Scientists and lab coats: A new approach for a Montgomery elementary school


Third-grade students Ana Claire, Dylan Perez-Duarte and Olufemi Murdoch build a bridge with blocks as they learn about suspension bridges at Glenallan Elementary in Silver Spring. (Juan A. Arias/For The Washington Post)

The third-graders led the change. One Friday afternoon they arrived in room 237 at Glenallan Elementary School in Silver Spring, looking the part of scientists, or perhaps doctors.

They wore lab coats.

“Awesome,” said Nathaniel Belete, 8, tugging at his collar.

“I’m looking like I’m so smart,” said Lettyar Aung, also 8, showing off his crisp, white jacket.

It was the sign of a new era at Glenallan, which reopened this year in a new school building with a new mission: It is now “an academy” for STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. The school of 600 students is infusing STEM studies and approaches into its teaching and culture at a time when STEM is on the rise locally and nationally.

It might be a perfect fit for the Washington area, with its many science and technology workers. Two scientists have visited Glenallan, giving talks and demonstrations. Others are expected to follow.

The idea is to get kids jazzed about science- and math-related fields and the way of thinking that they require. There are lots of hands-on experiences: creating bridges, making parachutes, cracking open rocks. Students have goggles. They have tools. They record data.

And now there are lab coats.

“A lot of times when you dress the part, you feel it,” said principal Peter Moran, pointing out that one guiding idea at Glenallan is that STEM learning should be student-led, a process of investigation and discovery.

There is also another message, Moran said: “If they want to pursue a career in science or engineering, that is well within their grasp.”

Schools around the region have taken on STEM education in a variety of ways. But Glenallan is unusual in Montgomery as an elementary school so centered on it. Moran steered the federal funding that Glenallan gets as a high-poverty school toward materials and a staff position.

“I would like to think that many times when you are exposed to things at a young age, you set goals for yourself, and the earlier you set goals for yourself, the more they are attainable,” Moran said. “I would love to see our students find careers in a STEM field.”

Even if they don’t, he said, “it’s a great problem-solving style of learning where you are collaborating with your peers in learning. Regardless of whether they choose STEM or not, those skills are invaluable.”

PTA President Jennifer DePasquale said parents have already asked about setting up ­after-school activities that tie in. A STEM club starts Tuesday for upper grades. A STEM festival, like a science fair, will take place in April.

The school plans to enter competitions, too.

“Everybody is very excited,” DePasquale said.

Schools with a focus on STEM have multiplied nationally during the past five years, largely because of a sense that “that’s where all the jobs are,” said James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a national group.

Most of the focus has been at the high school level, Brown said, but “it’s definitely trickling down.” And the young are well-suited, especially those ages 8 to 12, he said. “The data show you that the biggest opportunities to hook kids on science is in that age bracket.”

For Glenallan’s third-graders, the lesson in the STEM lab on a recent Friday focused on static and dynamic equilibrium. Zulay Joa, the STEM coordinator, sees each class once a week and works with teachers across the building.

Students in lab coats listened as Joa read a story aloud, which led to the problem that they were solving: how to build a structure that would show static equilibrium.

“We’re going to become civil engineers,” Joa told them.

Soon, they got to work. Gathered around small tables in groups, they stacked blocks and shapes in different ways. They strategized. Before class ended, the children had used the day’s lesson to build bridges.

Earlier in the afternoon, the second-grade class gathered in Glenallan’s STEM lab to listen to a hydrogeologist.

Not that everyone knew exactly what a hydrogeologist was.

But as Chris Carlson stood before them, no one was fidgety. Carlson was talking water. Water in the human body. Groundwater. They saw that he had water in a half-filled basin on a table beside him. It was mysterious.

“How much of your body is water?” asked Carlson, who works for the U.S. Forest Service. “How much?”

“Soooo much,” they called out.

“Do you realize the water that is in your body was in a dinosaur at one point?”

“Aaah,” they said.

“In a woolly mammoth at one point?”

“Aaah!!”

“And probably in your great-grandmother at another point.”

“Ewwww,” several children protested.

Glenallan has applied to join a program that sends STEM speakers to schools. In the meantime, Joa, the STEM coordinator, is recruiting scientists on her own. As a Glenallan parent, Carlson stepped up.

“I think this is huge,” Carlson said of the school’s new direction. “I want to do whatever I can to support it.”

Glenallan also will benefit from a STEM volunteer program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which expects to send more than 100 STEM professionals into Washington region schools this year.

Talking to the second-graders, Carlson explained the water cycle and mentioned the Chesapeake Bay and the Anacostia River. He used the word “aquifer.” But he was kid-friendly.

“The one nice thing if you’re a hydrogeologist, you get to play with water,” he said.

They laughed.

Near the end, he turned to the container of water on the table beside him.

He showed them a tiny jar of “pollutant.”

“Would you want this in your water?” he asked them.

“Nooooo,” they said.

He poured the red dye into the large bin.

The water was no longer clear.

“If this was motor oil, I wouldn’t want to drink it anymore. Would you?”

“Nooooo,” they said again.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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