AHS students get a hands-on lesson in the name of science



TOWN OF AMSTERDAM -- After participating in a science workshop Wednesday night at Amsterdam High School, senior Krysta Ortega was excited to say she learned how drag force works, like when she sticks her hand out of the window of a moving car.

"It's cool to know the science behind things," Ortega said.

The drag force workshop was one of three that students participated in as part of noche de ciencias, or science nights. It's a national program to promote knowledge and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies among members of the Hispanic community.

"I don't think it's just Hispanic students who need the encouragement -- a lot of students don't understand what engineering is," said Susan Stoya, the secondary instruction director for the Greater Amsterdam School District. "We've been doing a lot to promote STEM in recent years, and while that's true of all our students, we've really been working to increase the achievement of our Hispanic students."

Roughly 50 high school students from a variety of cultures took advantage of the event, which was made possible thanks to an ongoing partnership between the GASD and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

That partnership started several years ago, and paved the way for elementary and middle school field trips to the college campus, a robotics club, and other grant-funded activities.

Most recently, AHS became a junior chapter of RPI's Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers. It started it as a club under science teacher Michael O'Leary's advisement.

According to its website, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers was founded in Los Angeles in 1974 by a group of engineers employed by the city of Los Angeles.

Their objective was to form a national organization of professional engineers to serve as role models in the Hispanic community.

Noche de ciencias was established by the society's foundation in 2008 with aims to promote STEM knowledge and interest, as well as provide scholarship and college access information. In addition to a set of workshops for students, bilingual workshops on college choice and financial aid were provided for parents.

Amsterdam High School is just one of 100 across the nation to host the event this fall. They're coordinated by the society's student chapters; in this case, the chapter at RPI.

Vienna Yee, the vice chair of RPI's student chapter, said the student workshops are intended to provide hands-on engineering experience students might not get in the classroom.

In addition to the drag force demonstration, students also participated in a water-filtration experiment, and built newspaper towers tested for durability with a blow-dryer, or, as Yee described it, "hurricane-like conditions."

Stoya said Thursday's event was just a single part of a larger initiative to encourage the district's Hispanic students and overall STEM awareness.

She was excited to give the high schoolers a chance to meet college students like Yee, who are seeking degrees in engineering.

"I wanted them to see ordinary-looking people just like them; to give them strong role models seeking degrees in things like chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering," she said. "I want them to look at the college kids and think, 'If they can do it, maybe I can.'"