n every science class, whether exploring ecosystems or energy, watersheds or weather, Lower School students at both WT campuses are immersed—and united—in a longstanding tradition. “Ruth Grant, former WT science teacher, said it best,” declares North Hills Campus science teacher Brock Perkins. “‘At Winchester Thurston, science is something we do. We read, write, watch, and listen, but most importantly, we do.’

“I’ve inherited an amazing curriculum that has stayed true to the original vision while adapting to meet today’s demands,” continues Perkins, recipient of both of the school’s teaching awards, the Jane L. Scarborough Award and the Mary Houston Griffin Award, during his 19 years at WT.

WT’s North Hills Campus has always inspired inquiry and discovery; the curriculum has steadily expanded, adding and enhancing design and engineering units, incorporating new technologies, and leveraging community connections to maximize hands-on learning. This year, Perkins introduced the Mystery Scientist contest, which allows children to see scientists who look like them. He notes, “Each scientist provides a mirror for some students, while giving others a peek into the life of a person whose experiences may be quite different from their own.”

Also new at the North Hills Campus: Trout in the Classroom, introduced by Middle School science teacher Peter Frischmann. In October, fifth graders began caring for brook trout, releasing them into Pine Creek in the spring. Perkins knows that caring for these trout elevates the significance of monitoring the water quality on the campus’s pond (a project fifth graders have undertaken for many years, most recently incorporating work with Aquatic Edge and Penn State Extension, City as Our Campus partners) since the pond is a part of the Pine Creek Watershed.

And for the future? “I hope to begin more citizen science projects. I want to engage students in choosing real-world problems where they can truly effect change and have them research the issue, develop solutions, and present their work in hopes of making this change happen,” adds Perkins.

“Projects where students build prototypes that move, that allow them to easily measure successes by testing, are a great hook for students,” says City Campus Lower School science  teacher Dan Mendenhall, who introduced one such project to first through fourth graders during February’s National Engineers Week: designing, building, and testing downhill vehicles, all constructed from recycled materials provided by the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse (PCCR).

After brainstorming ideas, students chose from CDs, bottle caps, jar lids, foam and plastic board, test tube holders, carpet, magnets, skewers, and dowel rods, then—supervised by parents and PCCR teachers—operated hand drills, saws, hammers and nails, and hot glue guns to craft vehicles small and large, some with three wheels, others with four, still others boasting passenger seats, lights, or spoilers. Students worked diligently to design cars capable of hugging the racetrack, and conserving enough energy to overcome not just one, but two, hills.

“For cars to move straight, students learned that wheels had to be aligned and axles had to be parallel,” explains Mendenhall. Moreover, “in order to reduce the force of friction, students learned that wheels had to freely spin, and that no parts of a car could rub against wheels or axles. They discovered that increasing the mass of their cars resulted in more stored energy at the start.

“Engineering is a great introduction into how to constructively deal with failures. There were no students who gave up. They consistently came to class trying to overcome failure and to make a prototype that could meet the challenge.”

Mendenhall—also a Mary Houston Griffin Award recipient—describes engineering as “a great vehicle for getting students problem solving in a real-life context, and using math and science in an applied way.”