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February 15, 2005 > MaST Sets Sail in Newark

MaST Sets Sail in Newark

by Venkat Raman

"To teach is to truly learn," observed Jeff Dixon, principal of Newark Memorial High School. He was addressing a select group of students who were considering an opportunity to teach. It is not very often that high school students get such an opportunity, especially teaching academics in their own school. A nascent program blossoming in Newark Memorial High School, called MaST, affords this luxury to students.

MaST stands for Marine Science and Technology Institute, a program put together through the vision and perseverance of Loren Pinto, Curriculum Instruction Administrator at Newark High. This vision, coupled with fortuitous availability of suitable funds made this program become a reality in a relatively short period of time.

Citizens of Newark passed a bond measure in the 1990s providing for the construction of a Technology Center as a venue to teach High Tech skills to high school students. Funds from this bond were intended for the construction of a state-of-the-art Technology Center and some equipment like a computer lab. Construction of the building was completed in the 2002-2003 school year.

Though the center was built, details on its exact utilization were not really defined for a while. The building sat empty while various ideas for its use were explored. There was even skepticism that the building may simply be converted into more classrooms for want of good ideas for its use. However, a group of teachers and the school principal got wind of a unique program taking shape in a far away school in our very own state.

Cabrillo High School, located in Lompoc, California, was putting into place a Marine Science program where student docents would teach visiting students about marine life prevalent in the local area. To support this program, they were building an aquarium in the school and populating it with livestock from the nearby ocean. This motivated the planners of the new Technology Center at Newark High to procure a set of aquariums and fill them up with marine life. However, no organized instructional use was envisioned yet for this set up.

It was at this point that Pinto entered the picture. He visited Cabrillo High School to understand their program a little better and aid in the design of the Newark program. It was while watching the docents teach that the vision became clear to him. The Newark program should emphasize teaching students to teach. The subject matter is largely irrelevant. Once the idea crystallized, it was time to spring into action and make things happen. That is exactly what he did by recruiting Tom Collett, a young and ebullient science teacher at Newark Memorial High School. He was also instrumental in securing a $2 million grant from the State of California through its High Tech High School program. Newark High became one of five schools that received this grant and that has helped immensely in accelerating the fruition of the Technology Center program. A large portion of the equipment currently being used by MaST was purchased using this grant money.

In preparation to teach MaST docents, Collett visited Cabrillo High School and studied the program there very carefully in spring 2004, then prepared the curriculum for MaST in conjunction with Pinto. Since he is very interested in Astronomy, Collett wanted to make sure that the curriculum at Newark High School was included for MaST. The astronomy part of the program is designed for third graders, adhering to the California Content Standards. This makes it possible to invite third graders for field trips to Newark High and teach astronomy concepts using the Technology Center's resources.

On a typical field trip day, the third grade class arrives just a little before 12:30 p.m. and is promptly greeted by a couple of docents. After preliminary instructions and division into three groups, they are taken to Discovery Theater where the field trip truly begins. Visiting students are given an overview of the field trip and are taken to the planetarium.

The docent in charge of the planetarium presentation introduces them to various terms and concepts of using a star map. Each student is provided with a map and an appropriate night sky is projected on to the dome. The docent goes through how the North Star or the Pole Star can be located in the sky. Students are then given tasks to locate different constellations in the sky based on information they can get from the star map. This is a highly interactive session where the students are guided through the process of analyzing the night sky. The planetarium session lasts about 30 minutes.

When the planetarium session is completed, groups of students go into breakout sessions. There are three activity stations that each group takes in turn. In the Wanderer Station, the students learn the difference between a planet and star. They take a look at Saturn through a telescope. They then move on to the Earth Cam station where the reason for days and nights is explained and the distinction between Earth's rotation and revolution around the Sun is demonstrated using a model. A small camera mounted on a globe and pointed at a light source illustrates the basis of sunrise and sunset.

The Research Station is where they get to play with Starry Night, a star simulation program, on a computer. After all the groups have completed activities at these stations, everyone assembles in the game area to play MaSTery, a game designed somewhat like "Jeopardy!" where the students pick a category and question to answer. Everyone is allowed to answer questions and the groups are pitted against each other in the contest. The whole show is videotaped and the docents can later take a look at how the show went. The field trip ends with the conclusion of the game show; approximately 90 minutes.

The field trip of Ms. Fuller's third grade class from Kennedy Elementary School was a good example of what may be expected of this program. Picking the favorite part of the field trip, the game show was the clear winner with Jenna Kennedy, Sara Biela, Sara Colvin and Dianella Guevarra while Sophia Owen preferred the planetarium because "it felt like we were almost in space." Sara Colvin would like to come back again as she really wants to see the fish.

Teaching is done by high school students under the supervision of Collett and Pinto. This whole scheme fosters learning experience for the third graders as well as the high school docents. But the experience for the docents is unlike what they gain elsewhere in school. "The docents must learn far more than what they plan to teach. They don't want to be embarrassed by a question from a third grader by not knowing the answer," said Pinto.

Students spend a long time preparing their scripts. They are in this program because they believe in it and want to do it, not because we are twisting their arms. The greatest satisfaction a teacher gets is at the moment when they see that the student has understood what they are trying to teach. These docents get to experience that same gratification and that wants them to become teachers when they grow up, said Pinto.

Joe Reynolds, a docent on Wednesdays, agrees, "When I came into this program, I had been thinking a little bit about becoming a teacher after graduating from school. Now that I have been in this program and have seen what teachers do and how much impact they can have on kids I really, really know that that is what I want to do with my life."

Pinto also points out that another benefit of this program is the exposure to public speaking that the docents get and the confidence that this process instills in them.

The first group of docents number 23 students but Collett sees this number increasing in the future as interest starts to develop in the high school student community. He sees businesses and community becoming interested in forming partnerships with the school to leverage the MaST program. He envisions filling the needs of the elementary schools in Newark first and then expanding the field trips to serve the parents of these youngsters, then the whole Newark community, and then the whole Bay Area.

Collett's infectious optimism is perhaps the greatest inspiration for the docents training under him. He anticipates this program getting wider recognition as time goes by and hopes it will be a role model for other schools just like Cabrillo was for Newark. The timeline for the first year of operation has been very aggressive. Collett has just secured a license to collect and display livestock. With all the aquariums already in place, he hopes to start the collection process in March or April of this year, and possibly start the Marine Science field trip for fifth graders in May or June.

If you wish to learn more about this program, please contact Tom Collett of Newark Memorial High School at (510) 818-4364 or send him an email at

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