Putting the “A” in STEAM
The completion of the upper school STEAM Building signifies a historic chapter in the legacy of Friends Select School. With the addition of the sustainably renovated, historic brownstone adjacent to the Race Street Meetinghouse, the school has—for the first time—expanded its campus in Philadelphia. This new facility provides four floors of new learning spaces, including two visual arts studios, one digital design laboratory, three modern science laboratories, five classrooms, and community gathering spaces.
The STEAM Building reflects the realization of an endeavor that started seven years ago, as Friends Select’s administration examined the school-wide incorporation of a dedicated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) building. “We examined our existing design-thinking curriculum; a progression towards robotics, engineering, and programming; and, most importantly, the significance of the arts within our academic programs,” said upper school director Chris Singler P’20, ’22, ’27, who—with lower school director Dave Younkin and former middle school director Terry Kessel P’15—helped solidify the arts as part of the formal STEM program. “Friends Select has always had a strong creative, collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to learning. Ultimately, we defined our program as STEAM, with the ‘A’ appropriately elevating the arts.”
At Friends Select, it’s long been the norm for disciplines to intersect. In 1975, equipped with a background in both art and science, upper school art teacher Lynda Greenwade P’03, ’12 first introduced what is now known as her Metalsmithing and Glass and Advanced Metals and Sculpture classes. These courses familiarize students with techniques from forging and soldering, to lapidary and stone setting, to stained and fused glass—all skills that require an understanding of the science behind them. “I introduce our students to the metallurgy and chemistry associated with the art they are creating,” Lynda explained. “These classes and their integrated approach existed decades before STEAM was a formal program.”
Today, visual and digital arts play integral roles in many upper school subjects and classrooms. In addition to continuing the film program and making animation accessible to more students, upper school digital media teacher Zoë Blatt added 3-D printing, laser cutting, virtual reality imaging, and graphic and fabric design to the upper school art program. Photography, graphic design, creative writing, and digital programming are incorporated in the student-run online publication, The Falcon. In Chemistry of Materials, students explore the science behind the perception and preparation of various artistic media through using chemistry to develop and manipulate new tools and materials; students make dyes and paint, as well as create various forms of 3-D artwork in this science course. And as its own discipline, art has as much weight as any of the other subjects within the students’ credit hours.
Deborah Caiola, upper school art teacher and visual arts department chair, has long subscribed to an interdisciplinary approach in educating upper school students. She has been integral in expanding the art program’s digital offerings, and outside of her own classroom, she’s worked with math faculty to teach linear perspective from an artist’s lens. “I believe very strongly in interdisciplinary education because I feel art teaches soft skills like observation, collaboration, problem-solving, and innovation,” she said. “Art is a vehicle for communication and conveying ideas. For example, visual learners understand so much more through the use of images. Art can bring ideas to life.”
Over her summer break, Deborah contributed accompanying scientific illustrations to her sister Cathleen Beerkens’s book, Create Your Story: Integrative Wellness at the Cellular Level. As Deborah explained, this is not a novel pairing. “Leonardo da Vinci made significant contributions to technology and science through his art; Santiago Ramón y Cajal is considered the ‘father’ of neuroscience because of his drawings of neurons and nerve cells; and the list goes on,” she said. “The integration of STEAM in our curriculum reflects the way in which we prioritize art at Friends Select.”
As one of Friends Select’s first STEAM faculty, lower school STEAM librarian Allison Frick introduces the school’s youngest learners to robotics, programming languages, and algorithmic thinking while fostering creativity. “Our youngest students are naturally very interdisciplinary, and they love making connections between what they’re learning,” she said. “Including art in my curriculum—not just painting or drawing but also design—allows for lower school students to develop their own creative solutions.”
In middle school STEAM, students use coding and computer programming to produce digital creations as well as learn the important role of precise measurements in 3-D printing and engineering. “Art allows students to engage in the work creatively,” said middle and upper school STEAM teacher Luisa Levine. “When students make their own work in conjunction with math, technology, engineering, and science, they make a personal connection with the material and deepen their understanding of abstract concepts.”
With Philadelphia serving as a hub of art- and science-focused organizations and educational institutions, the city’s connection to STEAM is naturally reflected in Friends Select families. At the Benefactors Society Reception in April, a panel of parents representing various STEAM-related professions in the city discussed the current state and future growth in their respective fields, as well as STEAM innovation at Friends Select. “Our parents expressed the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, science, technology, and engineering in their respective roles, and they did it with such joy and enthusiasm,” reflected Michael Gary, head of school. “The panel confirmed that the tools we are providing students with our longstanding approach to interdisciplinary education will serve them long after they leave Friends Select.”
“It also further validated our decision to expand our campus to include a new upper school STEAM Building, complete with modern resources,” Michael continued. “Our new facility deliberately incorporates the arts and their pivotal role in the creativity that supports science, math, and the humanities at Friends Select.”
Benefactors Society Reception
In April, Friends Select parents generously shared firsthand accounts as professionals in STEAM fields during the Benefactors Society Reception panel discussion: “STEAM Powered: Philadelphia and Friends Select School as Centers of Innovation.” The event was hosted at the Fitler Club, and upper school director Chris Singler served as moderator for the panel discussion.
- Misa Chen P’33, Landscape Architect, Founder & Studio Director of STUDIO EDITION
- Sheena Howard P’35, Author, Filmmaker, and Scholar, Rider University Professor of Journalism, Communication, and Media
- Dave Martorana P’34, Software Engineer, co-founder of Flyclops
- Ellen Neises P’23, ’25, Laurie Olin Professor of Practice in Landscape Architecture, UPENN Executive Director, Penn Praxis
- Tiffany Wilson P’24, President & CEO,
University City Science Center