FAIRFIELD — The campus is near the border with Skowhegan, a part of town known as Hinckley. Standing on about 600 acres — which includes a 120-acre farm — an old chapel greets visitors and passers-by on the road, Skowhegan Road. The campus is home to a number of other buildings, as well as students.

If that description makes you think Good Will-Hinckley, you’d be half right. The campus in question — which is just past the existing GWH campus — is home to the Kennebec Valley Community College’s Harold Alfond Center.

The second campus was the result of a $16 million donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation. KVCC President Rick Hopper said that money was used to buy the land and build.

“We needed a lot of other resources,” Hopper said in his office at the main campus on Western Avenue. “We applied for every federal grant we were eligible for.”

So they sought that money, and Hopper said they procured $10 million to $12 million in federal grants, and an additional $2 million in smaller, private grants.

The new campus was the largest expansion project in KVCC’s history, and it is still ongoing. This year, a new program in the campus’s newest building — which doesn’t have an official name yet — looks to train college students in early childhood education, but using somewhat nontraditional techniques.

The program looks to increase the level of STEM lessons — science, technology, engineering and math — taught to its students. But it also seeks to get parents involved more directly in their child’s learning by placing them in the classroom with them in a very hands-on way.

Hopper said a program like this gives young students a passion for STEM, which carries into their later education. And he said the focus on the whole family is just as important for a child’s education development.

IN THE CLASSROOM

The early childhood program was launched with a grant from the Freeport-based Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, and is conducted in close partnership with the Waterville-based Educare, a learning and development center that prepares children for school. The programming is completely accessible online, Hopper said, but the college still wanted to provide practical experience for students entering the field of early childhood education.

Hopper said a number of KVCC early childhood education graduates go on to work with Educare.

“A passion for STEM begins in young kids,” he said.

The KVCC campus near Good Will-Hinckley is home to a number of things, from a culinary arts program to a new lecture hall. It is also home to that practical experience in early childhood education Hopper spoke of. There is a room called the KVCC Family Lab and Nature Exploration Center, which offers those STEM “Discovery Group” lessons to children and parents, but also brings in elements of nutrition with healthful snacking, outdoor nature exploration and resources for the parents to take home and continue the lessons.

“When I first got here, we only had this campus,” Hopper said of the Western Avenue location.

Jessica Powell, project coordinator for the discovery group program, said when she first joined KVCC, she began rewriting the components of early childhood education. She set up the room with a focus on STEM, though she said the technology part of that is still a work in progress. She emphasized health and nutrition.

“We started discovery groups last September with a focus on STEM,” she said, adding the activities focused on ways that would help parents interact with the students.

She said the classroom provides hands-on experience for KVCC students in the program, but also does the same for families.

“The purpose is around parent education,” she said.

There are three group sessions per week, and each session last for two hours and is free. And while lessons are based on STEM, the students direct their own learning. The students are typically younger, ages 2 to 6 or so, and parents must accompany them and participate in the lessons.

“To get 2-year-olds to stay there and pay attention, their attention span is phenomenal,” Powell said.

Emma Downing, a practicum student from KVCC in the class, said a recent program they did with the students was coloring the snow and seeing how they reacted. When the weather is nice enough, they take the students outside for nature walks to see the wildlife.

“The success depends on a child’s interest in the activity,” she said.

Powell said later on there will be a natural playground outside the classroom in the future, which she hopes the parents will help design.

Powell said this hands-on program is still in its first year, so it’s still new to KVCC and the students. They’re creating the curriculum as they go and are teaching “soft STEM skills.”

“The more we know, the better kids can be prepared,” Powell said.

HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

Sienna Fitzpatrick, another KVCC student learning in the program, said when she began, she over-thought how to create a curriculum. She said Powell was helpful in explaining that the lesson plans included natural things the children already were doing. All she had to do was plan activities that focused on the STEM aspects of everyday items, such as Velcro or magnets.

She said she was taught not to think of it as a lesson plan, but rather a learning experience. Another example, she said, was a recent lesson in which the groups were provided buckets of water and materials such as ice cream sticks to make small boats to see what designs would float. She said that provided lessons in engineering and mathematics.

“At that age, everything is an experience,” she said.

Downing said after the discovery groups are over, the budding educators meet and discuss how things went, and those conversations shape what future activities will look like. And while the activities are voluntary and the children can decide what activity they want to do, Fitzpatrick and Downing didn’t think there was any such thing as a failed lesson plan.

“I don’t think anything is a failure,” Fitzpatrick said.

Downing said the point is to make sure these young children are enjoying learning, as that will shape their desire to continue learning as they get older.

“We want (all kids) to be part of the experience,” Downing said.

Powell said they also want the children — and parents — to “explore and take risks.” And the experiences are just as valuable for the parents, she said, because they learn more about how their child learns and what they like to do.

“The parents learn in indirect ways,” she said.

Powell said on average 10 children are in the discovery groups, from about six or seven families. Some families come to just one group, while some come to all three. “We haven’t hit the number where it’s too much,” she said.

Downing and Fitzpatrick said the experience has been helpful to their learning. Downing said as a student at the college, she hadn’t been able to see the parent and child interaction until this program.

“It’s been nice to see how parents get involved with the activities,” she said.

Fitzpatrick said the program provided an experience they wouldn’t have gotten in a traditional classroom setting.

“You can only learn so much from a book,” she said.

Irene Daigle, the early childhood program coordinator, said the program and its space have been “invaluable” for students in early childhood education. She said it’s a way the college students can learn how to set up a classroom and design activities for young children to learn in, especially in preschool environments.

“These environments don’t create themselves,” she said. “A lot of thought goes into it.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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