A new space at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School lets students get immersed in interactive, hands-on experiments and projects that mix science, technology, engineering, arts and math. All photos: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

With support from Brown, innovative ‘STEAM Room’ opens at Vartan Gregorian Elementary

In collaboration with elementary school administrators, the University has transformed an empty third-grade classroom into an interactive, hands-on creative laboratory for young children.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Robot-building, LEGO-stacking, microscopy, crafting — inside an innovative new learning space at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School built with financial support and partnership from Brown University, all of those activities and more are now possible.

On Friday, Oct. 28, the Providence public school formally opened its new “STEAM Room,” where students from kindergarten through fifth grade can get immersed in interactive, hands-on experiments and projects that mix science, technology, engineering, arts and math — or STEAM for short.

A year ago, the space was an empty third-grade classroom with outdated linoleum floors, green tiling and limited natural light. Thanks to a productive collaboration between staff at Brown and Vartan Gregorian Elementary, it is now a bright, dynamic space sure to inspire creativity in teachers and kids, said Matthew Russo, the school’s principal.

“Now we have a real live space in which all students can come and be inspired… and actively engage,” Russo said. “We’re so happy and so thankful to have it, and we just know our students are going to love this space.”

At a spirited, celebratory event on Friday morning, Russo welcomed state and city education leaders, colleagues from Brown and Vartan Gregorian Elementary — and more than a dozen fourth and fifth graders who enjoyed a break from other studies to engage in a creative engineering challenge: raising a Brown flag using at least three simple machines and no fewer than six chain reactions.

Brown President Christina H. Paxson said the University’s support for the project came as part of a decades-long partnership between Brown and the Fox Point elementary school, which is located just a few blocks from campus. Throughout the 1990s, the late Vartan Gregorian — then Brown’s president — considered it his “adopted” school, partnering with educators and local leaders to expand its resources and physical footprint, connect students with tutoring and mentoring, and host school-wide enrichment activities. The school was renamed in Gregorian’s honor in 1997.

“It’s hard to do complicated things yourself — you really need to have other people around you,” Paxson said during Friday’s ribbon-cutting, drawing a parallel between the students’ collaborative engineering projects and the enduring partnership between Brown and Vartan Gregorian Elementary. “And I have to say, making this project happen was the result of teamwork… [involving] people at Brown, people outside Brown, and then of course… the people who work in the school and are so excited about everything [they] do.” 

Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said innovative spaces like the STEAM Room, which encourage building and problem-solving, are crucial for supporting students who may go on to become engineers, planners, maritime professionals and others who play a crucial role in growing Rhode Island’s blue economy.

“I don’t know what these kids are going to be, but let me tell you, they’re going to be running [things],” Infante-Green said with a smile after speaking with the students about their engineering projects. “Watching our students do this work… I don’t know if the adults in this room could have done it as well as they did. [They] are the future.”

Providence Public School District Superintendent Javier Montañez agreed.

“[A space like this] empowers our students to become critical thinkers,” Montañez said. “It challenges them to take risks, to ask questions, [to be] problem solvers. And most of all… there was collaboration among students, and that’s huge, because that is how they learn. This is what our students need in order to make sure that they are successful when they go into higher education.”

Brown’s relationship with Vartan Gregorian Elementary is one element of a much larger commitment to strengthening educational outcomes for students in the Providence Public School District. Hundreds of University students, faculty and staff engage with PPSD schools through teaching, tutoring, after-school enrichment and more, and the endowed Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence provides continual financial support for projects and initiatives that improve teaching and learning at city schools.

Providence City Councilman John Goncalves, who attended Vartan Gregorian Elementary and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown, represents Ward 1, home to both the elementary school and the University. He said he believes that Brown’s enduring partnerships with city schools create a ripple effect of positive change for the entire community.

“It's so important for institutions like Brown to support Providence Public Schools, because we're all a part of the same vibrant community and must all do our part to improve educational outcomes and the lives of children,” Goncalves said in advance of the STEAM Room’s official opening. “Brown's partnership with the city and its public school system is key to building a more prosperous Providence.”

Building a STEAM Room

Work on the school’s new laboratory-like space began in December 2021. Joanna Saltonstall, a senior program manager in Facilities Management at Brown, worked with Vartan Gregorian Elementary leaders and the manufacturing company K.I. Furniture to evaluate and identify tables, chairs and stools that prioritize the flexibility and collaboration conducive to hands-on learning. Crews from Brown and its partners then worked inside the classroom to give the walls fresh coats of paint, install new flooring and create an eye-catching, yellow-accented beamed ceiling.

Furnishings and technology for the space arrived just after the 2022-23 school year began, Russo said, and some teachers and students have now begun to test it out. On a sunny afternoon in mid-October about a week before the launch event, a group of fourth graders gleefully opened two brand-new snap circuit kits, intended to teach basic engineering and circuitry.

At the front of the classroom is an education-focused smart TV that can be used as a whiteboard, graph, artistic canvas and more. Nearby are a handful of small tables and “ricochet stools,” which feature non-slip convex bases that allow students who crave movement to wiggle around while seated.

Surrounding a pair of large, high tables — great for group projects, Saltonstall said — are so-called “ruckus chairs” with built-in backpack storage and high backs that can be used as armrests or backrests, depending on which direction the student wants to sit. At one end of each table is a large whiteboard with magnetic erasers and dry-erase markers. 

At the back of the room is a sink — helpful for art and chemistry projects that require cleaning — and an interactive seating area intended mostly for younger elementary students, boasting a colorful rug, comfortable chairs and a LEGO board, where students can display their best building-block creations. 

Surrounding the classroom furniture are ample storage cabinets and drawers. On the shelves already are art supplies like balloons and popsicle sticks; magnetic play tiles; robot- and model car-building kits; and a microscope with up to 1,200x magnification.

When we came into the new space, it was amazing: Look at the whiteboards, look at the furniture, the access to all these projects. It really gets the students’ thinking flowing.

Lori Whalen Mathematics Instructional Coach, Vartan Gregorian Elementary School
Lori Whalen clapping

Russo said the entire elementary school community will work together to make use of the new STEAM Room. All teachers will have the opportunity to reserve the room for full days multiple times a year, allowing them to guide older students through complex, hours-long projects and to let younger students explore several different creative outlets. Math teachers will collaborate on facilitating an annual Rube Goldberg contest in the room, challenging students to create intricate machines that complete simple tasks. And the school will tap into its diverse parent network to bring exciting guests, such as physics and robotics experts, to the interactive room for one-time lessons.

“We’re really involving the whole Vartan Gregorian Elementary community to expand on fun learning opportunities for our kids,” Russo said. “Giving them a wide range of activities means every student can have something to look forward to, regardless of their individual interests.”

One Vartan Gregorian Elementary parent who joined Friday’s launch event was Amy Mendillo, executive secretary of the Fox Point Neighborhood Association. She said her fourth-grade daughter, Nadia, was so excited to take part in this week’s engineering challenge that she insisted on returning to the STEAM Room right after a doctor appointment Thursday.

Lori Whalen, the mathematics instructional coach at Vartan Gregorian Elementary, said the students already love the space: “It’s glorious,” she noted.

Whalen said that when she joined the school in 2021, she convened an after-school club in the empty classroom, guiding students who had an enthusiasm for STEM subjects through interactive projects. Like the engineering challenge the students demonstrated on Friday, they designed complex mechanisms with simple goals in mind, like sounding a buzzer or popping a balloon. At the time, the prior space hindered students’ learning, she said. Not anymore.

“We had to do some problem-solving with the space before we could get to the actual problems we were there to solve,” Whalen said. “We didn’t have the right furniture. There were folding chairs that fell or broke, and tables with corners you’d rip your shirt on as you walked by. When we came into the new space, it was amazing: Look at the whiteboards, look at the furniture, the access to all these projects. It really gets the students’ thinking flowing.”