STEM Partnerships Benefit Wye River Upper School Students

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A small private school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore thinks that “late bloomers” and students with learning differences can make important contributions in STEM careers—and it’s preparing them to do that with the help of an impressive list of partners that includes nearby Washington College and several local environmental groups, as well as the use of NASA technology.

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Wye River freshman Macyn Poag (center) of Bowie, MD handles Estuary Monitoring solution while her peers Bradley Scott (left) of Baltimore, MD and Shaina Moore (right) of Stevensville, MD observe the findings.

“We are firm in our belief that, like scientists and entrepreneurs such as Einstein and Richard Branson, who were/are dyslexic, late bloomers or who learn differently, our students are natural scientists and original thinkers. They are a natural fit for the many new opportunities unfolding in STEM,” said Chrissy Aull, head of school at Wye River Upper School, an independent high school in Centreville, Maryland whose mission is to educate students who learn differently or need a more personalized approach to learning.  “STEM activities naturally lend themselves to the way we teach, which is very hands-on and experiential.”

The partnerships are largely the work of WRUS science teacher and STEM coordinator Dimitra Neonakis, who has turned the nearby Corsica River, the air above it and the land around it into a classroom for her students. In addition to working with Washington College’s Center for Environment and Society (CES), Ms. Neonakis has taken advantage of the school’s relative proximity to Washington, D.C.—only 60 miles away, across the Chesapeake Bay—to participate in professional development and citizen science with federal agencies like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Smithsonian institution. Closer to home, she is working with the Chester River Association (CRA), the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (CBEC), and the Corsica River Conservancy (CRC).

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STEM instructor, Dimitra Neonakis (right) instructs students on how to test water. Wye River students look on (from left to right) – Ethan Shipler of Annapolis, MD, Josh Hansen of Centreville, MD, Sam Braver of Chestertown, MD, and Adam Shipley of Lothian, MD.

The idea of taking advantage of local scientific and environmental groups began in 2014 with a grant from the William and Patricia Fessler Foundation, managed by Mary Ellen and Bruce Valliant of Raymond James, and a buoy named BOB, or Basic Observation Buoy.  WRUS sponsored a BOB, built by CES, to be placed in the Corsica River to collect and digitally return water quality data to a MARACOOS website (Mid-Atlantic Coastal Ocean Observing System), which the students monitor and study.  BOB has been up and running since April 2016, and students in Neonakis’ environmental science class routinely check on the live feed to gauge the ever-changing quality of the estuary’s water. WRUS Junior, Rachel Pearson shared, “The partnership with Washington College to launch the buoy was very exciting. We can monitor the water quality through an app called Smartbuoy. I am very grateful to be able to be a part of something that will be able to help the Chesapeake Bay in the future.”

CES Program Manager Jemima Clark recently visited the environmental science class and led students through the process of analyzing water for pollutants.  A finding of both turbidity (suspended sediment) and nitrates, otherwise known as fertilizer, led the class to a discussion of the sources of the undesirable elements, and a brainstorming session to come up with ideas about possible ways to remove them from the water.

WRUS students also complete water monitoring from nearby Millstream Park, by collecting water samples which they take back to school and chemically analyze. The water data they collect is submitted to the Corsica River Conservancy and the Chester River Association.  CRA’s Tim Trumbauer makes routine guest teaching appearances at WRUS to talk about meaning of their results.

This school year, atmospheric data is being added to the curriculum, thanks to CES and a project using NASA technology known as AeroKat—an instrument designed to launch into the atmosphere and collect data on carbon dioxide and moisture levels as well as infrared and visible light images. The instrument will send back aerial views of the river’s land boundaries, allowing students to observe sediment run-off and attributes that are critical in a healthy watershed. Ms. Neonakis designed curriculum to accompany the Aerokat technology for the Chester River Watershed Observatory. WRUS students will pilot this curriculum before it is shared with teachers in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties.

Neonakis and WRUS biology and math teacher, Samantha Reed also lead students on frequent visits to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where students complete lab work with Smithsonian educators. Some students assisted with some micropaleontology research and were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the collections not on public display. At the Smithsonian, students get chance to study the structure and function of the vertebrate skeleton, mineralogy and geochemistry.

Aull credits Neonakis’ passion for science and her eagerness to share STEM with her students—as well as the school’s fortunate location—for the innovative science curriculum. 

Wye River Upper School is a college preparatory high school for students with ADHD, dyslexia and other learning differences.

For more information, please contact: Katie Theeke, Director of Admissions and Communications
Tel: 410-758-2922, katietheeke@wyeriverupperschool.org, www.wyeriverupperschool.org
…because not all great minds think alike

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