Robotics Presentation Inspires Millburn Board of Education

Students demonstrate their robot. Credits: Sara Louise Lazarus
David Farrell Credits: Sara Louise Lazarus
Students demonstrate their robot. Credits: Sara Louise Lazarus
Millburn High School students attended the meeting to demonstrate what their robotics club has been working on. Credits: Sara Louise Lazarus

MILLBURN, NJ - An exciting robotics demonstration by MHS computer science teacher David Farrell and members of the high school robotics club provided both entertainment and food for thought for the Millburn Board of Education and members of the public at the Oct. 8 meeting.

The club formed this past summer. “We didn’t know what we were doing at first,” said club member Ethan Kramer, who in a 12-minute video described a number of mishaps that occurred as the students built the robot. Members told how they proceded to make the robot move and learned to use a sonar censor to keep it from running into walls. They added bumpers, figured out how to have it do two tasks simultaneously and follow a path.

At first, they used basic algebra, and then calculus. The initail robot was made from a kit, but the three robots that followed were made from Legos.

The members agreed that “robotics makes you work as a team whether you like it or not.”

Lauren Rosenberg, the sole female in the group, described how she uses the kind of calculations she makes as a scuba diver doing search and rescue to contribute to the team. When asked, at least 10 of the club members said that their experience with robotics has prompted them to consider a career in engineering.

Board member Lise Chapman wondered whether robotics should be implemented as a course, or as an after school club.

Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield announced that he and Lois Infanger, president of the Millburn Education Association, have discussed making presentations like the robotics demonstration a regular occurrence at BOE meetings and that he plans to invite students and teachers to "show off" once a month.

Later in the meeting, after several parents spoke up in Public Comments to urge the school board to explore a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum, the conversation came back to robotics, which is a core course in a STEM curriculum. A number of European countries have introduced STEM, and they have scored higher than the United States on recent studies of student achievement.

The board’s response to this was mixed.

Board member Jeff Waters said he is “not in favor of STEM.” He feels the Millburn Schools should provide the opportunity for a broad liberal arts education. He said he also resists the impulse to feel as if Millburn must be in competition with other school systems and countries. Waters declared, “STEM is a buzzword—code for the US’ falling behind the rest of the world.”

Board member Rona Wenik added that it is the job of the US Department of Education to determine curriculum policies that all states must follow. Similarly, it is up to the Secretary of Education in New Jersey to pass on any directives in terms of educational policy. Wenik emphasized, “Our job is to make sure kids in Millburn get the best education.”

Waters and Wenik feel there are only so many hours in a school day, and only so much that can be covered in that time. Waters said he doesn’t want to see less time go to history, and literature. He said that people are always making suggestions what subjects they’d like to add, but “No one will ever tell you what they’ll cut.”

Waters noted that Crisfield, and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christine Burton have shown board members a grid of the exact amounts of time a subject gets covered on any given day. “It’s a zero sum game,” he warned.

Waters added that in state and national tests, the area in which Millburn is most exceptional is math and science. He believes that “If Millburn students were compared to the rest of the world, we’d be first.”

Board member Jean Pasternak, who has been an advocate of exploring a STEM curriculum, suggested that there may be ways “to integrate STEM into what we already do.”

Policy Committee chair Sam Levy gave a first reading of two policy changes and 17 bylaw changes.

According to Levy, Policy 3232 codifies existing policies regarding private tutoring of Millburn students by Millburn teachers. Teachers must apply to their building principal in order to get permission to tutor Millburn students or give them private lessons, and the principal will maintain a list of those teachers who have received permission.

When asked by Pasternak if the Policy Committee has ever debated stopping Millburn teachers from tutoring Millburn students, Levy replied that he had never had enough support in the committee to move forward. He said he has not been informed that there is any kind of trend indicating that other schools are instituting such restrictions.

The second policy read was 7510-Use of School Facilities. The only major change, according to Levy, is that all applicants for use of facility permits “must confirm in writing prior to any permit being issued” that they have no policy that “discriminates against any person or group based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, age, ancestry, veteran status, marital status, children, and/or handicap.”

Changes to the Committee Guidelines in Bylaw 0155.2 led to a conversation about the possibility of adding a new committeee. The Policy Committee removed wording that required yearly oversight of the technology plan by the Finance Committee. Levy said that technology curriculum issues were already being handled by the Program Committee, and that the Property Committee is charged with responsibility for technology issues that affect the infrastructure.

Chapman, who is chair of the Finance Committee, proposed forming an ad hoc committee for technology, saying that other districts are doing just that. “Technology needs its own focus, since now it is our focus.” She added, “Significant dollars are being spent. This needs a focused eye.”

Levy responded that any new committee would add to the time burden of Crisfield, who attends all committee meetings, and that the board made a conscious choice a few years back to eliminate the tech committee. He emphasized, “Property and Program (committees) provide more than enough information for the Finance Committee to evaluate. Member Regina Truitt agreed, saying that adding another committee would “complicate things.”

There was much discussion of a resolution to approve a flat fee of $49,500 for the architectural/engineering firm of Parette & Somjen of Rockaway, NJ to do initial studies on the renovation of the High School Fieldhouse. Although Business Administrator Steve DiGeronimo thought he had authorization from the Property Committee to move ahead getting information to get bids on the project, Property Chair Regina Truitt said she hadn’t been aware of the cost of the study.

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DiGeronimo explained that in the past, the process of estimating the costs of new projects wasn’t done by architects, and as a result, the amounts allocated weren’t fitting into budget numbers. He said he’s learned that it is important to “have professionals weigh in on this.” He also defended his choice to go to Parette & Somjen, saying that he trusts and is impressed with them as a result of the work they’ve done on other district projects.

This prompted a discussion of infrastructure priorities. School officials have indicated that work needs to be done on the roofs of all seven school buildings. HVAC upgrades are needed in three of the elementary schools. Although all board members agreed that the fieldhouse, which houses the restrooms for all attendees to sports events, is in dire need of upgrading, it may not be at the top of the list.

Board of Education candidate Raymond Wong, an engineer, advised that DiGeronimo ask Parette & Somjen to “sharpen their pencils” and revise the amount of their fee. He also suggested that DiGeronimo should have a “short list of pre-qualified firms” who can do the study, because “when there’s competition, you’ll get a better price.”

During the public comment session, parent Urvashi Patel, who has children at South Mountain School, said that there are classrooms with 26 children, and wanted to know why there is no aide assigned to assist in that large a class.

She also noted that the classrooms are very small, and that her son who is in 5th grade is in a 3rd grade classroom. She described a scenario in which the classroom was hot and smelly after the 5th graders returned from gym.

New resident Mina Gupta thanked Crisfield and Burton for their responsiveness. Her husband had spoken at the previous meeting about his frustration that the middle school wasn’t finding a way for his daughter to be in an accelerated math class, and that as a result she was having to repeat courses she’d taken in her former district. His wife made up for that omission Monday by saying that she appreciated how open Burton had been and that “we as parents are thankful.”

Board President Michael Birnberg initiated the subject of underage drinking. He said that seven students were suspended at the high school for being “under the influence at a school event.” He noted that some parents think it’s a joke or that “kids will be kids.” Birnberg warned that the administration takes this very seriously, adding, “At some point, someone’s got to say 'No.'

This was the first meeting in which the new policy regarding Public Comments went into effect. Now, at the first of the two BOE meetings each month, the public can speak about any subject during the first comments period, not just agenda items.

Yet speakers Monday said they remain frustrated.

The board has made it clear on a number of occasions that since the purpose of meetings is to accomplish board business, they will not be engaging with the public, and that the public comments periods are for just that -comments- and not for the board to answer questions.

Knowing this might be upsetting to some, Crisfield instituted a policy last year in which he waits and does research, then writes answers to questions raised at the meetings at a later time on Edline. However, parent Joe Wroblewski pointed out that there have been no answers on the website since June 25. Chapman warned that even though the board is not intending to be evasive, the policy of not answering the public’s questions is creating mistrust and “noise” in the community. She suggested that if speakers ask factual questions, the board and administration
should answer them.

Much appreciation was given to the Ed Foundation, which provided seed money for the summer robotics program and also sponsored a presentation by Burton regarding iPad use in the schools.

Waters praised the 10 English faculty members who reviewed college essays last Saturday for high school seniors. He declared their efforts “exemplary” and expressed “profound gratitude” for “doing that for our kids.”

Crisfield thanked the high school students who have instituted a program to provide technical aid to senior citizens to help them navigate ifphones, iPads, laptops, etc.

As budget planning gets underway, Crisfield and Chapman will be going to all the schools to speak at PTO meetings and hear parent recommendations. There are also two public forums in which, according to Crisfield, all residents can come and “let us know about your priorities.” The first of these forums will be Sunday, Nov. 18, from 3 p.m. - 5pm at the middle school.

There will be two BOE candidate panels on upcoming Thursday evenings. The first is Oct. 8, and the second Oct. 25. Both are at 7:30 p.m. at the Ed Center.

The BOE election will, for the first time, be held on Election Day, Nov. 6 instead of in April. Crisfield reminded everyone that Oct. 16 is the last day to register to vote.

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