Newark students will now be able to conduct experiments alongside professional scientists in a new state-of-the-art science center housed in the district’s downtown headquarters.
The 10,000-square-foot center features six laboratories stocked with $4 million in mostly donated instruments such as chromatographs and spectrophotometers — costly equipment found in commercial labs but rarely accessible to students. All Newark eighth-graders will visit the center twice each school year, where full-time instructors and volunteers who are working scientists will lead them in hands-on science experiments. High-school students will also occasionally use the labs.
In addition, fifth through 12th-grade students will take part in eight “virtual” lab sessions each year where scientists lead students through experiments by live video. The students will remain in their schools while the instructors broadcast out of two studios located in the center at 765 Broad Street — the downtown building where Newark Public Schools recently moved its offices. Some science teachers will also come to the center for training.
The center, which was created through a public-private partnership between the district, the city, and the nonprofit Students 2 Science, reflects growing interest among policymakers and philanthropic groups in funding education in the “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM boosters point to statistics showing that companies are adding high-paying jobs in those fields at a faster rate than other sectors, but often have a hard time filling them with qualified workers.
“There are all of these jobs opening up right here in the city of Newark, throughout New Jersey, throughout the nation,” Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said at the center’s unveiling on Monday. “It is our responsibility to prepare our students and ensure they have the skills needed to fill those positions.”
The center is a partial solution to the district’s struggles with science. Last year, 40 percent eighth-graders in Newark’s district schools passed the state science exams — compared to 74 percent of eighth-graders across New Jersey.
That may partly be due to challenges with school facilities. A 2010 report found that Newark’s “K-8 teachers are attempting to teach science without basic equipment such as faucets and sinks, lab tables, microscopes, and balances.” The report also said the district’s magnet high schools had better science facilities than its comprehensive high schools.
The center, dubbed the S2S Newark Technology Center, was established with $13 million from the district and private funders including Panasonic, PSEG, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. It will cost just under $2 million per year to operate, which will also come from a mix of public and private sources.
On Monday, Mayor Ras Baraka and Sen. Cory Booker spoke at its opening and the Panasonic Corporation of North America, which is based in Newark, announced a $1.5 million grant to support the center’s work.
Amid the celebration, eighth-graders from the North Ward’s Abington Avenue School were busy conducting experiments in the new labs.
Wearing white lab coats and protective eyewear, students in one lab measured the amount of antacid in a Tums tablet. In another, they used electroplating machines to shift the copper from pennies onto nickels.
“They really see what it would feel like to work in a laboratory,” said Fran Nelson, program director for Students 2 Science’s V-Labs and a trained chemist who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry. “They’re using equipment that I used every day in my professional life.”
Some Abington Avenue students have previously conducted experiments in their classroom led remotely by a Students 2 Science instructor, but Monday marked their first visit to the labs. Eighth-grader Alexa Carangui said experiments at her school are limited by space and available equipment.
“In the classroom, sometimes you only get to see a teacher do it,” she said. “Here, I learn more.”