Sixth-graders get some hands-on experience

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Bob Mehan’s classroom at East Quogue Elementary School resembles most sixth-grade classrooms: there are tables, chairs, posters hanging on the walls, and a chalkboard.

But last Friday, there were a few additions to the room, including a video monitor, a microphone and a large projector. His students were utilizing the equipment to participate in a video conferencing program that allowed them to navigate their way through a climate catastrophe on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat.

Students were participating in e-Missions’ Operation Montserrat, an online program in which they monitored, as part of a hands-on simulation, a series of atmospheric changes taking place on the island, which measures just 10 miles by 7 miles. The goal of the exercise was to teach students how to handle a crisis situation by utilizing their math, science and communication skills.

Students had a camera set up during the exercise that transmitted an image of their classroom to the e-Mission base at the Challenger Learning Center, based at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. At the same time, the sixth-graders used a microphone to communicate over the internet with the learning center and a Smartboard to observe Mission Control, a facility manned by a woman who alerts them of the crisis on the island and, afterward, sends along data every five to six minutes on a large projector stationed in the front of the classroom.

George Purkis, a sixth-grade science teacher who has worked with the program at the school for the past four years, said the issues the students must deal with during the two-hour session are completely fictional. Montserrat is real, however, and, in 1991, the island sustained both a volcanic eruption and Hurricane Bob.

The students were divided into four teams, Mr. Purkis explained. There’s a team that handles communication, another that tracks the volcano, another that observes the path of the hurricane and a fourth that examines the issue of evacuation on the island. Mr. Purkis explained that the program teaches students math and science and gives them a chance to work cooperatively.

“In the beginning, it was really stressful,” said sixth-grader Taylor Wagner, regarding the exercise. “We kind of panicked because you’re under pressure.”

Mr. Purkis explained that each team plays a crucial role in the e-Mission. It’s up to the volcano team, for example, to determine whether or not the volcano will erupt by observing the amount of rock fall and seismic activity per hour.

Alexa Smith, a sixth-grader who participated with the communication team, explained that the work for e-Mission centered around math. One task involved tracking how far away the approaching hurricane was from Montserrat, according to Alexa.

“We had to use multiplication and problem solving,” she explained. “But we could use our calculator, because then we can be quick and accurate.”

The e-Mission video conference is the culmination of about a month of classwork. Mr. Purkis went on to say that, for the past month, students have been learning how to track hurricanes and completed a unit in their science class about the potentially deadly storms.

Taylor said that in the past month, her class read a lot of articles about not only the transportation and population of Montserrat, but about Yellowstone Park, too. Mr. Purkis explained that students learned about all different types of natural disasters, such as forest fires in Yellowstone Park, to prepare for the e-Mission.

“Some of the students do really well with e-Missions,” said Bonnie Chieffo, a teaching assistant. “They work well under pressure.”

At the same time, Ms. Chieffo said some of the students do not actively engage in the program—they sit back and “just watch,” she said.

Madison Thornton, another sixth-grader at East Quogue Elementary, noted that being heard over the computer was the part of the project that was the most fun for her. Alexa seconded Madison’s opinion, saying that “talking to Mission Control is really fun because you get to use big words.”

East Quogue Elementary School has participated in e-Missions for the past six years, said Robert Long, the principal of the school. Eastern Suffolk BOCES sponsors the program and trains the teachers who lead the lesson.

“We were all able to work together to get our jobs done really quick,” Alexa said. “If you don’t communicate, you won’t do your job well.”

Taylor added: “The e-Mission shows you how important communication is.”

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