The Fannie Cox
Center at 15

The Fannie Cox Center for Science, Math, and Technology is a building where students go beyond the study of science to become scientists themselves

Before the Fannie Cox Center, 375 Upper School students learned science in five classrooms with very limited lab space.

Our students benefited from their exposure to an excellent and dedicated faculty, a strong curriculum, and intellectually curious and motivated classmates, but many aspects of the program were limited by the spaces in which courses were taught. Science, computer science, and math were all affected in varying degrees by some teaching spaces that were outdated and had become crowded as our enrollment grew.

“I want our students to see that science is not merely a collection of facts. The Super Lab gives us the chance to show students how science is done, and to explain that all of these so-called facts we talk about come from evidence.” 

Sonia Chin
Biology and Genetics Superlab Teacher

Friends’ Central students have always been smart, curious, and motivated – they graduate having enjoyed an excellent science  experience. However, there came a moment when Friends’ Central science teachers redesigned the way students approached science, and our facilities could not keep pace with changing pedagogy. As the forefront of science education moved farther away from facts in textbooks to a more integrated and experiential approach involving experimentation, investigation, and analysis, more  extensive labs and research opportunities grew in importance. The construction of the Fannie Cox Center in 2003, complete  with labs and sophisticated equipment, provided our teachers  and students opportunities that matched their passion for learning.

This leap forward began with a desire to design a new facility from the inside out. Visits to topflight high schools and colleges and a generous gift that allowed the School to hire a science  classroom and laboratory design specialist were important groundwork. The School selected architect Graham Gund and Associates to design a building to house science, math, and  technology education and to unify the campus with a central green space. Former Head of School David Felsen remembers what it was like to make the case for the FCC, “At Friends’  Central, we all believe people and program are what makes a great school, but our lead donor inspired others to see that  spacious and well-designed teaching and research spaces  free a faculty to do their best work with students.”

Sonia Chin teaching in the FCC

The Fannie Cox Center for Science, Math, and Technology opened in the fall of 2003. It is a fabulous facility that exceeded all expectations, providing far more than teaching spaces. The labs and classrooms gave our teachers the opportunity to transform their teaching. The degree to which Friends’ Central students  can now conduct original research, explore cutting-edge concepts, and collaborate with teachers to advance ongoing research is exceptional at the high school level.

Becoming Scientists

Through intensive coursework and real-world experiments,  the Upper School science program helps students develop  vital skills, such as critical thinking and original analysis.  Christopher Guides, Chair of the Science Department, explains, “We’re constantly examining what we do and how we do it. We’ve been deliberate about creating a curriculum that nurtures students’ interest in science. When they graduate from here and go to college, whether they major in science or not, we want them to be active participants and put to use the skills and knowledge they acquired here.”

Students in Debbie Skapik’s Experiential Physics class testing the bridges that they built

Upper School students begin their course of study with our  required ninth grade course, Integrated Physics, an evolved  version of a class many remember as Foundations of Scientific Knowledge. This class, which takes a multi-disciplinary, inquiry- based approach, prepares science-interested students for upper- level science. For other students, the class provides a firm  understanding of science and an essential level of scientific  literacy. Many of our students go on to study science at the  college level and beyond.

Following Integrated Physics, students choose from a variety of advanced and non-advanced science courses, as well as Astronomy, Atmospheric Science and Climate Change, Biodiversity, Biology of Bodies, and Botany. There’s also Genetics Super Lab, which teaches students about the fundamentals, organisms, and  techniques used in research laboratories around the world.

Upper School science teacher Holly McCloskey is a Ph.D. in  the field of biochemistry. Her classes include Genetics Super Lab and Biology of Bodies, which she describes as “an anatomy and physiology class with a health and medicine twist. “In Biology of Bodies, we’re using models to build synovial joints, so the students are learning about the related bone and muscle groups, anatomical direction, and how the joints articulate,” she says. “Rather than simply memorizing the names of all these things, they get to see how the joints are put together and why, so it has sort of an engineering feel. For students who have an interest in sports medicine, bioengineering, or other types of related careers, it’s very exciting.”

McCloskey also coordinates students’ participation in the Annenberg High School Science Symposium, which is sponsored by Main Line Health. Through this program, students meet with mentors in specialized medical fields and perform in-depth literature research on topics in which they have a particular interest — regenerative medicine, for example. To kick off the event, students can observe a laparoscopic surgery in real time, and then ask questions of one or more surgeons at the surgery’s conclusion. The symposium concludes with students making a final presentation of their research findings in front of a panel of judges.

Sonia Chin, Ph.D., teaches Biology and Genetics Superlab at Friends’ Central. Chin strives to make science “come to life” by challenging students to apply classroom learning to real-world problems. “I want our students to see that science is not merely a collection of facts,” she says.“The Super Lab gives us the chance to show students how science is done, and to explain that all of these so-called facts we talk about come from evidence.”

Last summer, Chin explored advances in plant biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Through the program, she connected with Doris Wagner, Ph.D., a biology professor with the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences, and the two have discussed a future collaboration. Thanks in part to this experience, students in her Advanced Biology class will be participating in a genetic study  of white clover, with the data from the study to be submitted to a  database at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Upper School science program, with its outstanding instructors, continues to evolve. We look forward to the future achievements of the students currently occupying the classrooms and labs of the FCC as they head out into the world, inspired by excellent teachers and outstanding facilities and following in the footsteps of many illustrious FCS alumni/ae.

Distinguished Visiting Scientist and Core Team

Gifts that helped build the Fannie Cox Center were an investment in Friends’ Central teachers and students and a vote of confidence in their future discoveries. As we had hoped, this building has also opened the way for teaching and research opportunities that were unimaginable 15 years ago. It has facilitated nationally known programs, such as the Distinguished Visiting Scientist and Science Core team, and launched a generation of young scientists into the world. 

Over the past 12 years, the Distinguished Visiting Scientist and Core Team program has hosted renowned scholars, such as Brian Greene, Ph.D., director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics; Jared Diamond, Ph.D., professor of geography at UCLA and Pulitzer Prize-winning author; Janna Levin, Ph.D., a cosmologist and professor of astrophysics at Barnard College of Columbia; Douglas Emlen, Ph.D., an award-winning evolutionary biologist and professor of biology at the University of Montana; and David Charbonneau, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University. 

2019 Distinguished Visiting Scientist Rebecca Saxe, cognitive neuroscientist and professor in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, delivered her evening lecture to a packed house of thoroughly engaged community members on April 15. The lecture was titled “It’s the Thought that Counts: Progress Towards a Neuroscience of Theory of Mind.”

“We’ve had an amazing array of visitors,” explains John Gruber, director of the Distinguished Visiting Scientist program and a member of Friends’ Central’s Upper School science faculty. “The students become resident experts in each visitor’s field of study, so by the time [the scholars] come to campus, the students are so excited to meet them. One time, there was actually an audible gasp.” 

After the Distinguished Visiting Scientist lecture in the evening, students have the chance to ask the scholar follow-up questions about his or her work. Gruber says students also tend to inquire about the individual’s life and background, such as, “What would you advise us to do at this stage of our education?” At the end of the year, participating students then visit the scholar’s home institution, “so they can see where the real work is being done,” Gruber says. “We’re essentially trying to help our students understand what it’s like to be in the role of a scientist,” he adds. “We also want them to see that they don’t have to wait to be a graduate student to get started in pursuing their interest in science.”

From the Archives: Breaking New Ground for Science, Math, and Technology – The FCC is born.

Share this Article:

chevron-down closefacebookmailrsssearchtwittervimeoyoutube