• Classes Pick: LAUNCH Math & Science Centers

    Founded By A Former Rocket Scientist, LAUNCH Math & Science Centers Encourage A Lifelong Appreciation Of STEM Subjects

    By Ben Berk
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    Photo by Andrew Schwartz

    It takes a moment to find the entryway to LAUNCH Math & Science Centers’ flagship building on the Upper West Side. The address (173 West 81st Street, lower level) leads you to a lovely apartment building, where down a set of stairs from the sidewalk, you’ll find a cozy, brightly lit, and decorated room, where kids might be working hard on math calculations in notebooks in the front area, or gleefully conducting science experiments in the back.

    LAUNCH Math & Science Centers are based on a simple concept: A fun and engaging curriculum that will kick-start a passion for math and science in young kids. LAUNCH was started in 2007, by Scott Heifetz, and its original UWS location opened its doors to their first students in 2008 on West 81st Street. Now, they have five Manhattan locations for their summer camp, and two for their afterschool program.

    The science camps run for one week each throughout the summer. Each week has a different theme, from robotics, to engineering, to coding. The counselors introduce the material, either by PowerPoint or physical demonstration, then over the course of the week, the students build increasingly more complex projects, until they go home Friday with something tangible to show for their efforts. Despite some of the projects being quite costly to produce, it’s important to Heifetz that the kids bring home an actual product. “When they go home, they continue to think about the topic. They talk about it. They show their friends; they show their parents,” he explains.

    Meanwhile, LAUNCH’s afterschool programs are designed to encourage a life-long appreciation of math and STEM subjects while tailoring the program to the individual child. During their math afterschool program for grades 1-8, for instance, the LAUNCH team uses a proprietary assessment to gauge each child’s skills, and builds a curriculum to best fit their needs. For instance, if a student is extremely strong at addition, but struggles with subtraction, the program will create a series of assignments that will focus on improving subtraction until those skills are stronger. There are four parts to each 55-minute-long session. First, the child works one-on-one with a counselor on a math exercise, before moving on to an independent math puzzle or worksheet. The final two parts are computer-based. Heifetz calls the first section ‘fast facts,’ and it aims to help children integrate basic concepts in to their thinking, such as skip counting (3, 6, 9, 12, etc.) The final part is additional computer work that can also be completed at home.

    A lot of children may be hesitant initially about that much immersion in math, but Heifetz believes in its importance. “Math is the language of science. We preach that here. You can have a science center, teaching science, but if you don’t appreciate math, then you can never really grow,” he says. The work is age-appropriate but designed to push children, regardless of their ability, which is crucial to Heifetz. “A lot of the kids come in—they’re gifted with arithmetic, gifted with working with numbers, and they’re just dying for more… The parents don’t know what to do with them, and we challenge them.”

    Heifetz, who grew up in Rockland County, NY, and is married with two daughters, earned a master’s degree
    in aeronautical engineering from Caltech before spending four years building spacecrafts for Orbital Sciences Corporation. He decided to start LAUNCH eight years later, after earning an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business and working in finance for Wall Street companies and dot-com startups.

    “I was just tired of the rat race, and I always wanted to be in education. I always had that desire to inspire kids,” Heifetz says. Like a true engineer and scientist, he made sure he was prepared by diving into the industry headfirst. He spent years running tutoring programs in low-income neighborhoods in Staten Island and Brooklyn before finally striking out on his own.

    Eight years later, LAUNCH is blossoming. In addition to its two main afterschool sites, on the Upper West Side and in Tribeca (which is closed for the fall but relocating and reopening in 2017), LAUNCH has run yearlong afterschool math and science programs in schools throughout Manhattan, such as Hunter College Elementary School, NEST+M, and the Anderson School. Coding is the most popular topic, but robotics and rocket science are close behind. These programs focus on hands-on learning with a personal approach. Heifetz says most of these types of programs often have one teacher for every dozen students, whereas LAUNCH has at most six students per counselor.

    The staff’s energy is a vital component to LAUNCH’s success. Despite the intense focus on math and science, a background in those subjects isn’t necessary to work there. Beyond a basic understanding of the subjects, Heifetz needs his counselors to engage the children. “They have to [love] it and be able to perform… [They] need to be an inspiring and motivating person,” he says.

    LAUNCH has recently begun to export their materials and program to cities around the country. They already have agreements with schools in Nevada, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. They box up their projects and kits, and send them to teachers who, with the guidance of online guides and tutorials, lead their students in these projects. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, Heifetz says. “Last year they did a whole survey for the families after and it was very well-received.”

    A central tenet of LAUNCH’s program is connecting the children’s current studies with a life-long use of those skills. Heifetz wants to disprove the belief that most people don’t use many of the mathematical and scientific skills they are taught in schools. “Everyone says that. That’s what we’re trying to tell [the kids]—I used it! I built some really cool things. If you want to build some really cool things, don’t give up on it!”

    To learn more about LAUNCH Math & Science centers, visit launchmath.com!

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