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Building bridges

Queens teacher and school custodian team up to nurture young engineers
New York Teacher

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English as a new language teacher Aaron Eng-Achson welcomes students and familie

When Aaron Eng-Achson, an English as a new language teacher at PS 84 in Astoria, Queens, decided to launch an intensive study of bridges with his 3rd- and 5th-grade students, he knew exactly who to turn to in his school for expertise: custodial engineer Rogelio Dakanay.

Dakanay, who describes himself as a “proud immigrant from the Philippines,” has worked as a mechanical engineer and as an instructor for his union, Local 32BJ.

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A swing bridge built by 3rd-graders.
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Kosei, a 3rd-grader, decorated his transporter bridge with a welcome sign in Eng

“When I was teaching at 32BJ, it was not actually the technical part that I focused on, but motivation,” Dakanay said. “I saw these people trying really hard and it was my job to motivate them.”

Dakanay, who had recently helped his 8-year-old niece build a bridge for a competition, knew how to motivate Eng’s students, too. He constructed two prototypes out of wooden craft sticks — a truss bridge and the Brooklyn bridge — to kick off the unit.

“I saw the kids’ eyes start to pop up, and their curiosity went through the roof,” said Dakanay. “It was a pleasure.”

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The students show off their working models.

Eng said his partnership with Dakanay is a lesson for other educators to “seek out talented and knowledgeable individuals in our schools, because ‘Mr. Roger’ was able to share his expertise to inspire my students.”

In their yearlong, inquiry-based project, Eng and his students studied, built and experimented with different types of bridges.

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Prototypes built by PS 84 custodial engineer Rogelio Dakanay inspired students.
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Third-graders Chloe and Giselle demonstrate their bascule bridge (also known as

“The bridge curriculum developed our critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication and problem-solving skills,” said Eng.

Students tracked the progress of their inquiry in engineering journals throughout the year.

“We put four heavy books on top of the cardboard, and it did not collapse. The class was so surprised,” wrote 3rd-grader Brian about the students’ first experiment building a beam bridge.

The bridge unit allowed Eng and his students to explore a variety of topics, including current events. When the old Tappan Zee Bridge — now rebuilt and renamed the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge — was demolished in January, for instance, they discussed the history and politics that go into choosing names for bridges.

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Dakanay works with students.
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Classroom teacher Allison Scarpa admires her 3rd-graders’ work.

“The unique, hands-on, project-based learning helped our students overcome their language challenges,” said PS 84 Chapter Leader Lorraine Masciarelli. “Mr. Eng’s students were passionate and confident explaining their projects using academic vocabulary, and their NYSESLAT scores demonstrated great gains.”

As a culminating project, the students participated in a special residency with a design educator from the Center for Architecture. Working in groups, students designed and constructed working models of five different types of movable bridges: draw/bascule bridges, vertical lift bridges, swing bridges, tilt bridges and transporter bridges.

“I needed concentration, time and patience,” wrote 5th-grader Jose in his engineering journal about the tilt bridge he built.

On a Friday morning in June, students unveiled their bridges at a celebration in front of their parents, teachers and classmates. There were shouts of excitement as they demonstrated their projects: On a transporter bridge, a popsicle-stick base glided across straws. On a tilt bridge, the span lifted up to reveal a welcome sign that proclaimed “Bienvenido a Mexico!”

“It’s an absolutely amazing project,” said 3rd-grade teacher Allison Scarpa. “Mr. Eng dedicated so much time, effort and energy to it, and I’ve seen so much progress in my students’ abilities this year.”

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