Little hands grab at Lego pieces: a red brick here, a wheel there, a spoke, some yellow bricks with eyes.
“You put them in here, like this,” 8-year-old Caiyu Keoviengxay tells his partner, Wesley Myers. “Let’s push this piece in here, like this.”
Caiyu and Wesley connect the pieces and slowly, a completed project comes together. They plug it into a computer, push a few buttons and – voila! – two little Lego monsters spin happily to circus music.
Welcome to summer school.
Yes, this is summer school.
Tempe Elementary School District’s summer school offerings this year includes “Lil Engineers,” where student’s in Jason VanderKamp’s classes learn robotics using Legos, chemical engineering using diet soda and mints, physics using toothpicks, and much more.
Down the hall in the next building, students in another class learn geometry and algebra – using a Rubik’s cube.
More than 800 students are taking summer school with the district this year. Some are from the surrounding neighborhoods. Others are from private schools or other districts. Traditional classes are offered, but the most popular are courses with a science, math or art twist to them: “T for Toys,” “Grossology” and “Space Adventures,” among the list.
For the students, it’s just fun.
But for their teachers, much more is going on.
“You can really integrate in the reading, writing and math into the science and integrated art,” said Beth Jensen, this year’s summer school coordinator. “There’re lots of hands-on activities. That’s what we like to see.”
About half the students qualify for some type of financial assistance, Jensen said.
“Lots of parents enrolled their whole families or they bring the younger brothers and sisters,” in the years after an older sibling participated.
Enrollment this year is up 8 percent over last year, she said. The district saw a small dip when the economy faltered, but enrollment is picking back up.
The Rubik’s Cube math class is a popular option.
Deanna Celaya said most of her students have completed an entire Rubik’s Cube puzzle within the 50 minutes of one of her classes this summer. Monday started the last week of summer school.
“They’re getting really good. Some of them are way faster than me,” she said.
Celaya teaches the students algorithms that aid in the path to get all the sides on a three-by-three cube complete.
Now, students know to keep their centerpieces immobile and work to create “stars” and “crosses” first.
“There’s a lot of geometry that goes into it,” Celaya said. “I tell them the algorithms, but then they develop their own algorithms.”
“This is all logic,” she said, holding up a cube. “There’s a lot of algebra and geometry or patterns. Once the brain catches onto those patterns, they love it.”
After getting a lesson in finding the surface area of something, the students broke into groups to work on their cubes.
“I’ve always wanted to find out how to solve the Rubik’s Cube,” said Caitlynn Palmer, 12, during class Monday. “I’d never done it before this class. Now I solved it in the second week. It was very cool to solve it. You could actually brag about it.”
The keys, Caitlynn said, were the algorithms – or patterns – taught to her by Celaya.
“Before you didn’t’ know how to do it. You just turned it randomly to figure it out,” Caitlynn said. “It really doesn’t feel like summer school.”
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