspire Nyack’s new president, said the group wanted to help the district by directing money toward an education-based program that would benefit all of the schools.
“We wanted to have one specific goal to raise the money so people would be donating to a specific purpose where we would have a significant impact,” Leifer said.
The group does its fundraising at its annual Casino Night. The next one is scheduled for March 5 at Nyack Seaport.
Walter Woodhouse, Nyack’s assistant superintendent for instruction, noted the United States does not graduate the same rate of engineers and scientists as do China and India.
“We really need to gear up our science and math programs,” Woodhouse said. “Those students in grade three today will be much better prepared to take math and science when they reach high school. … It’s really connected to the big picture.”
Two members of the Nyack Board of Education — Michael Lagana and Dan Juechter — are Inspire Nyack board directors.
Annie Hekker, who also sits on Inspire Nyack’s board, praised parents and alumni for helping the group achieve its mission.
“It goes to the passion of this district of how families and the community rally together to make this funding possible,” Hekker said. “A mission is only as good as its supporters.”
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