Our work has taken us from Alaska to North Carolina and throughout the northeast states. On the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, we worked with teachers to make the curriculum more responsive to students’ experiences, using resources with which they were familiar. In North Carolina, we worked with teachers in an urban elementary science and technology magnet school to refine the curriculum and to increase its relevance over a three-year period.

In a year-long course now underway in Vermont, teachers began by setting group and personal goals and then planning a schedule that met their needs and related to classroom plans as well.

In another Vermont school, teachers wanted both professional development and community awareness of their work. In this project, Synergy Learning staff conducted sessions with teachers and also modeled in-class work with students. The teachers invited two reporters to join us. Their stories follow:

Youngsters get in touch with physics
by Willow L. Dannible, Reformer Staff
Brattleboro (VT) Reformer
Saxtons River – With rubber bands and plastic spools, students at the Saxtons River School got a lesson in physics on Friday without even knowing it.
Casey Murrow and Meredith Wade, co-directors of Synergy Learning, spent the morning teaching second-graders how to make pulley systems and simple motors. The project was sponsored by a $1,200 Title 6 grant for design technology.
Through the federal grant, the school was able to purchase materials for Murrow and Wade to use while teaching the students a hands-on approach to learning science.
“The less that we say about how they’re going to do something the more discovery they’re going to make,” said teacher Amy Harlow, who wrote the design technology grant.
The students weren’t the only one’s getting a lesson.
Wade explained that Synergy Learning is a non-profit organization established four years ago to help teachers across the nation share ideas. It grew out of another organization Murrow had established 13 years earlier, she said.
Synergy Learning, she said, uses innovative teaching ideas to help teachers provide hands-on learning.
“The more I watch them the better I become at it, too,” Harlow said.
As students experimented with weights and pulleys, and created movement by wrapping rubber bands around plastic spools, their teachers took notes and prodded them to try different things.
Harlow said that, although the students may not understand terms like “force” and “inertia,” when they take a basic physics class in high school, they will already be familiar with the ideas.
“They’re going to associate some of these things they learn there with what they learned in second grade,” she said.
Wade said the hands-on learning concept is good for both teachers and students. Teachers, she said, are more likely to try experiments with their classes if they have done them before themselves.
“It really makes a big difference being part of it,” said teacher Christina Smith, who was faced with passing the lesson on to a colleague who was sick.
Teacher Alicia Law said that, especially in a field such as science, it is sometimes hard for students to learn using their creativity. Students who aren’t as successful in traditional classroom learning, Harlow said, can excel in a hands-on setting.
The students worked and reworked their rubber bands creating small, manually operated motors through trial and error. Although concepts they will pick up again in high school, the teachers didn’t feel the lessons were too hard for them.
Murrow said that if the work had been beyond their grade level, the students wouldn’t have been participating so actively.
“They’re working with some sophisticated concepts but in a way that’s comprehensible for their age group,” he said.
“I’m not aiming at having them be able to tell me a law of physics,” Wade said, “but really to have them say ‘Oh, I see how this works.'”

Physics a snap for Saxtons River kids
by Robert F. Smith, Herald Correspondent
Rutland (VT) Herald,
Saxtons River – Teaching elementary school students the elements of physics might seem like a tough task. But anyone watching the second-grade students at Saxtons River Elementary School on Friday as they worked with pulleys, axles, gears and gravity would soon realize that rather then being too difficult, learning physics for these kids was mainly just fun.
Friday was the fourth and final day of a program at the school that was partly the result of a federal Title VI grant program that teacher Amy Harlow wrote for the school. The $1,200 grant was used to fund the materials and training for showing teachers how to teach simple machines and design technology to students in grades two through four. The school also used the money to bring Casey Murrow and Meredith Wade of Synergy Learning International, a Brattleboro based non-profit educational resource for both teachers and students, into the school for several workshops involving both the teachers and students.
The materials Murrow and Wade use to teach these technological concepts are definitely “low tech.” Rubber bands, balloons, spools, small pieces of metal wire, wood dowels and stones are most of the basic materials — things any school or home would likely have on hand. And they used as the basic model for the workshops something the students already are familiar with — a car.
Starting with elementary ideas in technology and physics –such as two wheels on an axle –Wade and Murrow progress during four workshops through ideas involving pulleys, gravity, ramps, force and motion.
Harlow said Principal Steve Lorenz has worked it out so that all the teachers for grades two through four –Christina Smith, Alicia Law, Dawn Bazin and herself –can attend each workshop and then bring the program back to their classes. Harlow said that the program combines a variety of subjects, including math, physical science, designing, technology and even history.
“Design is a catalyst for learning,” she said. “What these students are doing right now is physics, and who has ever heard of teaching second graders physics?”
As she spoke, Harlow pointed around the room at her students, each one moving from station to station, obviously excited and enjoying what they were doing, which was learning about the ideas of the science of physics.
Starting in the first workshop with the simple concept of the axle, Murrow explained that, by the fourth and final session, students learn the more complex process of how to combine several of the ideas they have explored to build an axle crank on a horizontal place that turns a pulley on a vertical plane.
“We give them some concepts related to simple machines, stuff they might not normally encounter until middle school,” Murrow said. “This provides an opportunity for them to manipulate materials to make them do things. The hands-on work is enjoyable always. The importance is that it have a point. Study after study has shown that this work is most effective when it is linked–in the minds of both the student and teachers–to an underlying objective.”
Murrow made clear that this work is an introduction to several scientific concepts, not an attempt to make the student understand all the details of the physics involved. Wade explained that the students learn how to build on the concepts they learn from session to session. In Friday’s workshop, a second-grade girl learned that the speed of a pulley can be altered by the diameter of the axle turning it. She figured that out by counting how many turns of the axle it took to produce one revolution of the pulley. It was an idea she developed on her own. No one told her.
“I really like doing this, especially the pulleys,” second-grader Jordan Saunders said, a comment that was echoed by student after student.
Using the spools and pulleys and rubber bands as drive belts, Saunders showed how he had learned to use one spool to turn several others. Given the challenge of how to make some of the spools turn in an opposite direction, Saunders quickly figured out he could do that by putting a twist in the rubber band “drive belt.” In seconds he had a central spool turning several others, half in one direction, half in the other.
“Hopefully, this has opened doors for us all in feeling comfortable with the new curriculum in schools. It’s physics, and this is a fun way to learn about it and teach it,” Harlow said.