By Emily Glory Peters
“Don’t throw anything away.” It’s not a hoarder’s mentality—it’s the bedrock of teachers Michele Browning and Arpy Jahjah’s STEAM philosophy at St. Gregory A. & M. Hovsepian School in Pasadena.
“For young learners, school is a freight train—it’s cognitive overload,” says Browning, who, like Jahjah, has been teaching since she was 19. “By exposing them to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) concepts early on, we plant seeds in their subconscious to take away that fear of ‘I know nothing’ and take advantage of that ‘I can do anything’ time of their lives.”
The STEAM approach to project-based learning has been growing in popularity for years, though not quite as quickly as its neighbor STEM, which excludes the art element. Yet St. Gregory’s approach is special—not only does it offer its STEAM curriculum as early as preschool, it teaches it in two languages.
“We are the first dual-immersion STEAM class in English and Armenian in the area,” says Jahjah, St. Gregory’s preschool program director. “Most of the kids here are exposed to Armenian at home, but some are not Armenian speakers. Michele designs the curriculum and models the training in English for the teachers, who translate into Armenian, so it’s a team approach to helping the kids develop fluency—that’s our goal.”
Jahjah and Browning’s fortuitous friendship formed the basis for St. Gregory’s avant-garde STEAM, first meeting when their kids briefly attended the same public school.
“Michele was the most amazing volunteer parent that anyone could dream of, teaching these incredible science and art and math projects. When I started at St. Gregory’s I told her that the preschool needed a ‘little something’—and she said, ‘Oh, you need STEAM in your life!’” recalls Jahjah. After a brewing up a few ideas over a shared pizza, Jahjah brought Browning on to design the STEAM preschool curriculum and hasn’t looked back since.
The brilliance behind Browning and Jahjah’s approach is partially found in its accessibility. By exploring STEAM concepts using everyday objects—trash, to some—they demystify trickier subjects and help ease students’ fear of learning new ideas.
“STEAM is everywhere you look—but as preschool is not as well-funded as other schools, we need to be creative. When I wanted a pirate ship last year for everyone to climb in, it was completely recycled,” says Browning. “The kids were the ones that evaluated the ship and decided it needed a TV room, so they figured out how to build it! They’re taking science and tech, interpreting it through engineering and the arts, and understanding it with math.”
It can first appear highly ambitious to introduce STEAM to ones so young—but Jahjah and Browning disagree.
“I can’t tell you the number of projects I’ve designed thinking these 18-month-olds can’t do it. Yes they can! They’re so focused! They never cease to amaze,” says Browning. “We’re not looking for mastery. We find ways to use the same vocabulary and drill it down into tangible, tactile modes of learning and play.”
Whether it’s a project in arts and crafts, engineering, math or coding—yes, even at the preschool level—St. Gregory A. & M. Hovsepian School’s STEAM innovation is bridging the gap between preschool and elementary school. More than that, for Jahjah and Browning, it’s preparing their students for the future.
“Our workforce is going to look very different ten years from now—and our kids are going to need to know how to be part of that,” says Jahjah. “STEAM is not a product, but a process that helps them develop a way of looking at the world and asking. It’s what our children will need to be successful and thrive both now and in the years to come.”
St. Gregory A. & M. Hovsepian School is located at 2215 E. Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena. To learn more, contact Arpy Jahjah at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow St. Gregory A. & M. Hovsepian School on Facebook @hovsepianschool.