CANTON — Students in Region 6, Litchfield and West Hartford schools are getting enhanced education in math and science with help from a local company, according to parents and educators.
The educational company, Canton-based NextGen Smarty Pants, provides virtual classes in science, technology, engineering, art, and math, which being is offered to the school districts with both in-person and live distance learning.
“They do a bunch of different programs for us,” said Region 6 and Litchfield Superintendent of Schools Chris Leone. “They offer after-school coding programs, enrichment programs, and we’re working on a competitive FIRST LEGO League robotics team.
Leone said the district pays about $250 for a professional development session with SmartyPants. Parents can enroll their children through the company itself online and pay about $25 an hour, or $99 for a four-hour session.
“They do fantastic work,” Leone said. “From the second we closed on-site due to the pandemic, NextGen SmartyPants moved seamlessly to live distance learning and is still engaging the kids at all levels of learning and language differences.
“I’ve witnessed kids become engaged day to day in coding and robotics in eight schools. All COVID-19 precautions were implemented in April,” he said.
Paras Patani, an engineer and founder of NextGen SmartyPants, said the U.S. spends about $40 billion annually on STEM education, primarily on ed-tech equipment and software, but not on how to teach the students.
“We also work with teachers, doing a lot of professional development, and also with boards of education,” he said.
Patani’s idea for NextGen SmartyPants began with his own daughter, Arushi.
“Arushi’s 8 now, and when she was 4, maybe what she wanted to do flipped a switch in me,” he said. “Having her has been life-changing. When she was younger, she wanted to add the LED lights to her LEGO set. We always built stuff together, and so we taught her how to add lights, using simple multiplication,” Patani said. “She did so well with that idea. I started getting requests from other parents, and from there, I saw a need.”
Patani said he also felt his daughter wasn’t being challenged enough in school when it came to math and science. “I wanted to give her all the opportunities in the world,” he said. “We teach math and science in school, but we don’t always teach kids how to apply what they learn. That’s been my philosophy, to use practical engineering with math.
He said the goal is not to try to replace what students are learning in school, but to enhance it. “We’re teaching how to do basic circuits, or other fun projects, that help kids learn to apply those math skills to create something,” he said.
To date, NextGen SmartyPants has about 2,500 students enrolled it its after school STEAM and enrichment programs. “We’re growing, and I think we’ve hit on something with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Patani said. “Kids were having a hard time staying engaged, the parents were having a hard time. Our kids are very engaged in their curriculum with us, and even after class is over, they are continuing to do their work.”
Patani said the fees for a school district vary depending on how many students are to participate and the types of services the district wants. He said the company has not entered into a contract with Region 6 or Litchfield Public Schools, but are discussing it.
West Hartford parent Katy Fressola said her two children are starting fifth grade and ninth grade this year, and have taken enrichment classes from NextGen Smarty Pants for the last few years.
“My son took an after school program with them, and then COVID-19 shut it down and he moved to doing a live distance learning class with them,” she said. “He really enjoyed it. We did some more throughout the spring.
“My daughter’s starting high school this year at Hall, and she’s doing something different, but it’s a focus on STEAM learning,” Fressola said. “For both my children (in) elementary and middle school, they are very STEAM minded. They both got a lot of really amazing coding classes. But I know they’re both thirsty for hands-on, tech type experiences , and (elementary education) had a hard time meeting that need in school.”
She learned about NextGen when the company gave a presentation to parents. “I stumbled on them, really,” Fressola said. “So many kids really want that hands-on experience, with different STEAM stuff. I have a background in IT, and I’ll ask my son if he’s learned about this or that. He’s building fundamentals now that I learned when I was in high school, and he’ll be able to jump right in with coursework when he starts high school that he might not have been able to, otherwise.
(NextGen SmartyPants) “indirectly supports the math and science mindset,” she said. “It just keeps my son’s mind going in a logical, mathematical kind of way.”
Goshen resident Jennifer Dietter’s sons Jett, 10, and Jack, 13, have taken classes in robotics, coding, electrical circuits, web development, and LEGO Computer Aided Design with NextGen SmartyPants. They took these in the after-school enrichment program at Goshen Center School and then transitioned to NextGen’s Live Distance Learning programs, after their schools closed due to the Coronavirus.
“He’s always been interested in math, but now he asks how things work and wants to build things,” Dietter said about her 10 year old, Jett.
Patani said the COVID-19 pandemic’s continuing restrictions drew more people to keep their children engaged throughout the summer. Now that school is underway, it’s busier than ever, he said.