A Healthy STEM, A Brighter Future

By Katherine Ogden

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — STEM education holds promise for Brunswick boys who will enter a world awash in technology. The School is adding resources and rigor to the field like never before.

Upper School Science Department Chair Dana Montanez found a science muse in her sliding glass door.

It came in the form of an orb weaver spider, kept alive by a careful husband while Montanez was gone for eight weeks on a summer jaunt.

On a whim last fall, Montanez collected the spider, along with its friend, and introduced them to the students in her Honors Science Research course.
The move proved inspirational to her students. Spider silk is a prized but poorly understood material that holds incredible promise for its combination of strength, elasticity, and eco-friendliness.

Fascinated by its silky assets, one team of ’Wick boys focused on its properties in their science project, which took them all the way to the Connecticut State Science and Engineering Fair, winning accolades for their efforts to synthesize this high-performance biomaterial, which is coveted by industry for use in everything from bridges to paper.

For Montanez, science education and hope for the future begin with almost childlike bursts of imagination. A voracious reader, her goal in the unique Honors Science Research course she created two years ago is to first provide the spark of an idea to her students, and then to lead them through a rigorous scientific process to test out their notions.

Limited to just 16 students per year, Montanez’s two-year course is a major underpinning of Brunswick’s commitment to STEM education in the new century. That commitment is demonstrated in everything from new course offerings in science, engineering, and computer science to an award-winning Middle School robotics club and to a new Coding Club at the Lower School that has the youngest ’Wick students beginning to learn the language of computers.

Similarly, older students are enjoying new opportunities for enrichment as far away as Peru and as nearby as Cos Cob. This spring, for example, ’Wick boys played sportsdoctor-for-a-day when a group of 22 Upper School science students visited the nearby Orthopaedic Foundation for Active Lifestyles Lab.

The lab features actual surgical equipment, such as drills, plates, and screws. The boys enjoyed a hands-on opportunity to learn the skills needed to repair broken bones. To that end, students had the chance to bolt, pin together, and insert supportive plates into a model of a broken forearm, all under the supervision of renowned orthopaedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist, and Greenwich resident Kevin Plancher, M.D.

Another terrific field trip was an April trip to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in Tarrytown, New York. There, the boys learned about the business side of biotech, as well as the discovery and development of antibody-based drugs. Students toured the research labs, the cloning facilities, the vivarium, and the

“The boys were outstanding,” Montanez said. “Before we left, our guide pointed out that our boys asked the most questions of any group that has come through in years. It was fantastic.”

Even more enrichment for top-level science students is planned for later this spring, when Montanez will lead a field-research trip to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in Peru.

The trip is being made available to ’Wick research students in order to expose them to an entirely new branch of science education: Field Research. Organized by the worldwide biological and conservation research group Operation Wallacea, the program gives students the opportunity to collect and monitor data on the biodiversity of the Amazon rain forest, as well as information about the sustainability of forest-resource use by indigenous people living on the reserve.

But there are plenty of opportunities for science research right on Maher Avenue, thanks to a newlyrenovated Upper School science lab. That room, Montanez says, originally functioned as the “Black Box” for the theater program. It was later called into service as a practice room for the jazz band and, after that, became a study hall.

Thanks to gift from Bodas family, the room was gutted and renovated during the summer of 2011, just before Montanez joined the ’Wick faculty. It now serves as a space to nurture budding scientific thinkers.

“It’s a beautiful, bright space with cutting-edge equipment, along with staple equipment that allows the kids to explore,” she said. “If a kid gets into something we don’t have, we do what can to get it.” She added: “Sometimes we have to say no. It’s evolving.”

Overall, the renewed commitment to STEM is already paying dividends for Brunswick students: ’Wick boys earned multiple honors and awards at the Connecticut State Science & Engineering Fair held at Quinnipiac University in March.

“They did really, really great,” said Montanez, who chairs the Brunswick Science Department just two years into her tenure here. “They worked so hard.”

The boys had been working since November, developing experiments for the fair, testing out everything from the use of nanomagnets to retrieve spilled oil to the insulating properties of different kinds of roofing material to the possibilities of synthesizing spider silk for use in industry.

’Wick projects were initially culled from a field of 10,000 applications and were among the 448 invited to participate. Fair organizers called the invited projects the “cream of the crop.”

From Brunswick, 13 boys making up seven teams from Montanez’s Honors Science Research course were named finalists. The boys defended their work before the judges and were among roughly 200 selected for honors and awards.

Honored were: Kevin Pendo ’15, Mahesh Raman ’15, Spencer McDonough ’14, Ashish Ramachandran ’14, Reed McMurchy ’15, Alex Montinaro ’15, Christian Tanner ’15, Chase Stitzer ’15, Jake Fields ’13, Vikram Bodas ’14, Matthew Mayfield ’13, Reed Schultz ’14, Sivan Sud ’14, Cooper Robinson ’15, and Tommy Tranfo ’14.

Tenth grader Alex Montinaro was part of the team that studied spider silk and was inspired by the creatures that his teacher carefully carted into the classroom in a used wonton soup container.

Though the spiders didn’t live very long in their new home, the boys worked hard to provide a habitat for them as they began to consider the unique material these creatures spin as part of their daily routine.

The boys learned, for instance, that a gown made entirely of spider silk has recently gone on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The gown took five years to make and is made from silk harvested from a million Madagascar-born female orb weaver spiders — all of them captured by morning, mined for silk during the day, and released by evening.

The story is amazing, but even more so for the qualities of the material that was so laboriously gathered. Spider silk is said to be as strong as steel and yet also as forgiving as rubber.

“It’s basically like a miracle of nature,” explained Montinaro. “It has practical uses. It’s biodegradable.”

“I love science,” he said, adding that Montanez’s class is especially wonderful because it gives students some “freedom to play around with ideas.

“That’s why I love this class — you make it what you want.” Montinaro, along with teammates Chase Stitzer and Christian Tanner, ended up winning 1st Honors for their project, which they called “A Novel Approach to the Synthesis of a High-Performance Biomaterial.” The team also earned Medalist status for three awards: the Barnes Aerospace Applied Technology Award, the Alexicon Biotechnology Award, and the Pfizer Life Science Award.

Such success shows Brunswick is already bucking a coast-to-coast trend that sees fewer young people attracted to important, and rewarding, STEM careers.

Nationwide, a report in U.S. News & World Report shows high school students lose interest in STEM as they move toward graduation, despite the promise of the well-documented growing job market in the field.

But at Brunswick, STEM education is thriving. It is a key initiative for Montanez and for the school-wide “Above All Else…” Capital Campaign. A major campaign goal is to create an endowment to strengthen teaching and learning in science, mathematics, and technology, and to create a separate endowment to support an Upper School Science Research Fund.

A broad-based resource, the STEM endowment will enable Brunswick to unite and build on current initiatives, adding integrated mathematics, science, and engineering programs to the curriculum at all levels. Long-term, the goal is to define and support the kind of excellence that will place the School’s STEM initiative on par with, or well ahead of, Brunswick’s independent school peers.

By creating these new funds, Brunswick recognizes that all students, regardless of their chosen concentration, gain significant and important thinking skills, as well as educational and professional opportunities, by satisfying the requirements for proficiency in mathematics and the sciences.

Even more, by providing resources to enhance student achievement, the STEM Endowment Fund will ensure that every ’Wick graduate possesses the knowledge and skills needed to pursue a baccalaureate or higher degree in mathematics, engineering, or the sciences if they so choose, as well as to thrive in a global economy increasingly defined by scientific and technological innovation.

As Montanez sees it, STEM education offers students much more than just a seat at the table of innovation. The field, she says, provides opportunities to be a hero in a world that sorely needs them.

Earth, she notes, faces obvious problems, from pollution to energy supply. STEM careers, she says, offer hope for solutions, particularly in the form of engineering.

Engineers, Montanez says, design solutions to everything from toxic landfills to inefficient solar panels. These are the innovators who will be dreaming up fixes for the developed world for the next century and the one beyond.

Montanez is in the process of developing Brunswick’s first-ever engineering class and hopes to debut it within the next few years. Cast in the same vein as the science research course, the engineering class will offer students the luxury of time to tinker with new ideas and pursue their own interests.

“We need engineers because they are the solvers,” she said. “They invent things that solve our problems and help us live better, cleaner lives.

“It’ll be the engineers who solve the energy crisis,” Montanez predicted. “(But) it might not be for 200 years.”

Though the ’Wick science program has clearly caught some of the limelight in recent months, similar upgrades are in the pipeline for the School’s Computer Science Department. Technology has revolutionized the world during the last 20 years — it now permeates every aspect of economic and personal life, from medicine to education, from government to manufacturing and beyond.

But the medium will only become more powerful in the years to come. According to one Brunswick teacher, the ability to operate a PC is only the beginning of an education in computers.

Sunil Gupta, director of technology and chair of the Computer Science Department, notes that technology is one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying sectors of the economy, and young people need to learn more than just how to use a web browser and a word-processing program.

Learning the language of computers, Gupta says, develops logical skills and abstract thinking and, in the end, the knowledge and the tools needed to program computers to solve problems.

“Computing is driving innovation in almost every field,” Gupta said. “It’s the foundation of scientific advancement and economic activity. Unless the kids have a more meaningful understanding (of computers), they will be at a disadvantage in the workforce. We are no longer a manufacturing society. It’s a knowledgebased, service economy which requires innovative, problem-solving skills.”

Gupta notes the reasons to learn computer science
are as practical as they are abstract:
Eight of the top 10 growth jobs in the next decade are
technology-related.

  • Many college majors at top-ranked universities now require students to take some Computer Science courses.
  • Of the most sought-after careers listed by Monster.com, computer-related fields have the highest median salary.
  • Learning one programming language makes it easier for students to master other programming languages, as many share similar syntax commands and logic.

While students are introduced to technology in the Lower and Middle School, the actual language of computers is taught only in the Upper School. One course is an Introduction to Computer Science and the other is an AP computer-science course. Both are in Java.

Changes are afoot. Gupta said Brunswick is looking to add a Middle School computer programming class, possibly as soon as September 2013. Lower School offerings may follow, though these young students are already enjoying an after-school opportunity that explores the basics of the language that web pages are built on.

At the suggestion of a parent, a new Lower School Coding Club was formed in January. Open to third and fourth graders, the Club uses an online website to tutor ’Wick boys in the most basic elements of HyperText Markup Language, or HTML.

Lower School technology guru Timothy Coupe said the idea is to get the boys to think about the “language” they need to speak to get computers to perform tasks.

“We’re looking at what we can do with our youngest students,” said Coupe. “This gives them an opportunity to innovate, and lets them experiment.”

The club, which drew 18 boys in the first session and 12 in the second, meets once a week for almost an hour.

The boys work in teams at their own pace, and learn to recognize the rules and patterns of HTML. The goal is not to create a website, but instead to focus on the process and language of programming.

Coupe said the online tutorial program provides instant feedback, which allows the boys to know if what they are doing is right or wrong. “There’s lots of trial and error,” he said. “I work with two other teachers to help support the boys, and we are all learning together.”

The need for this kind of education has already been demonstrated by a Brunswick student who will graduate this spring and who, as a junior, launched a successful tech business.

Peter Kazazes ’13 took the AP computer science class as a ’Wick junior and has already leveraged the skills he learned there to launch Sibyl Vision. The company was one of the first to mine the ‘Twitterverse’ for sentiment about the presidential election and has since offered up its high-tech analysis to everyone from big-name entertainers to cookie manufacturers.

Other ’Wick students are seeing success in related STEM fields. In a Brunswick first, for example, a team of Middle School boys won the award for Highest-Scoring Robot at the FIRST LEGO® League (FLL) state championships held in December in New Britain.

THE FLL, a global robotics competition in which students aged 9 to 14 are asked to research and solve a real-world problem, present their findings, and build a working LEGO® NXT Mindstorms robot.

“This is a true competition and a bit of a cutthroat one at that,” said Coach Drew Dawson. ’Wick boys were first out of a field of 48 teams statewide. It was the first time a Brunswick team has even made a showing at the state level, let alone won a statewide award.

“It’s exciting,” said parent Cosby George. Calling themselves The New Mind Mavericks, the 10-member Brunswick FLL team had earlier won Best Project in a field of 24 at the regional tournament in Shelton, Conn. The boys designed a special multifunctional cane that senior citizens can use to stay independent as they age.

Members of the team are Will Frauen, William George, Ian Murray, Robert Sprung, Eric Meindl, Jamie Meindl, Jose Riera, Cedric Lafleur, Mike Pastore, and Charlie Heath.

Clearly, Brunswick can be proud of its boys for their recent achievements. But with all the emphasis on building skills for the future, Montanez and her spiders
remind us that in life and learning, inspiration has its clear place in the equation, too.

Like every home, the Montanez house has its share of creepy-crawlies. Unlike at many homes, however, no one is allowed to squish the critters that make their home at the Montanez manse. Family members there can often be found scooping them up in a Bug Wrangler that this mom-of-three found at Toys-R-Us.

You might call it a Montanez Menagerie. Aside from the bugs that enjoy a permanent stay-of-execution and her children, Montanez has a husband, a 17-year-old Cockatiel named Charlie, an orange corn snake she has kept alive for more than a decade, and a German Shepherd named Nino.

A certain pair of spiders was among the critters to win a recent Montanez reprieve, and in this came a powerful opportunity to serve as inspiration for a teacher trying to plant the seeds of science in young minds.

Says Montanez: “I just brought them in because I thought they were interesting.” Brett Martell, science coordinator at the Pre and Lower Schools, tries to offer ’Wick’s youngest students a similar opportunity to discover.

Science, he notes, is an integral and important part of the day for all Pre and Lower School boys, and the learning that happens there provides the foundation for everything that comes later at the Middle and Upper Schools.

For the youngest students, science offers a chance to sharpen thinking skills while considering everything from the space program to electricity to crime scene investigation.

And here too, it’s all led by curiosity.

“By inspiring curiosity and risk taking, collaboration and perseverance, our youngest boys are already learning skills they need to tackle open-ended and complex problems,” said Lower School Head Katie Signer, who holds a Master’s Degree in teaching with a focus on math and science and thus counts those subjects especially close to her heart.

“Hands-on and interactive by nature, science is a place where many boys feel at home and come alive,” she said.