O’Brien becomes a STEM school this fall

By Frances Taylor - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Tue., Mar. 22, 2011
Morgan-Thompson hopes to use the land surrounding the school for planting and environmental study. Photos by Frances Taylor.
Morgan-Thompson hopes to use the land surrounding the school for planting and environmental study. Photos by Frances Taylor.

East Hartford students will have a new array of educational choices this fall.  The Robert J. O’Brien elementary school will become a STEM – science, technology engineering and mathematics - school.

“More and more parents are looking at magnet schools, and they seem to want more choices,’’ said Dr. Lesley A. Morgan-Thompson, principal of O’Brien School. “We’ve had three orientations sessions, and the response has been very positive.’’ Each session has had more than 150 parents and prospective students in attendance.  The program can accommodate about 300 students, she said.

“I think STEM is wonderful for kids - they are naturally curious they ask questions about their world, both the natural world and the human-created world,’’ Morgan-Thompson said. “With STEM they will learn by solving problems, which is very exciting to them, and will help them learn.’’ 

O’ Brien will remain a K-6 grade school. Any East Hartford students in grades four through six can apply to O’ Brien, where the curriculum will focus on the sciences as a theme.  Sixth grade students can attend O’Brien, remain in their home school or switch to the middle school, or apply to Sunset Ridge, the other ‘theme’ school, which has a world languages and arts focus.

Melissa Gavarino, East Hartford schools science department head 7-12, said the new STEM program will cultivate student skills and interests in science, but also provide the spark needed to keep students interested in these subjects in their later school years.

“Even if students choose not to pursue this type of career, a solid grounding in 21st century skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork will help prepare them for whatever career path they choose,’’ Gavarino said.

The O’Brien building is a former middle school with about 60,000 square feet, and has several large outdoor fields that surround the buildings. There is room to devote approximately 11 classrooms in the current 5th and 6th grade wing to the STEM program, Morgan-Thompson said.

“We have huge grounds, lots of fields, and the courtyard space that I would like to put in planting to enable kids to do environmental study on site – it would be great to put in a small pond… and gardens so that kids can learn about plants and nutrition,’’ she said.

The curriculum will follow state standards, expand the science and mathematics component, and for the first time add engineering to the elementary school level.

“Engineering takes what kids learn in science and math and applies it to a problem,’’ Morgan-Thompson explained. “So it makes it relevant - we’re not just studying the water cycle and how it can cause erosion, but we now we have engineering problems to solve, such as learning how to prevent erosion, for example.’’

Morgan-Thompson, who holds a doctorate in environmental studies and forestry, worked as an environmental educator before becoming a teacher.  “I found I just wanted to be in the classroom, working with kids," she said.

"STEM is a wonderful opportunity for East Hartford students," she added. "Over the next several decades, the demand for people in the STEM fields is going up, and it’s important for kids to know what is out there for them.’’


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