With the arrival of Ms. Alisha Roberts to The New Century School this year, the elementary program goes higher-tech. Ms. Roberts will teach primarily Math and Science (and Technology and Engineering, the other STEM subjects), while Mrs. Adriana DuPrau will focus on English Language Arts/Literacy and Global Studies. Elementary enrollment has expanded, requiring an additional teacher, so Head of School Alicia Danyali seized the opportunity to branch out in this way and allow each elementary teacher to focus on her preferred subjects, while still maintaing the all-around connectedness TNCS’s successful curriculum is based on. “Within each subject,” says Mrs. Danyali, “there are plenty of intersections with other subjects, so that students learning about how a bridge is built in Ms. Roberts’ class might then write a paragraph or essay about bridges with Mrs. DuPrau or even build his or her own bridge in art class with Mrs. Raccuglia.”
The timing is ideal. STEM is all over the media, and with good reason. STEM subjects are inherently investigative in nature, cultivating self-guided exploration and producing a greater understanding of the physical world. Ms. Roberts says, “STEM is important for everyday life; for example, we use math at the grocery store and at the bank. And science explains how the world works.” Another appeal of early STEM learning is the downstream payoff. Recently, NPR did a Planet Money story about what job fields yield the highest incomes. In “The Most (And Least) Lucrative College Majors, In 1 Graph,” STEM came out almost scarily far ahead (that discrepancy is another story). The focus of other media coverage is the nation’s big move to catch up to other developed countries, whom the United States currently lags far behind in depth and breadth of STEM education.
Even Elmo is getting in on the act. Sesame Street began incorporating STEM into their shows in 2009 with great success (and the usual helpings of silliness and multicolor fur) with segments like Super Grover 2.0 and his investigation superpowers; Murray the Monster’s science experiments; Elmo’s math musicals (“in ‘Guacamole,’ he quizzes the ‘Rhombus of Recipes’ and adds up the avocados on two trees”); and guest appearances from big stars like Jimmy Fallon, who played Wild Nature Survivor Guy. On September 24th, Sesame Street will add a component to their website called “Little Discoverers: Big Fun With Science, Math and More” with STEM-related games and activities for kids.
Why the big push all of a sudden? Studies show that U.S. kids lost interest in science by 4th grade under the former curriculum paradigm in which STEM subjects were completely segregated. They should be—and fundamentally are—connected with other disciplines (as TNCS is doing). As a result, this country will soon have a deficit of graduates with degrees in these subjects and may begin to falter in making those important innovations and discoveries that bolster humanity.
Hyperbole aside, Ms. Roberts says she came to science and math quite naturally, with her father and brother both in engineering. “It must run in the family!” she says and goes on to recount that after becoming consumed with physics in high school thanks to a very dedicated teacher, she entered college as a physics major, switched to biology, and did lots of chemistry along the way. She’s a model of the curiosity and engagement we hope TNCS students also demonstrate! But when some of her peers spoke to her about the education programs they were majoring in, she decided to give that a try, too, and ultimately fell completely in love with teaching. At TNCS, she unites both of her passions to our great fortune. “I love it,” she says. “I love the kids—they’re so motivated to learn more and it’s so easy to get them to work. The more work I give them, the more they want—it’s true! They love the work!”
A typical day for Ms. Roberts begins with her homeroom students, comprising the 2nd through 4th graders (pre-1st and 1st graders have homeroom with Mrs. DuPrau). They start with a list of “Must Dos and May Dos,” which consist of working with math and science topics in their workbooks, on the computer, at their work tables, and throughout the classroom and school grounds. May Dos often involve learning games through SuccessMaker (our Gracie’s favorite). The Scientific Method is emphasized, the step-by-step approach to problem-solving that Mrs. DuPrau introduced them to the prior year during Science Fair preparations. Ms. Roberts confirms that we can look forward to another Science Fair project for this school year as well and that her goal is for the students to come up with their own experiment to perform.
She then has 90 minutes with the younger elementary group, which she humorously compares to being in a Nationwide commercial (you know, the ones in which the kids say the funniest things?). In an exploration of “What’s in Your Lunchbox?” (a lesson on where our food comes from and how it’s processed for consumption), she asked the kids about the origins of chocolate, anticipating a discussion of the cocoa bean. She had to switch tack, however, when someone ventured that chocolate comes from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and everyone gratefully chimed agreement. . . Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.
As mentioned, each lesson is integrated with whatever else the student happens to be learning, so there’s plenty of reading happening during Ms. Roberts’ class and likewise plenty of scientific discovery during Mrs. DuPrau’s time with the students. The STEM subjects are themselves also integrated, so that they are “tied together as one big whole,” in Ms. Roberts’ words. “I love working with the children,” she concludes. “They all have unique personalities and rates of learning, and I just love seeing them ‘get it’!”
Welcome to TNCS, Ms. Roberts!