With Changing Forces, the Magnet Evolves

by Brinda Thomas '01

We recently spoke with Dr. Michael Haney, the first Blair Magnet coordinator, and Ms. Eileen Steinkraus, coordinator from 1992-2006, about the changes to the program from inception to today. Dr. Haney is currently Program Director for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) educational initiatives at the National Science Foundation. Ms. Steinkraus retired after 6 years of teaching and 14 years as coordinator of the Blair Magnet program, and has recently stepped in as interim Magnet coordinator. They describe a coherent vision for the Magnet that has changed with the program’s growing prominence, educational and technology advances, and the transition to the Four Corners building site.

Q. What was the original vision for the Blair magnet program?

Dr. Haney: The program was designed based on what is now called “backward design.” We had the advantage of knowing the level of education of the incoming students because of the course requirements and testing. We also knew that they would all be headed for colleges and probably would major in some area of STEM or would include substantial numbers of STEM courses in whatever major they chose.

Blair Magnet Program Mission Statement

Recognizing that education is a personal and individual experience which depends on the unique talents and interests of each person, the mission of the Blair Magnet Program is to provide an environment in which each person's education is maximized by emphasizing the interrelationships among the disciplines, by developing a repertoire of problem-solving techniques, and by pursuing both independent and collaborative research projects.

So we began by envisioning the first two years as building a foundation for the more specialized and more individualized final two years. The first two years would unfold science in a more logical sequence (physics, chemistry, earth science and then biology) taught as one continuum. The courses would cover all the topics of each but do so when the topics best fit the sequence. We had more latitude with computer science so the first year built techniques (like STELLA for modeling) and ways of thinking (algorithmic and structured thinking) that were intended to persist for four years. The problems and examples in computer science were deliberately drawn from and meant to be congruent with the concurrent science and math topics. Research and Experimentation was a new course sequence and it was our opportunity to help students learn about design and testing. Technology education has its own skill and knowledge set, but with the right equipment and some very innovative teachers, (Johnson and later, Mark Curran), we were able to create experiences, [such as] the six projects in 9th grade [which] represented six very different types of challenges that completed the set of strategies we felt students needed to be successful in future years.

So the overall design was to make sure that what students learned was cumulative (they had to constantly refer back to what they learned earlier), grew in sophistication (required deeper knowledge and contended with more complexity), integrated across the disciplines (the math worked in science, the computer science helped model the science, and so forth), and comprehensive (not limiting students, so containing the best elements of a liberal arts education).

There are other attributes to all of this. For instance, we abandoned the idea of departments because we did not believe teachers should organize around what they happened to major in when they were in college nor should groups of people feel they owned rooms or equipment. We tried to organize staff around students by creating 9th and 10th grade teams and give the team full control over their space and curriculum in half-day blocks. We did not presume to know what courses would be taught at what hour on any particular day within those blocks. This was very successful in 9th and 10th grades.

We also committed to thoroughly integrating technology into the curriculum. This was due to my own conviction that technology would redefine both what we need to know and how we should access and learn it. This manifest itself in a number of ways. We bought what was a new type of computer, the Macintosh, because the interface was much more accessible and I was concerned that computers should be easy to use for all students, not just the computer geeks. This was quite controversial in 1985. We also transformed a traditional high school shop into a technology lab with computer controlled devices, robotics, a universal tester, and the ability to make alloys, examine crystals, and so forth. And we built a state of the art analytical chemistry lab to support upper level courses because we were fortunate enough to have Al Currey as a chemistry teacher, who was both innovative in how he taught chemistry and who knew the importance of using a chemistry lab to authentic data collection and real analysis.

We also established many productive relationships with local STEM institutions (companies, agencies, institutions of higher learning, labs, and so forth) and they helped by providing expertise, equipment, mentors, and placements for seniors working on their projects. A community volunteer, Michael Vaccaro, working with Gloria Seelman, the senior project coordinator, made many of these connections for us.

Q. How did the Magnet program change during your tenure?

Ms. Steinkraus: One of the biggest changes that happened when I was coordinator was the structure and expectations of the senior research project (SRP). Initially we had seniors begin their projects during the first semester of their senior year which was not enough time to develop a quality project. We tried technical writing, faculty advisors, and other iterations before deciding on the current structure of Research Design in the first semester of the junior year and SRP A in the second. SRP B is completed in the first semester of the senior year. (Second semester seniors are not the easiest to teach.) I started a research convention in the spring of the senior year where parents and mentors are invited to view student projects and graduates speak about their research after Blair.[In addition,] there was staff turnover during this time and new electives were added to the curriculum, e.g. Intro to Networking, Sports Statistics, Biochemistry, Robotics, Origins of Mathematics. Computer technologies became integrated into all courses, changing the nature of a few. BEN - the Blair Educational Network - developed by a magnet student gave parents online access to assignments and class information. (BEN has now been replaced with a county program.)When we moved to new Blair Magnet students asked the architect to design the building so that the magnet was no longer isolated in a section of the building. Magnet classes are now taught next to Blair's science, math, and technology classes. The thought was that perhaps more Blair students would avail themselves of magnet electives. (In the old building since the magnet classes were all in an isolated wing, Blair students seldom ventured to that part of the building.

Academies, based on the ideas learned from the Magnet and CAP programs, were introduced at Blair with the idea that students in the math, science, technology academy would be able to take magnet electives in their junior senior years.

A student group - MagPi - composed of Magnet seniors was developed to help the younger students make the most of their years at Blair. A picnic is held in the fall for 9th graders and their parents. The seniors sponsor various activities throughout the year to help the freshmen both academically and socially.

Q: How has the Magnet program has changed since you left?

Ms. Steinkraus: The biggest changes have occurred around budgetary issues. The number of staff members was reduced from 18 full time magnet staff to 11 full time staff members, 2 part-time, and 3 Blair teachers teaching several classes per semester. The number of electives able to be offered has decreased (including all the electives listed above) as well the interdisciplinary ties between earth science and R &E since those courses are no longer blocked.

Teachers now must teach more periods per day so they are less able to support students with academic support at lunches and after school. There is less time for interdisciplinary planning and curriculum development. The teachers also lost their summer planning days. With the retirement of Mr. Bunday, Ms Dyas, Mrs, Escatell, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Curry and myself the vision from the earliest days is diminished. Mr. Curran went to teach at Poolesville and Mr. Gainous. Blair's principal who was there from the beginning and always supportive of the program moved to another position in MCPS. Hopefully the new coordinator will help the current staff reenergize the program as it evolves for the students of tomorrow.