The Secret Sauce
North Tonawanda has been a prime example of building a program from the ground up. Every small step counts, especially when you have aligned and intentional organizational goals that keep you moving in a forward direction. This small city, suburban district in Western New York has accomplished a stunning amount in the last few years in relation to Science and Technology programming. With three elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school, and one high school, North Tonawanda functions across many levels.
Michael Tambroni, North Tonawanda’s Director of Curriculum, would tell you that the district’s “secret sauce” is made up of creating a strategic plan, investing early and often at the primary level, and putting together a passionate, supportive team of individuals who are dedicated to learning new technologies.
Tambroni sees Woz ED kits and curriculum as the backbone of Tonawanda’s STEM program. He says,
“Woz was the guarantee. You need to have a guaranteed and viable curriculum to grow from.”
Starting at the elementary level with Woz Pathway implementation and exposing students to STEM early on has allowed the district to branch off and create strong STEM programs at higher levels. This approach has led to the popularity of subjects like Drones, Robotics, and 3D printing among older students, as their curiosity was sparked in their formative elementary years.
North Tonawanda’s designated, superstar team of “TOSA” professionals have worked hard to keep students engaged while preparing them for their futures. Individuals such as Steve Sabo, Technology Integration Coach and STEM Pathway Coordinator, and Joel May, Technology Coach at North Tonawanda High School, are key players in the success of North Tonawanda’s STEM programming, going above and beyond to bring the latest technology to their students.
The district gained Woz ED STEM Pathway Status this year and are on their way to becoming a Science Pathway District as well. Pretty soon, all Woz ED Science Pathways will be implemented in grades K-6. This is no small feat. It has taken major planning, resource distribution, support from the Board of Education and New York State, and an incredible amount of patience and faith.
What Does it Look Like
Each school within the district is home to a STEM Lab, with the exception of North Tonawanda High school, which will be finished with the development of its lab between January and March of the 2023/2024 school year. This is where most of the action takes place.
At the elementary level, these labs are referred to as “Discovery Dens.” Here, students utilize Woz STEM kits, focussing on two pathways per season (fall and spring). In addition, with the help of his teaching assistants, Steve Sabo coaches students in using Apple Technology.
The intermediate model looks similar to the elementary model, but teachers add in more advanced concepts like coding. Here, the STEM Lab is referred to as the “Innovation Station.” Technology is seamlessly integrated into various subjects. For instance, sixth graders at North Tonawanda Intermediate School recently delved into global traditions in history class, employing 3D printers to create artifacts and present their findings to peers.
As students progress to middle school, they immerse themselves in Woz STEM Kits and explore more intricate technologies in the “Exploratory Lab.” Technology coaches and teachers lead students in activities involving Drones, Robotics, 3D Printing, and AR/VR using Oculus headsets.
The high school is focussed on getting their STEM Lab finished this year. Meanwhile, students are taught computer programming using Raspberry Pi and Woz STEM Kits. There is a Digital Literacy Course that encompasses STEM concepts that students may take as an elective. North Tonawanda recently became one of the only small New York districts to receive a P-Tech Grant. Although still in the initial planning phase, this grant aims to provide high school students with the opportunity to graduate with an associate’s degree in computer science and computer information systems.
Beyond the Books
Steve Sabo explained the rules of one of the most popular STEM activities at North Tonawanda: Drone Soccer. This unique game draws parallels to quidditch in Harry Potter, with students maneuvering drones instead of riding brooms. The setup involves two striking drones and three defending drones, all safely enclosed to allow for collision without damage. Students on the sidelines operate their drones and must troubleshoot and fix them when issues arise.
North Tonawanda isn’t the only district participating in Drone Soccer. It is a sport played around the world from New York to Korea. There are yearly Drone Soccer competitions where students compete regionally, nationally, and internationally. Participation and excitement increase significantly when students have the potential to become world champions. Plus, the game is played indoors, which makes it a perfect activity for North Tonawanda’s harsh winter months. Drone soccer has proven an excellent way to teach drone building, piloting, and repairing skills without the rigidity of a formal lesson.
Another thriving program at North Tonawanda is the Student Space Flight Experimentation Program. High school students from North Tonawanda participated in a national competition, tasked with designing zero gravity flight experiments for astronauts to execute on Mission 18—an Elon Musk rocket scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in the spring of 2024. The district was recently informed that a North Tonawanda student project earned recognition among approximately 300 other student projects nationwide.
North Tonawanda administrators and teachers have big dreams for the future of STEM Education throughout the district. Some immediate goals include preparing students for the Drone Soccer qualifiers in February and completing the development of the high school STEM Lab before the spring. To foster community engagement, the district aims to host more science and technology-based activity nights.
In the spring, Steve Sabo and Joel May will spearhead community astronomy nights, enabling people to utilize district-owned telescopes and solar filters for observing solar events, including the total solar eclipse. This aligns seamlessly with the recent implementation of Woz ED Science Pathways in grades K-6. Meanwhile, elementary students are gearing up for a community engineering night, where they will showcase their engineering skills to parents and friends.
Joel is excited for a new internship model program they are launching at the high school level called “Jacks of All Trades.” Students will be given “work orders” within certain fields and have to solve problems on their own. The hope is to prepare students for the next stage of their STEM careers by giving them more responsibility and introducing them to various tech-based professions.
Joel May puts it this way:
“They’ve done a good job, in the traditional educational space, of shutting the creativity out of kids. Now we are encouraging it. We are giving kids the opportunity to show what they know, gain new skills, and have some fun.”
The biggest impact that North Tonawanda’s STEM program has had is on student engagement and excitement.
Across all ages, students are showing up to school excited to learn and curious as to what they may explore that day. Like other districts, North Tonawanda has seen improvements in graduation rates, attendance rates, and discipline referrals, highlighting this newfound level of engagement amongst students. Students are also learning that technology is not just for playing games at home, but can be, and is being, used practically in educational and professional settings.
Sabo adds that the teachers in the district are grateful to have students that are motivated to learn. Many of the teachers add in STEM Lab time as incentive for their students to get through a lesson and stay focussed. Teachers have enjoyed learning how to use new technology like AR/VR headsets, drones, and 3D printers. They have also appreciated the support of tech professionals like Sabo who has taken the time to train them personally.
Overall, North Tonawanda’s supportive administrative board, passionate teachers and leaders, dedication to goals, and ability to stay on top of a strategic planning has allowed their STEM program to flourish and become a beacon of hope for their student body and community.
What’s the Catch?
Michael Tambroni says it beautifully,
“We got into this work, not to make millions of dollars, but to come to school each and everyday with our hearts on fire, to be champions for the kids.”
The catch is that student experiences are brighter, they have more opportunities to flourish, and they genuinely love coming to school. That’s it.
“Our kids have become more disengaged, mental health issues are on the rise. It is our job to find bigger, brighter, and better ways to keep our kids engaged, excited, and safe. Then we can get to teaching and learning,” he adds.
Steve Sabo and Joel May are leading the charge on the excitement and engagement front. They will both tell you that the best part of their job is that it is fun. The kids are having fun, the teachers are having fun, the coaches are having fun. Everyone is learning and growing alongside each other.
Some kids within the district don’t have access to technology within the home and would not be exposed to these types of career opportunities if it wasn’t for school. This is why the district continues to spend money and invest time into STEM programs, to show each student what is possible for them. They can dream big, they can pursue careers that excite them, they can do hard things, and overcome obstacles.