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Energized by engineering: New 8th-grade class draws major interest

Published 7:00 am, Wednesday, March 20, 2013
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A new eighth-grade course, "Design and Engineering," which school administrators planned to launch in the coming school year as an elective, instead could become a required class to accommodate the large number of interested students.

After the Board of Education in January approved Design and Engineering for the 2013-14 school year, school officials planned to offer it as an elective that would meet three times a week. Based on the introduction of new courses at Staples High School, a "relatively small percentage" of current seventh-grade students were expected to register for the course, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon said in a March 18 memo to the school board. Instead, "to our surprise and excitement," 90 percent of seventh-grade students have chosen to take the class, he said Monday.

To meet the demand for Design and Engineering, Landon has proposed to make it a required science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) class, which would meet once a week. Landon argues the plan would have no "additional impact" on next year's education budget and maintain almost all Encore elective courses, which include music, art and drama programming.

The superintendent ruled out trying to offer Design and Engineering three times a week to all the students who wanted to take it because he said that scenario would have required five additional part-time science teachers at the middle school level.

The $104.2 million budget for 2013-14 approved last month by the board includes funding for one extra teacher to support the new STEM class.

School officials say the new class will address national science standards and also fulfills the goals of the district's Westport 2025 curriculum initiative by developing students' critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and problem-solving skills through a course framework that simulates the work of engineers.

Education board members on Monday reiterated support for Design and Engineering, but wrestled with how to implement the course.

"I'm not really in favor of a watered-down program if we can offer a more enriched program to potentially a smaller group of kids, understanding that some people will not get their first choice," said Board of Education Vice Chairman Michael McGovern.

Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney signaled that she was prepared to support Landon's proposal.

"Given where we're at and the constraints we're under and the huge enthusiasm, this is probably the best compromise," she said. "But it is definitely a compromise."

Several parents of seventh-grade students interested in taking Design and Engineering also advocated Monday for the course's implementation during the next school year, even with a once-a-week schedule.

"These kids are really excited for this and I would be really disappointed to go back to them and say we've gotten you guys really into this and excited to do this but now it really can't happen," said Denise Baer. "Even though ideally three times a week is what we want, I would at least like to see once a week, as opposed to zero."

Board members did not vote Monday on Landon's proposal to make Design and Engineering a required eighth-grade course. They are set to continue their review of the proposal at their next meeting on April 8.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott