Q&A with Bryan Smith: Science and Discovery at Ross Lower School

DSC_2500 Lower School Science teacher Bryan Smith is dedicated to providing early childhood (EC) through third grade students with a creative educational experience that incorporates exploration and investigation. In this post, School News talks with Bryan about the importance of starting science education at an early age and how he keeps his students motivated and interested in learning.

Describe your role as Lower School science teacher. I teach early childhood through grade 3 science classes. An end goal is to foster the students’ curiosity in the world around them, and we spend as much time outdoors as possible. It’s very hands on, and we conduct a lot of experiments. If they have fun while they are learning, then I’ve met my expectation for the day, so we make things bubble, boil, explode, and grow throughout the year.

What makes the science curriculum at Ross unique? We have an amazing cultural history–based curriculum that already distinguishes Ross School. At the Lower School, we go beyond that as one of the only schools on the East End to provide teaching specialists for even our youngest students in specific areas such as science, Spanish, Mandarin, arts, wellness, theater, and library studies. Starting the students on this advanced course of study in the EC and kindergarten classes helps create an important foundation at a very early age that will help students become lifelong learners and excel as they advance through upper grades and college.

How do the younger students respond to the material? For the EC students, everything is new and magical, and it’s rewarding to see their sense of wonder at the world. As they progress through to grades 3 and up, they take that curiosity with them.

The content covers a wide range, and much of the material they are exposed to includes elements that a typical student will not be introduced to until high school. But I find that teaching young students to be curious and to investigate helps them gain a deeper understanding of the significance of their studies. For example, we continue to have a major focus on sustainability at Ross, and many of our projects reflect how we interact with and affect the natural environment.

In recent months, pre-nursery and kindergarten students planted milkweed at the Lower School, a critical food source for the monarch caterpillar. In the spring, we’ll spend time in the gardens researching plants and insects. Other projects, such as the second grade’s weather station and creating clouds in a bottle, enable them to easily learn complex subject matter.

The kindergarten and first grade classes are my “growers,” and we have a refrigerator filled with seeds that we’ll have some fun planting in the spring. We also hope to build a beehive on our campus.

The third graders are learning about the evolution of mammals, and we’re excited about activities such as excavating fossils and conducting field and Internet research about the mammals on our farm.

The resources available to students and teachers at Ross are significant. The Lower School farm offers a great outdoor lab for the younger grades. It provides an opportunity to study animal behavior and care and specific lessons tied to the students’ studies, such as the kindergarten’s research into how animals adapt for the winter. Students are able to pet our sheep and feel the lanolin that they produce to protect their wool and skin from the wet and cold.

What led you to Ross Lower School? I’ve been at Ross for three years, and I’m enjoying incorporating both my academic and life experiences into the classroom. I studied the evolutionary biology of the human species at Columbia University, and then spent time in South Africa researching monkeys before returning to the states to teach at the Buckley School in New York. I then joined Ross after a year as a professional brewer.

I have always had an interest in human cognitive development, so teaching EC through grade 3 science is a perfect fit for me.

Tell us something people may not know about you. I grew up in Alaska, so I prefer the cold!