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‘My second-grade wasn't like this'

January 24, 2014
In The News

In the project science laboratory at the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy Thursday, a group of goggles-clad second-grade students were about to begin an experiment.  By combining two states of matter — vinegar, a liquid, and baking soda, a solid — could they create a third state of matter?  Second-grade teacher Kim Lewis, having passed out written instructions and given the students a couple of minutes, asked if there were any questions.  Juliana Vik, a particularly enthusiastic student, shook her head.

“We’re having too much fun with this,” she said eagerly. The fun was just beginning, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who had already admitted he almost wished he were in second-grade again so he could participate, watched closely as Vik’s small group poured vinegar into a balloon. The students then performed the other necessary steps to combine the vinegar and baking soda within a balloon- sealed bottle so that the balloon suddenly inflated, seemingly of its own accord. Lewis, zipping between groups, paused to express gratitude for the students’ enthusiasm.

“They are explorers, investigators,” she said. “They love to learn.” In the new magnet school building, where students in kindergarten and grades 1, 2, 5 and 6 study each day, hands-on inquiry is a primary learning model. The school facility itself boasts state-of-the­ art technologies popular with adults touring the school — an outdoor weather station trans­mitting data to indoor dashboards, a central courtyard with rain-water runoff channeled into a natural bio-filtration swale serving as an outdoor classroom, and much more. However, Courtney’s tour of Barrows Thurs­day was dominated by vignettes of young intellectuals, engaged in the scientific method of inquiry. “All you saw here were kids smiling and engaged, and they’re learning in a way that’s not force-fed,” he reflected following the tour.

Earlier, in the oceanography laboratory, Courtney had observed another second-grade class of scientists, in pigtails and crew cuts, studying the varying reactions of peppermints in solutions of water, vinegar, lemon water and seltzer. “My second-grade wasn’t like this,” Court­ney said. Barrows Principal Jeffrey Wihbey said the inquiry-based learning was one of his school’s main educational strategies. “We’re kind of training them to follow up on those natural curiosities,” he said. Holly Harrick, STEM coordinator for the school, agreed. “Kids are naturally curious anyway, so why not capitalize on that?” she asked.

Like professional scientists, Harrick said, the students conduct research and then share the results with their peers. “That’s how they learn,” she said. In Nicole Bay’s fifth-grade classroom, stu­dents were in the process of sharing musical instruments they had created from found objects such as cardboard, plastic bottles, rub­ber bands and duct tape. Individual students played their instruments for the class, picking out tunes such as “Hot Cross Buns,” and Bay led a discussion of the science behind sound, guiding observations about how vibrations were created on different students’ instruments.

Aside from a heavy emphasis on the sci­ence, technology, engineering and mathemat­ics explorations for which the STEM school was created, Barrows also offers students opportunities to explore art, music, physi­cal education, world language and a series of extra activities ranging from robotics to Chinese fan dancing, Wihbey said. “We have a full, comprehensive program here,” he said, strolling past the gymnasium’s rock wall. Courtney, for his part, vowed to take stories of Barrows back to Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Deputy Superintendent Anthony Gasper said Barrows shines because its spaces were designed to optimize learning. “ Every student deserves a building this well-designed for the educational process,” he said.