It’s a big day in Karen Grann’s eighth-grade technology class at Integrated Arts and Technology in the Rochester School District.
Students have learned how to build air skimmers — a paper vehicle of sorts that, if successfully built and launched, will glide across the classroom’s floor.
Grann said a lot of work led up to launching day.
“It involved a whole unit on aerospace engineering and the basic concepts around flight, and then we used our measuring skills to create a prototype according to the engineering design process,” Grann said. “And today, we are going to launch them to see if their prototypes are successful.”
The students made their skimmers using simple materials: card stock, glue, tape, scissors, a ruler — and a paper clip.
But they also had another resource: Jon Kriegel, a retired mechanical engineer and president of the Rochester Engineering Society.
Through that group, he leads a program called STEM Bridges where volunteers help students learn about STEM topics. His goal is to show students how concepts that may seem hopelessly abstract actually can be applied to the real world.
“So if the kids get that message at some point early in their career, maybe then we get more STEM-conscious students,” he said.
Kriegel has been coming to Grann’s classroom at least once a week since October. His presence has made a big difference, she said.
“The children have really come to look forward to Jon being in the classroom,” Grann said. “They will ask, ‘Is Jon coming today?’ Which I think is very welcoming. He brings an added piece to our projects and to learning. He takes it one step further because he has so much more engineering experience than I do.”
Zari Campbell, an eighth-grader in Grann’s class, loves having Kriegel in the classroom.
“Since Jon came, the class has been so much more fun than before,” Zari said. “We’re doing more projects now, and like, he’s just showing us cool types of ways to use science at home, and it’s been really fun.”
Classmate Melody Confesor agreed.
“Everybody would have him here every single day because he’s a really, really nice man, and having him here every day would make the whole class seem more fun.”
That fun factor is apparent as students line up to test their skimmers. There are lots of hits — and a fair share of misses, too. But Kriegel and Grann use even the failed launches to teach a lesson.
"We have to think again,” Grann said to the students. “Thinking out of the box, like engineers do. Maybe this rubber band is a little too thick.”
This isn’t Kriegel’s first time in front of a classroom: He was working at Kodak in the 1990s when he took part in the company’s 21st Century Learning Challenge, a STEM-based volunteer program that at its peak had 1,500 engineers and technicians in city classrooms.
“We did that for 10 years,” Kriegel said. “They visited twice a week. They spent two hours at each visit. That’s a STEM initiative, before the STEM acronym, at a scale we haven’t matched since, I think, anywhere in the world.”
Kriegel knows how valuable that program was for everybody involved. So when he retired in 2012, he set his sights on a reboot of sorts. Through his work with the Rochester Engineering Society, STEM Bridges is coming to life. He has 40 interested volunteers and is hoping for many more.
“I just want to try and resurrect that effort and broaden it from just Rochester city schools to any school district that’s interested and broaden it from just engineers and technicians to anybody that has a STEM-based background,” he said.
“A doctor — a retired doctor, maybe — is a perfect candidate to help a biology teacher do an AP Biology in a high school. Come on, let’s get back to work.”
Kriegel says the potential is huge.
“Any school district is a candidate to play, and every community has some engineers … retirees come up because that’s a guy who’s available during school hours. So, unlimited. You could do this everywhere.”
Kriegel is hoping more professionals and retirees will volunteer with STEM Bridges. Anybody interested can go to the Rochester Engineering Society website at roceng.org to find more information.
The experience, he says, is incredibly rewarding.
“Watching a kid understand what density means, having the whole class get quiet when it finally soaks in, is a religious experience. I can’t resist.”
And it may even help shape a child’s future. Melody said she actually may pursue a STEM-related career:
“I really do want to work with, like chemicals and everything, and everything science-related.”