LANHAM – Science has changed a lot over the past 40 years, but the mission of Howard B. Owens Science Center has largely remained the same: to provide children with hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning experiences that they will take with them forever.
This week, the science center is celebrating 40 years of operation as Prince George’s County Chief Executive Officer of Prince George's County Public Schools (PGCPS) Kevin Maxwell, himself celebrates 40 years of educational service. Maxwell began teaching at Crossland High School on Jan. 2 1978.
“It’s really exciting. Every day is really different in education,” he said. “I feel like I’ve evolved over my 40 years in public education and learned a lot and a lot to offer and I keep doing this because I think making a difference in the lives of children is what we’re called to do here and we’re going to keep doing that.”
Maxwell’s journey to leading PGCPS did not start with a dream to lead, however. After finishing his service in the military, he said he spent a long year thinking about what he wanted to do with his future.
It was his work with a church youth program that sparked his passion for working with children, and he decided to take a course on developing youth programs. Then, he said, one thing just led to another.
As he began working in the very same school system he graduated from, Maxwell had no idea 40 years later he would be orchestrating it.
“You learn, and you grow, and you evolved. I graduated and I started teaching here. I student taught here, and of course I grew up here in Prince George’s County, but I really didn’t know as a teacher that I would end up being the person in charge in the school district,” he said.
Maxwell and the science center celebrated together on Jan. 2 while students from across the county participated in STEM activities. Students gathered in a lab classroom to learn about engineering design and building paper rockets while others led a mission to Mars and Surrattsville High School Advanced Placement students studied bioenergetics in an upstairs lab.
Activities ranged from learning how to measure meters and centimeters to discovering the effects that different shades of light have on photosynthesis.
“When it first started, it opened in 1978, and it was just the planetarium at the time, and then after the Challenger Mission tragedy,” program administrator of Howard B. Ownes Traketa Wray said.
"June Scobee Rodgers started a foundation with the Challenge Learning Center in memory of the Challenger astronauts, we have the oldest, successfully running Challenger Learning Center in the country and in the world. “I am very proud to be a part of (this). The teamwork that we do is just phenomenal.”
The 27,500 square foot science center is also home to the longest-operating Challenger Learning Center and the second largest planetarium in the state. It houses aquatic wildlife such as the diamondback terrapin, a baby alligator and fish alongside snakes, tortoises, and lizards.
The center helps educators teach the state standards in a way the students will understand and remember, Wray said. By learning in a hands-on classroom from teachers with masters and even doctoral degrees, students have the best resources at their disposal to help them in the STEM field.
“Our research, it’s a process of what is needed instructionally for our students, because standards change on what the state requires. And we support the other teachers that are at the school level in making sure that the students are prepared for the assessments when the science and the math assessments comes up,” she said. “We’ve supported them in that way as well by implementing programs that the children will see hands-on versus just a piece of paper.”
Wray and Maxwell both said students walk away from the science center not only learning a little more about a STEM field but with memories that will stick with them as they continue learning.
One of those memories could be with Sally Smith, who currently leads the virtual space expeditions to Mars or with Patricia Seaton who operates the planetarium. Both are incredibly passionate about their work, and it shows as they describe their projects.
Currently, Seaton is preparing for a planetarium show where she combines music and star exploration that she calls a “treasure hunt through the night sky.”
She has invited several schools and local music groups to perform in the planetarium and is hoping to feature backlit dancing in the next show.
She also works to incorporate curriculum from outside STEM into in the planetarium, like when she combined student’s learning of heroes and Greek gods and their children to a lesson on the stars.
“We still have a pretty awesome star field for being 40 years old,” she said.
Smith, who also works part-time with NASA, bragged about the work students are doing through the GLOBE Program, sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation, to learn about global warming and environmental impacts that they then share with fellow students throughout the world.
It is hands-on experience and real-world application learning that makes the science center so important, Maxwell said. Not to mention, Wray said, these students are learning from passionate people who are, themselves, always seeking knowledge.
“They are the success in this building. Their teaching and delivering of instruction is what makes us successful,” Wray said.