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Full STEAM ahead: Niskayuna mobile classroom takes shape

Full STEAM ahead: Niskayuna mobile classroom takes shape

Converted school bus will travel the region as a classroom on science, engineering and arts
Full STEAM ahead: Niskayuna mobile classroom takes shape
Caleb Tysz, 14, left, Rohan Menon, 15, Haley Neufeld, 15, and Jeffrey Huang, 14, work in the new S.T.E.A.M. Bus
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

Each student brings special skills to the table: engineers and builders, artists and designers, scientists and mathematicians.

But together, the team from Niskayuna high school is nearing the launch of a mobile classroom that will take STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – lessons and experiments around the region.

“All of us have a different purpose,” said Haley Neufeld, a rising sophomore who wants to be a teacher and has helped shape the project’s educational mission since she was in eighth-grade. “I will get to see all the different types of kid, different types of learning and what inspires them.”

No matter the student’s area of expertise, each contributes to all aspects of what has turned into a major after-school project organized by a pair of Iroquois Middle School educators: English teacher Frank Adamo and librarian Steve Wolfort. Over the past month, the group started to retrofit a retired school bus into a rolling science lab, classroom and portal for scientific discoveries.

“I’m still here; I’m still drilling cabinets in,” Haley said, as she and fellow students worked on the bus this week. “It’s fun to be a part of a team.”

The students and teachers behind the mobile classroom, which may hit the road as early as the fall, also want the broader Capital Region to know they will be available to visit schools in any district.

Caleb Tysz, a rising high school freshman who joined the team as an engineer and builder, said the goal of the STEAM bus is to take the excitement of science and engineering directly to students.

“Stuff that by now seems completely normal to us, to other kids, it’s like magic,” Caleb said of hands-on experiments, activities and experiences with tech devices -- like a fleet of 20 drones ready to launch from the bus.

Led by an Iroquois Middle School English teacher and librarian, the project has been years in the making – time spent building a team of students, brainstorming, fundraising and developing educational programs. The teaching duo and their team have presented updates to the school board over the past two school years, and at each presentation, the team offered increasingly-detailed designs and plans, teased donations and articulated a vision of a mobile classroom that could spread the gospel of STEAM education across the region.

But it wasn’t until the group took control of a retired Niskayuna school bus last month, after 11 years on the drawing board, that the vision took tangible form.

“We went from very theoretical to very actual in a very short period of time,” Adamo said, as the buzzing of saws drowned out his words Wednesday morning. “We’re going to have a program for (grades) K-7 students that is basically run by students from (grades) 8-12. It’s closing the loop to have kids teach kids.

Adamo said many adults working in the STEAM professions can point to a particular moment of inspiration that inspired their careers.

“We want it to be that activity for every kid in Niskayuna, every kid in Schenectady, every kid in the Capital Region,” he said of the STEAM bus.

The team took control of the bus at the beginning of July and has been intermittently sweating away inside a bus garage at the district’s Hillside Avenue transportation hub ever since. On Wednesday, about a half dozen students, rising high school freshmen and sophomores, secured cabinets to the floor and walls at the back of the school bus. The vehicle, provided by the school district, has been stripped of most of its seats, and the students have already installed flooring.

Working with Monolith Solar, the team is designing a solar energy system that will power the electronics stored on the bus for activities and experiments. The students hope the system will include an interface that displays how the availability changes, thanks to power from the sun. 

The bus will come outfitted with activities designed specifically for students kindergarten through seventh-grade. Traveling from school to school, the bus will be able to host classes and student groups, visit after-school programs and even offer teachers special training.

Like the lessons envisioned from the completed STEAM bus, its creation is a learning opportunity that mirrors the type of work done in the science and engineering fields.

“You are not Thomas Edison alone working in a room,” said Mark Fobare, founder of Monolith and a Niskayuna graduate. “You have giant teams.”

He added that communication and teamwork are as important in hiring engineers and designers as math and science skills.

Monolith is donating the solar energy system to the STEAM bus team, just as the team has garnered donated equipment from the Northeast Advanced Technological Education Center based at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. The Daley Family Foundation made a financial donation.

Fobare said he has been impressed by the professionalism, tenacity and intellect of the students.

“I don’t know who put this thing together – it was Rohan and Jacob – but I’m hiring him,” Fobare said of an initial design plan for the solar energy system. “I don’t care that he’s only in 10th-grade; I want him to work for me.”

For the students who started the project, now entering 10th-grade, the bus has come a long way. It still has a long way to go.

“At the beginning, we didn’t have anything specific planned out; we were just thinking of things like a double-decker bus,” said Rohan Menon, a rising 10th-grader.

“That would have been so cool,” said Jacob Yanoff, also a rising 10th-grader.

Haley was also there in the early days.

“It was so far away. It was a what-if thing. We didn’t have a bus or the plan,” she said. “Doing it with the uncertainty of whether it would actually happen … I had no clue what would happen."

Other students have joined since the project started, adding new skills and perspectives. About 20 students are now involved.

“They needed an art kid and pulled me into it,” said Lauren McCallig, a rising ninth-grader. “I asked Mr. Adamo, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ He said, ‘Figure it out.’”

That has been the challenge to the entire team of students. By leaving them largely to their own devices, with the proper amount of guidance and direction, the project has taken on a life of its own.

“The things that come out of it when you don’t put restrictions on students – you’re amazed,” said Steven Wolfort, the school librarian and co-leader of the project. "Some of the students go above and beyond when you don’t just make it an assignment … It really is like running a small business, what these kids are doing right now.”

Though the double-decker bus didn’t come to pass, the students have come a long way from their earliest meetings as eighth-graders two years ago. They hope to drive their new classroom off the parking lot sometime in the fall and take it to more and more schools over time.

And they’ve got just the driver for the job: Adamo, the English teacher, plans to take his bus driver certification test any day now.

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