SCIENCE AT SYCAMORE: The Path from Preschool through 8th Grade

I am among those who think that science has great beauty.
Marie Curie
 
All teachers at Sycamore – not just in science but in every discipline – are encouraged and expected by the Head of School, Diane Borgmann, to create experiences for students each year that build toward cumulative knowledge and to create a culture for students to push themselves to be great in a safe environment.
 
In Early Childhood and Middle School, Science is taught by classroom teachers who partner significantly with Anna Freije, our Science and Event Coordinator. In Middle School, where our program becomes more departmentalized, there are two full-time Science teachers, one for Grades 5 and 6, and one for Grades 7 and 8.
 
From the youngest scientists in Early Childhood to the veteran Middle School students, they get to build a hands-on resume that they will eventually carry with them to high school and, in many cases, beyond. It comes from the classroom, the academic teams, after-school activities, and the passion from teachers. 
 
“Sycamore undoubtedly laid the base for my interest in sciences and medicine,” says Ash Mahenthiran ('12) who is in his third year in the Medical School Program at Northwestern University. “Throughout Middle School, we had so many chances to participate in hands-on lab activities and think through common scientific phenomena. I still remember thinking that I gained a deeper understanding through these experiences rather than just learning from a textbook. The science classes at Sycamore also helped me learn how to be efficient with my time from an early age, which has still definitely served me well throughout medical school.”
 
Experiment. Experience something new. It is a trek to learning what kind of person each student is and to self-discovery into what one wants in life.
 
“Passion is contagious,” says Anna Freije, experiencing her first year as the Science and Event Coordinator. She already notes how the classroom teachers and she work together for a fuller student experience. “Sycamore has so many wonderful teachers that get excited about what they teach and are open to experiences that will allow their students to experience the subject they teach in an authentic, fun, and unique way.  These experiences help to spur on students' natural curiosity about the world around them.”
 
At the Middle School level, students have two teachers, Brad Lowell and David Schuth, adept at giving them space, time, the ability to stretch their critical thinking skills. The two have a combined nearly 50 years of teaching 5th-8th Graders, while long-time researcher and scientist, Dr. Sam Wendel, assists in everything from making fire to building jello people for dissections.
 
After two decades in the Hamilton Southeastern district, Lowell came to Sycamore to get back to the way he wanted to teach, to connect with students and to help them with independent problem-solving.
 
“Creative problem solving, inference-based learning strategies, and hands-on application opportunities are key ingredients in creating successful, life-long learners,” Lowell says. “Sycamore students are given the opportunity to cooperate and collaborate with peers and are given a setting where it is okay to fail, reflect on those failures, and try again.”
 
“From Jennifer Hendry having her 1st Graders paint with fly maggots, to Brad Lowell leading a 6th Grade trip to Key Largo to bring marine biology to life at Marine Lab, Sycamore students get to play with and experience science in incredible ways,” Freije says.
 
Children are curious about scientific subjects at a young age, but Freije says they can become intimidated by science as they get older.  “I think that Sycamore teachers help students enjoy science and own their learning through authentic experiences and through encouraging their curiosity and discovery. This helps our students not to lose their academic confidence in the area of science, which in turn gives them a leg up for studying science in high school and beyond.” 
 
Elizabeth Emhardt is an anesthesiologist and critical care physician at Indiana University. She says her time at Sycamore School was important on her path to becoming a doctor. “I think the best example of what Sycamore gave me that I still use daily is intellectual curiosity. Medicine is an ever-evolving field. Science sometimes seems black and white when it’s first learned, and it isn’t until later that you realize how much gray area exists,” she says. “It takes immense intellectual curiosity to stay updated on the latest research and practice and try to navigate through that gray area. Intellectual curiosity is cultivated and celebrated at Sycamore, and I am so grateful for that.”
 
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TEACHERS FINDING SYCAMORE
 “What we do here at Sycamore is offer great challenges to our students,” David Schuth says. We provide a safe place to fail, and graduates are able to meet and exceed an innumerable number of challenges in their futures.”
 
“I remember the Florida Keys and marine life with Mr. Schuth,” Emhardt says. “I didn’t realize how much energy and effort my teachers were putting into my education, beyond the minimum or even expected amounts. Looking back, I was so lucky to be in that environment and learn how to learn.” 
 
Now in his 23rd year at Sycamore after graduating from Butler University, Schuth can still recall how he was hired at Sycamore after answering a 1-inch by 1-inch advertisement in the newspaper that his housemate had pointed out to him. “I called the number, and Mike Thompson, who was Head of Middle School at the time, let me know that he was not interested.” Schuth asked Thompson how he was supposed to get any experience if he wouldn’t even interview a new college grad. “Mr. Thompson was nice enough to acquiesce and had me come in for an interview and a second interview with Thompson, then-current science teacher Becky Andrade, and Nyle Kardatzke, Sycamore’s Head of School.  Schuth got the job.
 
Freije says her story involves an interest in teaching and biology from a young age that resulted in getting degrees in biology (B.S.) and then in plant pathology (M.S).  She taught sustainable agriculture in Kenya and then worked her way into education. Freije was working at New Britton Elementary as a STEAM teacher and saw the posting for the Science and Event Coordinator at Sycamore. “It sounded like such a wonderful combination of so many things I love while being a professional position,” she says. “It’s been a journey of melding my love of teaching and my love of biology and holistic landscapes.  I’m so excited to be at Sycamore. I get to use so many of my skills and passions.”
 
“From a concept perspective, learning about the interconnectedness of our world and its cyclical nature is incredibly important,” Freije says. “I think that learning about the chemical properties of water and the water cycle that affect so much in our world, from the formation of potholes, to how plants influence weather, and about underlying concepts like diffusion and density are key to teach at a young age. When students have a firm grasp of the patterns of our world, they are in a better position to apply their scientific knowledge well in new situations.” 
 
“Our teachers are always thinking outside the box and are willing to try new things each year,” Tiffany Stahl, Sycamore’s Head of Lower School, says not just of her teachers, but those at both ends of the building in Middle School and Early Childhood. “They instill a love of science in our students that you won't find anywhere else. Sycamore teachers  know how to ask open-ended, higher level thinking questions that really get our gifted learners thinking beyond the basic level.”

Lowell is succinct in his reason for coming to Sycamore. He was dissatisfied with the creative restrictions placed on him by public education. “I was thrown a lifeline by Dr. Catherine Pangan, who was visiting my classroom as part of Butler’s student-teaching program. Pangan now serves as President of Sycamore’s Board of Trustees.  “She invited me to come in and walk the halls of Sycamore.  One visit told me I was ‘home.’"
 
EVOLVING CURRICULUM
The science curriculum at Sycamore is revised every five years through a regular process of review.  Administrators and teachers from across all divisions examine the overall science philosophy for the school.  It then gets into the hands of the teachers, where the magic starts.
 
“The teachers are crucial,” Jennifer Williams, Sycamore’s Head of Early Childhood, says. “A science curriculum like Sycamore's would not be possible without the passion, enthusiasm, and creativity of our teachers.  They are the ones that make the units come alive and are always coming up with new labs and experiences for our students. They spend much time and energy organizing field trips and are willing to rearrange their daily schedules to include speakers in the classrooms.
 
Tiffany Stahl, like Williams, and Head of Middle School, Katie Baker, was a teacher before taking her current role. She says the most important piece of the Lower School science curriculum is that it is a hands-on program, both inside and outside the building. For example, in 2nd Grade students learn about trees in science. Throughout this unit they calculate the diameter of their chosen tree on Sycamore's campus. They also use pan balance scales to measure the mass of different cones. They estimate the number of scales on cones and explain how they arrived at their estimate.
 
“This is my 15th year at Sycamore, and the science program has even more hands-on labs now than when I started,” says Stahl. “The Lower School Science Lab is always busy. We have also added more field trips related to science since I've been here. We are always looking for new trips and connections outside of Sycamore, as well as guest speakers to enhance our curriculum.”
 
Freije says she hopes that her continued work in developing the Outdoor Lab at Sycamore will encourage further use of outdoor spaces. “I hope it is a space used both for formal teaching and learning as well as for unstructured discovery, play, and enjoyment.”
 
“Students learn by researching, experimenting, and asking questions,” Stahl says. “It is neat to see when connections are made among the various discipline areas.”
 
AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAMS
It was back in her days as a classroom teacher in both 1st and 4th Grades, that Melissa Branigan learned that science and independent learning skill can be teamed to help different ages and different grades.  Her knowledge and hands-on adaptation of lessons learned as a teacher then are in play now, as she crafts a deeper and more robust after-school extended program. For the 2021-22 school year, she has given science a large slice of offerings amidst the karate, kickball, and music.
 
“The exploration and ‘hands-on’ aspects of science-based enrichment activities are definitely what students like the best,” Branigan says. “We offer VEX and Lego Robotics, chemistry options in Kitchen Chemistry and Chemistry Cookery, and technology options such as coding, 3D modeling and printing, computer science, and game design.”
 
Branigan echoes the love of something that David Schuth said was one of his favorites – that moment of discovery. “They delve deeper into science concepts as they work on various hands-on activities and experiments,” she says. “Students are given a chance through science activities to learn about and try something new that they may not know much about. The best part is when you can see students reach that ‘aha’ moment when they understand how something works or make a connection to their world.” 
 
The after-school programs essentially give extra science opportunities to students and offer them a chance to gain knowledge in an area of interest. Branigan says the extra programs after school allow students to go deeper into their scientific studies and create opportunities for students to build their teamwork skills; they help students develop perseverance as they go through the scientific method of trial and error. 
 
 
SYCAMORE: FREEDOM OF CHOICE
Lowell sees the “Sycamore Way” as a precursor to how schools need to evolve. “I remember spending countless hours with a paper grade book, calculating student mean report card scores,” he says of his days in public school. “I was reading and instructing from outdated school-issued text books, and I felt the anxiety every year from administering statewide testing the sole purpose which seemed only to drop kids into subgroups.”
 
At Sycamore, Lowell says he loves that the curriculum isn’t tied to a statewide testing standard and allows him the freedom within the curriculum to use robots, machines, and classroom-built science experiments to help students engage in a way that isn’t possible otherwise. “We can make those fun deviations to accommodate for time and student interests.” 
 
The experiments and research done by Middle School students in units like the Human Body and Wind Power have their start in the Early Childhood science projects. The line that runs through the grades is an important part of the building of a curriculum, and the teamwork among the Early Childhood, Lower School, and Middle School leaders makes sure that the consistency stays in place as new ideas are implemented.
 
“While particular units of study may change, foundational beliefs remain strong,” says Williams. “From the beginning, Sycamore has always embraced the philosophy that gifted students of all ages should be given regular opportunities in the sciences to go deeper, think bigger, and connect to real world experiences.”  Williams, who spent 20 years as a Kindergarten teacher at Sycamore before assuming the role of Head of Early Childhood, says in each grade level throughout Early Childhood, students are presented units in the Physical, Life, Earth, and Space Sciences. “Integrated throughout the units are elements of engineering, technology, and applications of science. This ensures our youngest students have experiences in a variety of topics. It also aligns with the national Next Generation Science Standards.”
 
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TEAMS OF SCIENCE SHINE AT SYCAMORE
One of the many successful academic teams at Sycamore is the Science Bowl squad, with multiple national qualifying appearances over the past decade, including a national Top 10 finish in 2021. This year will mark David Schuth’s 11th year coaching the Science Bowl teams at Sycamore.  
 
“I have enjoyed working with students outside the classroom as they push themselves to be competitive on a national level with other students their age,” he says.  “To see students challenge themselves, work hard, and take ownership of their own learning and behavior is inspirational.”
 
The VEX Robotics program gains the services of Brad Lowell for the 2021-22 school year, as he will work in the program that Sycamore Middle School math teacher Nathan Keith has quickly built into a national contender for top finishes.  Keith, who took the reins of the program shortly after former Sycamore science teacher Jim McCarter started the team and guided it to early success at the World Championships. Now Sycamore is regularly one of Indiana’s top teams.  For Lowell, it is a chance to keep doing what he loves: Finding ways for students to test their limits, cooperate, and have fun.
 
 
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For teachers, it comes back to the students and the connections made between student and teacher, the difference a teacher can make that may stick with a student for the rest of their life. 
 
“For me, it is impossible to talk about Science at Sycamore without mentioning David Schuth,” Mahenthiran says. “He made every day in class an interesting one and would constantly find ways to teach material in new ways. I still remember how excited I was to do activities like the egg drop in the gym during our physics units and see constellations in the makeshift observatory during our astronomy unit. He definitely helped cultivate my interest in science from a young age.”
 
“Teachers realize that more important than specific content is the skill set developed within an emotionally safe environment,” Schuth says.
 
“Our explorations each year may differ as we learn more about our world around us and as we gain new technology, so it’s always a fun challenge to create new adventures for students,” Lowell says.
 
“My favorite memories are of how each teacher took a unique interest in my development,” says Ajay Antony, who is now a physician who works with pain management. “Coach Fink was just as interested in my science project as he was our basketball game.”
 
“I love getting to teach about the interconnectedness of life,” Freije says. “I love that the kids get to do so much hands-on learning and that field trip experiences are prioritized. The focus on authentic learning experiences is wonderful.”
 
“Science is so intertwined in all that we see and all that we do,” Lowell says. “Science’s job is to encourage that curiosity and supply the strategies for not only unraveling the mysterious world around us, but also to empower students with the ability to create positive changes.”
 
You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.
Galileo Galilei
 
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