Students taking part in a design challenge at the 21st Century Summer STEM Academy at Soehl Middle School. The program ran for four weeks and offered help with summer reading and math; STEM enrichment; and character education. From left are Tyson Knight, Isabella Almeida, Arnold Saenz, Sincere Taylor and Jahson Correa. Below, students using special colored markers to code Ozobots. On the left are Danielle Velez and Yaman Ozturk. On the right are Abigail Meima and teacher Loni Ladoo.

By Gary Miller

After schools emptied out in June, certain corners of Soehl Middle School remained hives of activity for another four weeks as the 21st Century Summer STEM Academy kicked into gear.

The program hosted 60 students for four days a week for four hours each morning, offering help with summer reading and math assignments; enrichment programs in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math; recreation programs; character education; and class trips.

The summer program, in its eighth year, is an extension of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program that runs throughout the school year at Soehl.

“The Summer STEM Academy decreases summer learning loss and leads to academic gains by allowing students to participate in a wide range of extension activities,” said Isabella Scocozza, Soehl vice principal and director of the 21st Century program.

The program purchases all the summer reading novels for students who just finished Grades 6, 7 and 8.

“By the end of this, just about everyone will have their math packet finished, their language arts book read and their packet finished,” Scocozza said. “And they will also have participated in daily STEM challenges as an extension of the school year.”

There are two curriculums used in the STEM classes: Ozobot programmable robots that teach students computer coding; and PBS Design Squad Challenges, which use simple household items to teach students about engineering, nature, and other concepts.

On a recent morning, students were building platforms out of cardboard, tape and newspaper with the goal of making them able to support textbooks.

students taking part in design challenge in class

Asia Hickman, Alonda Elliott and Eric Steele testing their platform to see if it can hold a textbook.

The Ozobots are used with special colored markers that make tracks on paper that the small robots are able to follow. The robots can be made to do different maneuvers – such as turning around, moving backward, and zigzagging – based on color patterns the students draw.

Students who are in the after-school program during the school year are familiar with the Ozobots, but they are always learning new coding concepts.

“There’s a whole progression and there are all different activities,” Scocozza said. “So in the summer, they’re not repeating it, they’re doing some advance work.”

In addition to Scocozza, the summer program has four teachers, four paraprofessionals and a guidance counselor. It is funded as part of the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant Award of $425,000, and also received an additional grant called IDEA Supplemental Grant Award in the amount of $35,000 to help with the staffing, supplies and class trips for the summer program.

The extra funding allowed the program to add the rec program, where students take part in open gym, organized gym activities, table-top games, art classes such as jewelry-making and crochet, and trips to the park.

It also added class trips, such as golf and roller skating lessons, mini golf, and a trip to the Newark Museum, which students “loved,” Scocozza said.

“The kids and the staff said that was one of the best trips,” she said. “They were really excited. It was nice because they opened up a little bit earlier for us, so it was just us there, so they were able to do it at their own pace. And the staff is really knowledgeable.”

students at Newark Museum

Soehl students listening to a staff member during their trip to the Newark Museum.

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The format of the summer program is similar to the after-school program, which focuses on homework help, STEM enrichment, and recreation. The summer program also includes a focus on character education, led by guidance counselor Laura Pellettiere.

“Laura’s a godsend,” Scocozza said. “She’s been a big help. This is a difficult age for the students.”

Pellettiere helps students with conflict mediation, communication skills, forgiveness, respect, and anxiety about transitioning to high school.

She also uses ice breakers to help students learn about themselves and one another.

“Today I went to one of the classrooms and had them look through some quotes that are positive,” Pellettiere said. “Unfortunately, in middle school there can be a lot of negative comments thrown around. So I tell them we have to be kind to one another so everyone feels comfortable and respected. So they went through all the quotes and selected which one resonated most with them, and shared it with the class.”

She also asked students to line up in the hallway, then had some move to the other side of the hall based on certain aspects of their lives.

“I said, ‘If you have a family member who has a disability or physical limitation, step to this side.’ Or something more simple, “If you have any siblings, step to this side,’” Pellettiere said. “So you may not have had any classes with these kids before, but even though you may not know this kid, you’re finding that you have things in common.”

She also said the more relaxed atmosphere of the summer program helps her develop a different kind of bond with the students.

“I love having the chance to chaperone trips – skating with the kids or playing air hockey with them,” Pellettiere said. “It’s these simple moments where I can still be professional and have boundaries with them, but they can see another side of me. I’m working on that rapport with them, where they can feel more comfortable coming to me.”

Scocozza said it is very beneficial to the students to have mentoring and character education incorporated into the program.

“There are still issues that linger through the summer where kids need individual counseling or small-group mediation,” she said. “And now we have a little more time to do that.

“It’s not like during the school year, where everything is a little more fast-paced.”