Some of teacher Fred Salamone’s most memorable early learning experiences as a child were from hands-on activities, such as creating a circuit that powered a lightbulb or eating a teacher’s homemade layer cake that was used to illustrate a lesson on rock layers.
Now, curiosity, experiential learning and fun are the key ingredients in Salamone’s science classes at PS 171 in his hometown of Astoria, Queens. He uses experiments, the school’s hydroponics lab, anecdotes and even silly voices to keep students engaged.
Telling them to say a vocabulary word in a Batman voice “makes kids smile, makes them laugh and sticks with them,” he said.
“I just truly believe that if kids are happier, they’re going to learn better,” said Salamone, who grew up in Orange County, New York, and is married to a special education teacher.
Salamone graduated from SUNY New Paltz with an early childhood education degree with a math concentration, and he later earned a master’s in STEM education from Hunter College.
But he didn’t set out to become a science teacher. He envisioned a career teaching elementary English language arts, math and other subjects. When a previous school asked him to teach science, he said yes.
“It was just one of those things that I agreed to do and it turns out that’s what I love to do,” said Salamone, who began teaching in New York City public schools in 2018.
The pre-K-5 school’s hydroponics lab, which opened in 2020, is all about hands-on learning. Hydroponics, a method of growing plants with water instead of soil, is an effective way to cultivate vegetables in small spaces. As students help in the lab, they study plants and get to taste tomatoes, cucumbers and whatever else the lab grows.
Last year, the school produced about 50 pounds of produce that went mostly to staff, due to COVID-19 challenges, Salamone said. He plans to give out more to students and families this year.
Salamone began his teaching career at PS 171 in 2013 with City Year New York, part of AmeriCorps. He taught at Boys Prep Bronx for two years, but he wanted to return to his old school because staff had been so welcoming and encouraging.
PS 171 Chapter Leader Alyssa Goldinger said the students enjoy Salamone’s classes, and the hydroponics lab makes science even more exciting. “He just loves being and working with the kids,” she said.
Salamone is also responsive to what’s going on at the school, Goldinger said. For example, last year when the school got solar panels installed, he incorporated solar energy into his lesson plans.
With support from administration and a fellow teacher, Salamone obtained a $5,000 DOE Sustainability Project Grant. The funds will be used to build a demonstration solar table at PS 171. “We are excited to provide our school with a hands-on opportunity to learn about clean energy,” he said.
Salamone loves being part of children’s “aha” moments, such as their first classroom experience with magnets or when they realize the potential of hydroponics. He says he wants them to maintain that sense of wonder and curiosity throughout their lives.
“You’re introducing this science phenomenon to them and it lights up their eyes, and they almost can’t believe it’s real,” Salamone said. “Brings me back every day.”