by Sue Ann Rybak
Chestnut Hill resident Alex Wallace is one member of a team of 20 students from 9th to 12th grade at Academy at Palumbo in South Philadelphia, that was selected as one of five grand prize winners in Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow Contest.
Wallace, 17, a senior at Academy at Palumbo, will be going to Washington, D.C., to represent his school at the ceremony on April 30.
Wallace and his classmates worked together to help design an app that could determine what the safest and most efficient walking route to their school would be.
Wallace said due to recent budget cuts in the Philadelphia school district, several high schools in the area were forced to close down, displacing hundreds of students and forcing students to have longer walks through dangerous neighborhoods.
Susan Lee, a math teacher at Academy at Palumbo, who runs a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-related organization called Women in Science and Engineering at the school, said she found out about the contest through a flyer someone left in her mailbox.
“The students didn’t actually create the app, but they created the concept behind it,” Lee said.
Wallace, who plans to study engineering at the University of Pittsburgh in September, said students created a survey to measure travel patterns from home to school based on location, time and mode of transportation.
The survey found that 50 percent of the students at Academy of Palumbo walk to school, 40 percent are from South Philadelphia and 55 percent of the students from South Philadelphia walk at some point during their commute. On average, the survey estimated that students walk an average of 5.5 blocks.
Lee said the students used online research, critical thinking and data analysis to create an algorithm that measures the safety of a route.
Wallace said teachers asked them open-ended questions to guide and challenge them in the process. For example, Wallace said teachers asked the students questions, such as “How do you decide which crime is ‘more unsafe’ than another for a pedestrian and how do we quantify these different crimes?”
Later, Lee and Klint Kanopka, a physics teacher at Academy of Palumbo, showed the students the beginnings of their examples of what the students’ algorithms could look like.
“They ended up creating something totally different, which is what we wanted them to do,” Lee said.
“Students need the opportunity to take what they have learned and apply it to something that matters to make it tangible for them,” Lee said. “If they cannot relate to it, then they are not truly learning anything, but just going through the motions.
“I tell my students that every issue in life requires problem solving,” Lee said. “To develop these skills, they need to learn to think critically, collaborate with others, and develop better reactions to setbacks. They may not encounter an algebra or physics world problem in their lifetime, but the habits and skills that they developed from those activities can be useful in all areas.”
Kanopka said the time that a teacher spends on creating or finding STEM-based projects for their students becomes well-worth it in the end.
“One of the things that is important about project-based or problem-based learning is realizing that most people who use math on a daily basis aren’t mathematicians,” Kanopka said. “One of the most exciting jobs you can get that use math on a regular or daily basis is engineering. But, most kids don’t know what engineers do.”
Kanopka said project-based learning gets kids involved “whether they realize it or not in the process of engineering.” He added that students used what they already knew about math and science to brainstorm and develop solutions. Kanopka said providing opportunities for students “to do their own research and solve their own problems within the confines of a lesson plan gives them the confidence they need to succeed in other areas of their life.”
“One of our school’s missions is for students to combine academics and community service so they can enter the real world as productive and educated citizens,” Kanopka said. “By applying engineering principles, design thinking and scientific methodology to a true community problem, they were able to act on the true spirit of that mission.”
Bree Falato, program manager, of Samsung Electronics, said the five winning schools each will receive a technology package from Samsung valued at $125,000, software from Adobe, free installation and subscription to DIRECTV and cash grants from DIRECTV and Forbes Magazine.
Math teacher Susan Lee recommended that teachers take advantage of the many STEM-related programs and other opportunities available to students and schools.
“As teachers we have an unique opportunity to shape the next generation,” Lee said. “We have a responsibility to bring out topics to life any way we can. At the end of the day, not only do STEM opportunities positively affect learning in the classroom, but they have the potential to improve the well-being of students, the school and the community.