Together, Brown, Vartan Gregorian Elementary are designing, creating hands-on ‘STEAM room’ for kids

Staff at Brown University are working with the Providence public school to transform an empty classroom into an engaging, interactive space where students can conduct experiments and work on creative projects.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Science and technology instruction is about to get even more engaging than the exciting lessons already in place at Providence’s Vartan Gregorian Elementary School. 

Teachers and administrators at the school, located just blocks away from Brown University in the city’s Fox Point neighborhood, are working with the University to transform an empty classroom into a hands-on, interactive space where students from kindergarten to fifth grade can explore science, technology, engineering, arts and math — or STEAM for short.

Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, the two schools are collaborating to outfit the space with new furniture and supplies, with the goal of transforming a traditional third-grade classroom into a vibrant laboratory-like space with endless possibilities. By late spring, with funding from Brown enabling project implementation, students and teachers at Vartan Gregorian Elementary will be able to conduct interactive experiments, work together on creative projects, and fill the walls and windows with finished art and science projects.

Brown President Christina H. Paxson said the collaboration is inspired in part by the elementary school’s namesake, Vartan Gregorian, who served as president of Brown from 1989 to 1997 and died in 2020. For nearly a decade before Fox Point Elementary School was renamed in his honor, Gregorian had considered it his “adopted” school, partnering with educators and local leaders to expand its resources and physical footprint, connect its students with tutoring and mentoring, and host school-wide enrichment activities. 

“Vartan Gregorian believed that institutions of higher education have an obligation to respond to urgent social needs across the nation and world, including the need to deliver quality education to every single child,” Paxson said. “His legacy lives on in Brown’s deep connection with this elementary school, and the University continues to build on the foundations he first laid 30 years ago, both at Vartan Gregorian Elementary and across the city at other public schools. We’re excited to help turn the vision for a new STEAM laboratory into reality.”

Paxson noted that the project reflects Brown’s decades-long commitment to providing impactful experiences for students in the Providence Public School District, contributing to strengthened educational outcomes and enhancing their access to a high-quality college education. Every year, hundreds of students, faculty and staff in the Brown community engage with PPSD schools through teaching, tutoring, after-school enrichment and more. And the continued growth of the endowed Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence provides sustainable financial support for initiatives that promote academic excellence and success for K-12 students. Most recently, funds from the endowment supported the transformation of a library at Hope High School.

In a visit to the school on Wednesday, Dec. 8, representatives from the University joined Vartan Gregorian Elementary Principal Matthew Russo to explore a “mobile classroom” full of sample couches, tables, chairs and stools from the manufacturing company K.I. Furniture. In the coming weeks, Russo said, teachers and students will have the opportunity to test out the furniture and provide feedback on what they like best.

Joanna Saltonstall, a program manager in Brown’s Department of Facilities Management, said all of the furniture options prioritize flexibility and collaboration. Throughout the room are fiberglass “ruckus chairs” that let students choose how they sit: They can use the taller side of the chair as a backrest, as an armrest or even as a seating perch. Rectangular, triangular and circular tables throughout the room can be pushed together, can move up and down and can even be turned sideways to save space. “Ricochet stools” feature non-slip convex bases that allow students who crave movement to wiggle around while seated. And storage lockers come with bins in a variety of sizes, allowing teachers to organize supplies in many different ways. 

“The furniture is adjustable and flexible, and it’s all on rolling casters,” Saltonstall said. “Teachers and students can use it however they want through mid-January as they start to think about how they might use the space. It’s a great way for us to find out what they like and don’t like, what works and what doesn’t.”

In January 2022, Saltonstall and K.I. Furniture will draw on feedback from the school to create a layout for the STEAM room — which will in turn inform how they’ll transform the space’s walls, floors and lighting and help fill it with supplies. 

Russo said the new space will “round out” the learning experience at Vartan Gregorian Elementary, which already boasts a strong arts program, a large auditorium and a garden space. While the STEAM room will primarily serve fourth and fifth graders, Russo said, he envisions a space that provides learning opportunities for students at all grade levels, from LEGO-building to water play to introductory robotics lessons. 

“I firmly believe in providing hands-on activities for kids in addition to traditional classroom instruction,” Russo said. “Providing a space for exploratory learning, where students have a chance to build and collaborate, is essential to ensuring they become well-rounded learners.”

Brown’s relationship with Gregorian’s “adopted” school began in the early 1990s, when student athletes at the University began visiting elementary students throughout the academic year to serve as tutors, mentors and role models, helping at points to raise money for school supplies. Three decades later, that tradition lives on.

Since the late 1990s, the student-designed Project Eye to Eye, now a national organization, has enlisted Brown undergraduates with learning disabilities to tutor their younger counterparts at the elementary school — an endeavor to show children who struggle with spelling, reading, writing and concentrating that they, too, can find academic success. Through a 20-year-old program run by Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science, graduate students collaborate with teachers at the school to develop and implement inquiry-driven science lessons. And in 2009, a $10,000 grant from the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence supported curricular development in Vartan Gregorian Elementary classrooms. 

Russo said Gregorian’s passing in 2021 inspired staff at the elementary school and at Brown to rekindle their close relationship.

“Teachers here said, ‘We need to do more to recognize the contributions he made,’” Russo said. “Then, President Paxson reached out and said the same thing: ‘Let’s re-energize our collaboration.’ We’ve always had a close relationship with the school — many parents of Brown employees send their kids here — so it’s a truly organic partnership.”