Science thrives at the Brearley School.
The hallways of the 8th-floor department are filled with colorful “atomobiles,” complex models of chemical elements creatively fashioned out of everything the students could find—from dried pasta to clothes pins and ping pong balls.
Making sure that girls develop a strong interest in science and enjoy learning how it affects their lives is the top priority for the teachers charged with their instruction, said Dr. Laurie Seminara, head of the department.
The key to achieving this lies in the collaborative process.
Teachers, all of whom are trained to offer several subjects, often walk in and out of each other’s classrooms during sessions, not only to grab a Bunsen burner or fetch a tank of frogs, but to ask questions and offer suggestions as well. Students are encouraged from the very beginning to turn to teach other when trying to solve a problem.
To foster this curiosity and team spirit, Seminara and her colleagues employ cutting-edge classroom techniques like cooperative group learning, where “pods” of students work on different topics and then exchange ambassadors to share their findings. “There’s nothing like teaching what you learned to someone else to make sure you understand it,” Seminara said.
Dr. Stephanie J. Hull, head of school, highlighted this as an example of the “excellent work” delivered by the science faculty. “As they always say, ‘students learn science by doing science,’ and from kindergarten all the way to independent laboratory research, their teaching methods encourage students to make their own observations, to collaborate and to use science to understand their world,” Hull said.
The goal is to set up lessons so that young women can discover the answers for themselves, explained Annette Marcus, who introduced the subject of robotics at the Brearley School eight years ago. “That moment when a student is jumping up and down, yelling ‘I did it!’—whether she made a light bulb go off or a robot move the way she wanted it to—that is a moment of great excitement,” Marcus said.
That spark often leads to accomplishment. The Upper School Robotics Club, formed by a group of dedicated students, now enters the national First Robotics Competition every year.
Several Brearley girls have made it to the finals and semifinals of the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search contest, and some even go on to pursue careers in science.
One of them, Leigh Stearns, who graduated from the school in 1995 and is now a glaciologist, was recently invited to share her thesis on ice floes in Greenland with the students. “I wanted them to see a woman—a woman who is young, a woman who flies in helicopters and wears neon green hiking boots—and understand that this is what real women do,” Seminara said.
The members of the Brearley School science department are: Paul Byrnes, Annie Cheung, James Karb, Annette Marcus, Karen Nedbal, Sarah Oehm, Coleen Scalesi, Laurie Seminara, Pankti Sevak, Clayton Squire, Richard White and Jane Zagajeski.
— Anne Gehris