Milford adds STEM labs to all elementary schools

MILFORD — Milford Public Schools outfitted all eight elementary schools with new science labs, a cost of about $65,000.

“It is the intention of the Milford Public Schools to give students robust, authentic access and opportunity to study of science. This year, for the first time, we are delighted to give our elementary students a real science lab experience,” said Superintendent Anna Cutaia.

Each elementary school was outfitted with a dedicated science space over the summer to provide a head start for the district’s youngest learners to experience an authentic science lab environment.

Thomas Nobili, Milford’s instructional supervisor for STEM for pre-K to fifth grade, said all eight of the elementary schools have everything they need — from magnifying glasses and beakers to potting soil, vinegar, modeling clay, rock samples and more.

“We have some interesting tech stuff,” said Nobili. “All of them have an interactive digital whiteboard, and this week we were able to provide each of our labs with a 3D printer, so kids can design, engineer and have it printed 3D.”

Nobili said this is a big step for the Milford Public Schools population, with all the new STEM goodies.

“The elementary science labs provide our students with an authentic environment in which to grow their curiosity, designs and conduct experiments based on their questions, and space to dive deep into scientific phenomena to make sense of the world around them,” he said.

The plan to outfit all eight of the elementary schools with new STEM labs started in 2019, but due to COVID, they had to push the grand opening of the new labs until 2021.

“In 2019, we started to talk about how we might be able to provide STEM opportunity in our elementary school and looking to streamline that to things we were doing in our high school and middle schools in terms of different courses and programs,” said Nobili.

He said the STEM labs were added to the 2020-21 school year budget. The budget was approved, but then in March 2020, COVID hit, and they had to push things back.

“Although we had the funds, we weren’t able to open the labs,” said Nobili. “Originally, we wanted to open the labs last year, of course, because of the safety regulations and all the other COVID-related procedures, we were not able to do that.”

They decided to pause the opening of the lab, and this year, they were able to open the STEM labs within safety guidelines and regulations.

According to the Pew Research Center, employment in STEM fields has grown by 79 percent since 1990, with 17.3 million jobs across the U.S. connected to the fields. By 2030, the number of STEM jobs is, expected to grow by 10.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Before the new STEM labs, students would conduct experiments at their classroom desks. Elementary school students wouldn’t experience a true lab setting until they reached middle school.

“I always feel excited when coming to the STEM Lab,” said third-grader Aaryn Rotondo. “Whenever you go into the lab, you learn something new. I like learning and the things we do there.”

Nobili said, traditionally, students in the pre-K through fifth-grade levels would go into middle school with limited science experience.

“That’s not a Milford thing, that’s everywhere,” he said. “So when they are getting into middle school, there is a lot of adjustments they have to make to understand the different tools in the lab and how to use them. We are hoping students will go into middle school and already know all that. So they can just dive right in and get more content, experiences and be able to go deeper because there won’t be the learning curve that typically happens when kids are figuring out different equipment.”

“We are hoping that is going to allow us to go deeper not in just our middle school science but our high school science as well because kids coming up will be well versed in the environment and ready to go further,” he added.

The plan is to incorporate STEM with other subject matters taught in the science labs. Currently, they are talking to Amy Perras, the director of fine arts and technology who also oversees library media specialists.

“We’ve been talking about integrating those two fields because library media specialists work a lot with tech and digital literacy,” he said. “So we are looking to create a lot of interdisciplinary experiences for our students, which we feel gives them a deeper learning.”

School officials said the lab space has become one of the most popular spots in the school building, with 2,468 students in pre-K to fifth grade visiting every week.

“We are seeing a genuine enthusiasm for STEM amongst the students throughout all eight of our elementary schools, which is exciting and something we are looking to continue to build upon,” said Nobili.

“In addition to performing investigations, our students are learning the very beginnings of scientific inquiry,” said Cutaia. “Students make hypotheses, observations and conduct investigations, all while documenting their work in science notebooks. An inquiry-based process they will use for the rest of their lives.”

Jolene Guarino, science lab teacher at Meadowside Elementary, said the new STEM labs level the playing field for all students and give the school community a huge step forward.

“All of our students, regardless of their background, grade level or abilities, can receive this early exposure to hands-on experience in science,” said Guarino. “ Here in Milford, we are also mindful of cross-curriculum extensions, so our work in the lab isn’t just limited to ‘learning science.’ We integrate vocabulary, mathematics and many other topics into our work so science is not considered a stand-alone subject. Instruction weaves to gather all of the things our students are learning. It is powerful.”