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STEAM Inspiration

The following article on our new STEAM suite by Director of Curriculum Integration and Science Chair Nora Sundar appears in the current issue of Saint David's Magazine:

Upper School Science Lab rendering courtesy of Platt Byard Dovell White
Science faculty are eagerly planning new units and prototyping new tools that will inspire boys to take full advantage of the new science, technology, engineering, artistic design, and math (STEAM) spaces in the expanded Saint David’s. When feeling squeezed during the “Great Compression,” we imagine working with students in our three new sunny and spacious science labs, brainstorming in the STEAM Commons, or tinkering with an invention in the specialized INNOVATION workshop, outfitted with sophisticated technology and fabrication tools. We are keenly anticipating the opening of the newly expanded school in the fall of 2018!

Sharing classrooms, offices, and prep space this unusual year has not always been easy. However, one of the great joys has been the hundreds of serendipitous conversations that have bubbled up in and around the interfaces and intersections between art and science as faculty of both departments work side by side in these cozy conditions. The new STEAM suite places science labs adjacent to the art studios, around a STEAM Commons, and art and science faculty will share office space. This will further foster the exciting cross-pollination of ideas, and provide spaces to include students in our lively conversations and collaborations!

These conditions inspire us to fantasize about our exciting, new STEAM spaces. Rather than squeezing our robust science and STEAM programs into the spaces available, as we must do during construction, we will soon be able to customize our new, flexible spaces to fit our students’ needs! As with so much else in New York City, what will make our new STEAM learning spaces different and truly special comes down to access and location.

The plans for the new STEAM suite will give boys access to three state-of-the-art labs as well as two brand new spaces: the STEAM Commons and the INNOVATION workshop.

STEAM Commons rendering, courtesy of Platt Byard Dovell White
The comfortable and inviting STEAM Commons will represent a literal and figurative intersection between science and the arts. Surrounded on one side by art studios, and on the other by science labs, boys will use this space to explore their world through the multiple perspectives of art and science during the school day and in after school programs. They will be invited to consider a core idea from one discipline, for example, color mixing, from a variety of perspectives: from the physics of light and the biology of the eye and brain that results in how humans perceive color, to the chemical properties of oil paint vs. tempera that made it the preferred medium of Renaissance masters.

We have imagined novel projects that weave art making and coding in the form of site-specific interactive sculptures that respond to changes in light and sound via sensors and motors, wall murals with embedded electrical circuits, and switches that light up and move.

Our INNOVATION workshop will feel more like an R&D lab in a tech company than a typical classroom. Outfitted with 3D printers, electronics components, microprocessors, building materials, and covered in white boards, it will be a space where students are trained on using sophisticated digital making tools and have agency to develop their own projects that combine fabrication, mechanical engineering, and coding. The INNOVATION workshop will be scheduled as needed for special projects, and it will be available for teachers and students to drop in. It will be the home base for our Upper School competitive robotics teams.

Robotics Lab rendering, courtesy of Platt Byard Dovell White
Our three spacious and sunny new science labs will provide boys access to ample, flexible spaces for active learning. The labs will be ringed with deep sinks for washing messy hands and deep counters for staging ongoing experiments. One of the labs will feature modular furniture on wheels that can be joined together or pulled apart. Students will be able to decouple tables, and roll desks and chairs away when it suits their learning needs. Whether building their understanding of robotics, mechanical engineering, DNA, molecular bonds, or electrical circuits, boys often prefer to spread out on the floor surrounded by parts and components.

Later, furniture can be reconnected to support small group discussion, and reconfigured once again to accommodate a large messy demonstration. The space, itself, will be flexible. The concertina doors separating Middle and Lower School labs can be retracted to double the available space to allow robots to navigate a student-built maze or to test student-made cars along the 50-foot Nerdy Derby track.

Nerdy Derby's 50-ft track
The Lower School lab will open up onto a “STEAM Terrace.” We will use this space to conduct plant growth experiments, sample air quality, and test renewable energy inventions that harness the power of the wind and the sun. Students across divisions will be able to set up experiments, and observe and analyze the results over time. For the first time, Saint David’s students will have access to a controlled outdoor environment in which they can set up and run ongoing data-collecting experiments.

Lower School Lab rendering, courtesy of Platt Byard Dovell White
Our labs will provide the boys with access to a variety of living organisms. We plan to have a host of living things sharing lab space: we will have space to house the tanks of millipedes and pet mice that we use to study animal behavior, as well as plant racks with glow lights to nurture plants and culture algae, ant farms that can be explored with digital microscopes, and tanks of fish, snails, and other aquatic life that we will care for and use in our ecosystems units.

For the first time in school history, science spaces will be located together, on the same floor, even linked by connecting doors. Boys and teachers will have easy access to materials and equipment in common storage and prep areas. Easy access to all science tools helps a teacher turn an unplanned encounter into an exploration — Bug flies in through the window? Grab a digital microscope and explore! (And when you’re done, feed it to a class pet.)

Boys will conduct plant experiments on a STEAM terrace.
Students’ access to each other’s work will serve as an inspiration. Bulletin boards displaying the student projects and photos of the boys at work will be visible for all to see. As Lower School boys will see older boys, admire their projects, and overhear phrases from their discussions, they will be able to make connections between their own studies and that of their older schoolmates. Boys in the primary grades will notice that while the vocabulary may become more sophisticated in the upper grades, and the laboratory work may become more exacting, the habits of mind and scientific reasoning skills boys develop in the primary grades remain central to the work of an Upper School science student, and, indeed, are the currency of scientific discovery.

Meanwhile, the boys in the upper grades will be able to look in on Lower School classes and exclaim “No Fair! We never got to program robots in First Grade!” This is a testament to the remarkable ways technology is transforming learning, and how Saint David’s is staying innovative.

The STEAM suite will foster deep collaboration and collegiality among and between the art and science faculty, and promote mentorship and a feeling of shared stake in scientific enterprise between students across divisions. The new spaces will provide the boys the room, tools, and inspiration their ideas need to thrive, and will allow the STEAM program to continue to grow and evolve. We
can’t wait!

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