School tour offers glimpse of future
Digital tech wows officials
Charles County commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly and Commissioner Ken Robinson marveled at the design of the new St. Charles High School and technology that will be available to its students during a Tuesday tour of the building alongside local school officials.
Led by Principal Richard Conley, the tour was highlighted by the James E. Richmond Science Center, which officially opens July 29, and began with perhaps the school’s most striking feature — its “Science On A Sphere,” a system designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that projects an image of the Earth on a sphere, rather than a flat screen.
The system is one of 110 around the world and one of only two in a public school, said Patrick Rowley, dubbed the school’s “sphere master” by the science center’s director, Monique Wilson.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the transporter room,” Robinson (D) said, momentarily confusing the school for the USS Enterprise of “Star Trek” fame.
“Please, someone beam me up, and let me come back after the 24th of June,” Kelly (D) said, referencing the upcoming June 24 primary election.
As the commissioners and school officials gawked, Rowley demonstrated a few of the system’s capabilities, including the ability to interpret data from NOAA and NASA into various displays.
It can display Earth at night, in which the lights from cities can be used to study population density and light pollution. The system also can show “near-real-time satellite imagery” of weather patterns.
“You always know the weather, Ken,” Kelly said, a nod to Robinson’s well-known affinity for weather forecasts.
Robinson said former Charles County Public Schools Superintendent James E. Richmond consulted with noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in securing a system for the school.
“Jim Richmond’s vision for this center was the ‘wow factor’ for kids, and we’ve got the ‘wow factor’ for adults,” current Superintendent Kimberly A. Hill said.
In another view, the sphere tracked all of the airline flights that occurred across the globe during a day’s time. With each flight represented by a yellow dash, major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles resembled angry beehives.
“It’ll make you never want to fly again,” Hill said.
The tour next stopped at the center’s 184-seat planetarium. On the way, Hill and board of education member Pamela A. Pedersen practiced their Vulcan salutes.
Wilson said every public school student in the county beginning in the third grade will visit the planetarium, and six community events already have been scheduled for the general public.
“We’re trying to get the community in here as often as possible,” she said.
Hill later said the school system is open to planetarium field trips from schools in neighboring Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, as well.
Conley then led the way to the school’s 600-seat auditorium, where Pedersen issued a public service announcement that the school’s theater department is in need of donated clothes, furniture, jewelry and other items that can be used to make costumes and sets for plays.
The tour then stopped by the school’s gymnasium — where the Spartans’ blue-and-green school colors are featured prominently on the rows of 1,800-capacity bleachers — and its “instructional resource center,” an open work space that doubles as the school library and study hall.
Instead of endless shelves of books, students will be able to check out digital copies of their assigned readings, which will automatically be “returned” upon their due date.
“Library books are never late. They’re digital,” Conley said.
With open desk space, computer stations and a couple of “conference rooms” filling in for vertical library stacks and walled-off study carrels, the goal was to create a more collaborative atmosphere among students, he said.
“It really will be more like a campus-commons, student-union feel than what you and I might expect from a school library,” he said, continuing a theme of tour-goers commenting that the school more closely resembled a modern university campus than a high school.
Conley later said the school will follow the “university model” in which teachers move among classrooms rather than having their own space.
Outside, teachers will be able to sign up to use amphitheater space as an outdoor classroom or lab. Just beyond the space sits federally protected wetlands, and Conley said students will be able to use the space in their coursework.
Classrooms and labs are situated on four near-identical stories grouped by ascending grade level, with freshmen on the ground floor. Some classrooms feature telepresence technology that can be used to communicate with other students, teachers and researchers from across the globe.
Each floor also includes open “breakout” areas in the hallways with chairs, tables and whiteboards where students can collaborate on four-year projects aimed at solving real-world problems, Conley said.
Hill later said the goal is to remove some of the structure typically found in grade school and allow students more freedom and responsibility in directing their own education.
“The kids have to do the work,” she said. “The teacher is not a performer. The teacher is a facilitator.”
In addition, every floor has 13 work stations for teachers, providing each instructor with their own lockable storage and work space, Conley said.
The school is 99 percent complete, Conley said, adding that work crews currently are going through a punch list and performing final touch-ups.
Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) did not attend the tour.
Collins, an attorney, said afterward that he needed to appear in court at the time of the tour, while Davis and Rucci attended the funeral of Mary Shasho, a local Realtor and wife of commercial real estate firm owner Harry Shasho.
County Administrator Mark Belton attended the tour, as did school board Chairwoman Roberta S. Wise.