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STEM in the Lower School

We ask our young students to think and act like scientists.

Our lower schoolers apply their knowledge and skills to identify and address real-world problems, incorporating components of technology, engineering, sustainability, and design. They learn question formation, observation, experimentation, measurement, analysis, inference and deduction, critical thought, and communication skills.

The Lower School also promotes a deep understanding of math skills and concepts. The goal of our math program is authentic, problem-based inquiry that enables students to expand their knowledge and apply it in context.

Read More: Lower School Curriculum

Annual STEM Activities

Students prepare to race mini boats on Maker Day.

Lower schoolers work with teachers to design and build various games and contraptions leading up to Maker Day, then spend the day playing with their creations.

Before and during our Week of Code, lower schoolers learn about the binary numeral system and have a blast playing coding games. The week is an extended version of the Hour of Code, which aims to demystify coding, show that anybody can learn the basics, and foster interest in computer science.

Second graders learning about bones at Health Fair.

During our annual Health Fair, parents and community members who work in health care use hands-on activities to give second graders a glimpse into their professions.

Second graders present their Rube Goldberg machine to the class.

Third graders collaborate in small groups to build Rube Goldberg machines.

Fourth graders on a field study in the mountains.

Fourth graders venture out on a dozen field studies to examine Utah’s environment.

Fifth grader presenting science project to teacher.

Fifth graders complete an individual project and present it to teachers and peers in our beloved Science Share.

Personalized Attention

Our Lower School has an average class size of 17 students, compared to 24 in Utah's public elementary schools. Every child is well-known and supported in the ways that best meet their needs.

Lower School STEM Stories in Fine Print Magazine

Encouraging Students to Embrace the Identity of a Scientist

Last fall, Rowland Hall first graders tackled a mystery in the science lab: how could two islands on either side of the world have the same tree growing on them? As part of a unit on seeds and trees, students suggested an explanation for this phenomenon, and then followed clues to determine whether their explanation was plausible. Carly Biedul—who served as the long-term science substitute teacher during Kirsten Walker's maternity leave and continues to teach the first- and second-grade science labs—was impressed with the students' engagement. "It was awesome to see how the first graders kept changing their answer the more and more they learned about seeds," she said. She explained that this lesson taught students about more than seed dispersal: it showed them that it's okay if your first answer to a problem is wrong because scientific study entails gathering evidence and then refining your answer based on what you learn.

Over the past four years, Rowland Hall has been examining and refining the ways we teach science, largely in service of the Strategic Plan's second goal: provide the Intermountain West's most outstanding math and science program. While division-specific and developmentally appropriate, these curricular changes all have one thing in common: students are spending more time in class—and hopefully outside class too—engaging in the behaviors of science. They are conducting more lab experiments, which involve asking questions, making observations, collecting data, and forming and revising arguments. Teachers are often using the universal framework of claim-evidence-reasoning to guide their lessons, which fosters the kind of critical thinking that students can apply in any field.

In kindergarten through eighth grade, Rowland Hall's science curriculum now aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which emphasize inquiry-based learning and making connections across scientific domains. The vision outlined in the NGSS is one where students are empowered to lead their own scientific discoveries, and sixth-grade science teacher Molly Lewis wholeheartedly supports it.

"Kids are the scientists now," she said, "and teachers are the facilitators." Whether directing a lab experiment about human vision—having students identify the limitations of their eyesight in certain circumstances, such as a dark room—or exploring the relationship between the form and function of red blood cells, Ms. Lewis is happy to let the students take risks and posit theories that might initially be ill-founded. "We're giving them meaningful context instead of just abstract ideas, and then teaching them the skills necessary to discover what's true or what they can prove."

In the Middle School and the Lower School, phenomena—like the trees and their traveling seeds, or fossils found in sedimentary rocks—are being used to draw students into the practice of inquiry. The Lower School also has several new units that integrate science and literacy, laying the groundwork for more in-depth experiments in the science lab. The Beginning School, meanwhile, builds foundational skills with activities such as daffodil painting and dissection.

For Upper School Science Department Chair Alisa Poppen, the skills and concepts learned through lab work are essential, and her department recently acquired some new sensors and probes necessary for proper data collection. Echoing Ms. Lewis, Ms. Poppen said, "We are using labs to build models rather than simply confirm ideas. We are focused on the behaviors of scientists, and understanding that science is not a collection of facts but rather a series of practices."

While the Upper School curriculum is focused on moving toward lab-based Advanced Topics courses—rather than using the NGSS as their guide—Ms. Poppen is thrilled at the prospect of students entering ninth-grade science with an excellent foundation in the claim-evidence-reasoning framework. Furthermore, she sees additional lab time creating an upswing in student engagement, much like Ms. Biedul observed in first grade.

Teachers and administrators will continue to observe how students perform in science classrooms—and, like good scientists, they will refine their practices based on the data they collect. Ultimately, Rowland Hall remains committed to providing students with the best possible learning experience. New Middle School science teacher Melissa Sharp hopes that by increasing students' enthusiasm for science, their learning experience will carry over into after-school hours too. "I want them to get into the car and ask their parents about genetics, and say, 'Mom, let me see your thumb!'" she said. "Or they might watch football and think about concussions, wondering what is happening in terms of neuroscience."

What it boils down to for everyone teaching science at Rowland Hall, including Ms. Sharp: "I want students to embrace the identity of a scientist."



Students Show off STEAM Skills at First Annual Maker Day


In mid-May, Lower School students convened in the McCarthey Campus Field House to engage in hands-on, creative STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) activities with members of Rowland Hall's Technology Department and special guest educators from the Wonderment Bus, a repurposed school bus with maker equipment. Our lower, middle, and upper school students also displayed both high- and low-tech maker projects they worked on throughout the year.






Week of Code Continues to Raise Computer Science's Profile at Rowland Hall

The Lower School took part again this year in the national  Week of Code December 5-11. This time, coding activities were more intertwined in curriculum so the spirit of the event could live on throughout the school year.

Rowland Hall Director of Technology Integration Christian Waters and Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus worked closely with teachers to develop a schedule for all first through fifth graders to participate in Week of Code—our own elongated version of the global Hour of Code.

Hour of Code and the tech experts behind it advocate coding as the new literacy for 21st-century learners. Students familiar with code, experts say, will design new solutions to the world's challenges. Rowland Hall already offers technology courses and curricula to help students develop an understanding of how computers work, Mr. Waters said, and we’ll keep adding classes and other ways for students to express themselves through science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Rowland Hall will continue to take part in the Hour of Code to showcase the importance of computer science, Mr. Waters said. There's a deluge of tech jobs in Utah and across the U.S., and part of the solution to filling those jobs involves getting more women interested in the field. Women are notoriously underrepresented in the tech industry, but the school is working to change that by making computer science interesting for young girls, Mr. Waters added. “We feel it’s particularly valuable for girls to see female role models in technology fields and understand how engaging and creative computer science can be,” he said. Last spring, Rowland Hall hosted a screening of the documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap followed by a panel discussion with director/producer Robin Hauser and local women and men in STEM education and tech. And a spring Fine Print story detailed how in the Upper School, girls are some of Rowland Hall’s highest-profile STEM students.

John Quinn, founder and chief development officer at cloud-storage company Storj, dropped by Jeanne Zeigler’s third-grade class December 6 to talk to students (including his daughter, Abi) about the importance of coding. “We’re entering a world where artificial intelligence—computers and robotics—are going to impact your life in various ways,” Mr. Quinn told the students. If you don’t know how to program, you might be stuck behind, he said. But if you learn programming, “you’ll be able to build things and you’ll be able to create your own kind of interesting world.”

Students in Mrs. Zeigler’s class proved they won’t be stuck behind. The third graders used iPads to play Minecraft, Flappy Bird, or Star Wars through, and were transfixed as they solved the problems presented by these coding-oriented games. At least one dynamic duo collaborated to maximize success—Ocky Moyle and Lizzy Weiss worked together to whiz through Star Wars, and threw their arms up in excitement as they beat level after level.



Inquiring Minds Get Answers From Lower School Math Specialist

Other schools have math specialists and coaches, but Lower School Math Specialist Jodi Spiro says her position at Rowland Hall is unique. Different from a math coach, a specialist enhances the student learning experience in math and partners with classroom teachers to ensure each child learns at his or her level. The Lower School is fortunate to have Ms. Spiro, now in her third year. Director of Marketing and Communications Stephanie Orfanakis sat down with Ms. Spiro to find out more about her job and how she inspires students to engage in flexible thinking and use math in everyday life.

Orfanakis: Tell me what it's like to be a math specialist.

Spiro: Every day is dynamic and interesting. What I do depends on what the classroom teacher needs for that week. Sometimes I teach the whole class; sometimes I'm working with a small group. My role is to ensure each student is challenged at his or her level. It's so satisfying to see students have breakthrough moments and to coach them along as they struggle to work through difficult problems. My favorite moments are when students find me in the hall or at recess to tell me they passed a test or solved a problem we’ve been working on.

Orfanakis: How does your role benefit the students?

Spiro: I'm a resource for students who need additional practice or further explanation of a concept. I'm also a resource for students who need an additional challenge. I meet with groups of kids to explore stimulating activities that complement what's being learned in the classroom.

Orfanakis: What has been the biggest surprise in your role?

Spiro: As a classroom teacher, I enjoyed the variety and challenge of teaching several subjects. Now that I have a singular focus, I'm inspired and challenged in a totally different way. I'm able to concentrate on math and am surprised by how much I've enjoyed specializing. I love how creative I get to be in my role. I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make math fun and relevant to students. I love solving problems right along with the students.

Orfanakis: Why is it important to have someone in your position?

Spiro: I'm able to help teachers differentiate math activities to ensure students are being appropriately challenged and supported. Time is a precious commodity for classroom teachers and it takes A LOT of time to sift through all of the information about elementary math. In my position, I'm able to try new games or activities with students, and teachers are able to focus their instruction on smaller groups. Additionally, as we work to implement the Strategic Plan, it's important to have a person who is focused on researching best practices for elementary math.

Orfanakis: What inspired you to move from being a classroom teacher to a math specialist?

Spiro: I spent many years as a classroom teacher. Three years ago, when I returned from maternity leave, I took on a teacher-support role and helped teachers with a range of duties from substituting to guiding reading groups. As it turns out, I was mostly helping teachers with math instruction. From that, the teachers and administration saw the value in having a math specialist.

Orfanakis: Tell me about your first memory of enjoying math.

Spiro: I was a second grader. While the rest of the class was working on something, my teacher took me aside and showed me some multiplication problems. She asked if I was able to figure out what was going on. She didn’t give me any instructions other than asking me to play with the numbers. I remember discovering patterns within the problems and feeling like I had unlocked a secret code. I'm still fascinated by number patterns.

Orfanakis: In your opinion, how does math benefit everyone, even those who don't pursue a career that requires a high level of math?

Spiro: So much of math is a thinking skill. The problem-solving process can be applied to any problem, not just a math problem. Thinking about what you know and what you don’t know, making a plan, and then answering a question is a life skill.

Orfanakis: Give me an example of how a Lower School student can apply math in their everyday life.

Spiro: Money and sports are natural ways to involve kids in math. For example, kids can keep track of their running time and graph improvements or make estimations of how much a grocery bill is going to be. Another great way to spark curiosity and have fun with math is to ask kids open-ended questions that don’t seem “mathy,” such as, “How long do you think it would take me to count to a billion?”   

Orfanakis: How do you stay current on math education and trends in math?

Spiro: I stay current by spending a lot of time reading. I'm a member of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). has a ton of great resources. I get a lot of ideas and information from NCTM’s monthly publication, Teaching Children Mathematics. I also follow a couple of math blogs (Dan Meyer and Marilyn Burns are two examples).

Rowland Hall is incredible in supporting professional development for their teachers. I've traveled to several conferences and trainings related to design thinking, formative assessment, mathematical practices, and makerspaces.

But I probably get the most out of talking with my colleagues. I’m always amazed and impressed with what the teachers in all of the divisions are doing with math.

Orfanakis: What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about the level of math their student is performing?

Spiro: First and foremost, if parents are concerned, talk to the teacher. Teachers are skilled at assessing their students’ strengths and weaknesses and they work tirelessly to keep students motivated and succeeding. Anyone can do math and like most things, the path to success is different for everyone. Math is just like a sport or playing an instrument and requires focused practice.

Much of the learning students do in the Lower School is centered on thinking flexibly about numbers and learning different strategies to solve problems. Some of the computational strategies that students are learning can seem less straightforward than standard methods that parents are used to. My advice is to have your child explain their thinking or have the teacher explain a strategy to you. I am always amazed at how these kids can manipulate numbers in their heads.

Another important thing for parents to remember is to remain positive when talking about math. Try not to say things like, “I’m bad at math, too.” Encourage your child to embrace challenges, and most importantly, celebrate big and small successes with them.




Field Studies Fortify Fourth Graders' Utah Expertise

Fourth graders venture out on more field studies than students in any other grade—these young explorers leave the classroom 14 times each school year for in-state experiential learning. Middle and upper schoolers may travel farther, but no other grade goes on as many excursions.

Every fourth grader in Utah studies the state’s history. At Rowland Hall, educators have developed a Utah-themed curriculum that intertwines history, government, geology, conservation, and literature, and gives students the opportunity to become comprehensive experts on, and advocates for, their home terrain.

The students take so many trips, according to fourth-grade teacher Erika McCarthy, because everything is so accessible. “Within an hour, we can be at any field study,” Ms. McCarthy said. “We can be at the top of the mountain, or at the Great Salt Lake, and so it is right in our backyard.”

Plus, it helps children to experience what they’re learning. Instead of sticking only to a textbook, “we touch it, we taste it, we feel it,” she said. “It’s tangible.”

The science-related trips follow an intuitive path: how water drains from the mountains to the Great Salt Lake. Understanding watershed, Ms. McCarthy said, helps students understand how our mountains, canyons, and valleys formed. Fourth graders also learn about protecting and preserving their surroundings, and “why water is so precious in the state of Utah.”

“The students certainly understand that by the end of the year,” Ms. McCarthy said. “Everything ties in with the water.”

Here’s a list of fourth-grade field studies, and what the students do on each trip:
  • Red Butte Creek (three trips): make observations about the creek, talk about where the water comes from and where it’s going, and learn to collect/record data;

  • Ensign Peak: study the rock of the areaconglomerateand make observations about the valley and mountains in our watershed;

  • Little Cottonwood Canyon and Big Cottonwood Canyon (two trips): learn about weathering, erosion, and the different types of rocks;

  • Timpanogos Cave National Monument: study weathering, erosion, limestone caves, and cave formations;

  • Salt Lake Cemetery: differentiate the rocks used for headstones;

  • Natural History Museum of Utah: review Utah's landforms and collect information on the Great Salt Lake and the five American Indian tribes of Utah;

  • Parley’s Water Treatment Plant: learn what it takes to collect the water from our mountains, and provide clean drinking water for the public;

  • Utah State Capitol: learn about Utah statehood and making laws in Utah;

  • This is the Place Heritage Park: learn about how pioneers first trekked to Utah and settled in Salt Lake City in 1847, and the schooling and blacksmithing of that era;

  • Antelope Island State Park: study brine shrimp and our watershed; and

  • Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve: learn about the wetlands, where freshwater and saltwater meet.

Since Ms. McCarthy began teaching at Rowland Hall in 2007, she and her colleagues have added one variable trip to the list—snowshoeing in the winter. “We hope to be able to go snowshoeing every year,” she said. “And there’s where we’re learning about the water content, how much snow we need—besides playing in the snow—in order to have a good spring and summer.”

Even if snowshoeing isn’t in the cards, the diverse, engaging trip roster turns our fourth graders into local adventurers, and gives them plenty to look forward to.

Experiential Learning

Testing 1, 2, 3—Third Graders Build Rube Goldberg Machines

Rowland Hall third-graders are testing the limits of design and engineering by building elaborate machines to accomplish simple tasks. Using the knowledge base they acquired in the Force and Motion Science unit in the fall, students utilize a simplified five-step engineering process to imagine, plan, create, test, and improve a design. Next, they construct a chain-reaction contraption commonly known as a Rube Goldberg machine. The goal is to generate a series of related operations—such as opening a trapdoor, which drops a ball through a slot, and ultimately completes a task—sometimes as fun and silly as pouring cereal into a bowl. Students are motivated by the challenges and rewards that accompany solving a problem or finding a solution. Often the most rewarding step of the engineering process is the testing phase of the experiment. “Testing the machine is my favorite part of this project,” third-grader Kavitha Katsuri said. “Watching the machine in action is the best!”


The young engineers are asked to limit their machines to five steps and include two simple machines, such as the wedge, the lever, the pulley, the inclined plane, or the wheel and axle, in their design. This formula results in ingenious and creative solutions that cause a change of direction or a magnitude of force on an object.


“This project ignites passion and excitement in students,” Lower School Science Teacher Kirsten Walker said. While building is in progress, students buzz through the third-grade hallways, their arms loaded with supplies and materials, all of which is scattered about in organized chaos. “The process can be quite messy, but with that comes student engagement that is off the charts,” Ms. Walker said.


Children’s sheer determination is one of the most interesting parts of working with younger students in science and engineering projects. Ms. Walker said that children will test their designs over and over, whereas adults tend to “make a plan and stick to it without ever testing it.”


Testing the machine over and over is part of the thrill for fifth-grader James Obermark, who acknowledges that imagining and planning the Rube Goldberg is important. “We did many, many, many, tests with many, many, many fails,” James said. “But we did not give up. We just tried again until we got it right!”


The main goal of the Rube Goldberg project is to foster skills important to the engineering and inventing processes, such as teamwork, creativity, perseverance, and the testing and sharing of ideas. The design process bridges the gap between science and engineering and allows students to work together on a common goal.


Lower School Catches Coding Bug

First Through Fifth Graders Among Millions of Students who Participated in Hour of Code and Learned Computer Science Staples

As 280 Rowland Hall Lower School students crafted beaded bracelets, created patterned designs, or maneuvered through mazes in early December, they also began to master the basics of computer science. Students used the concept of the binary numeral system to create the bracelets; the MIT-created program Scratch to animate sprites and create colorful geometric patterns; and the app Kodable to move furry aliens through the maze-covered planet Smeeborg (and learn about symbols, sequence, and loops). View the gallery here.

Rowland Hall educators led those activities and others for the Hour of Code, a global movement that aims to introduce students to computer science—one of the most in-demand college degrees, according to event founding organization Utah, for one, is home to a huge tech industry: the 6,057 open computing jobs here amount to 3.2 times the state’s average demand rate.

Despite the demand to fill computer science jobs, fewer schools offer the subject now than a decade ago, reports. Here in Utah, Rowland Hall is one of just 13 schools that offered AP Computer Science in 2013-2014. Winged Lion leaders will continue to make science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects a priority. The school hired Christian Waters as Rowland Hall’s first Director of Technology Integration in 2013. And the 2014 Strategic Plan set a primary goal of providing the Intermountain West’s most outstanding math and science program.

Rowland Hall dubbed its 2015 event the Week of Code, since each Lower School class participated in an hour of code at various times Dec 7-11. Waters called the week-long event a huge success, praising faculty and staff for their efforts that “helped illuminate the pleasure and importance of coding for our students and parents.”

“Learning to code not only prepares our students to shape the world of the future,” Waters said. “It also teaches them how to think quantitatively, which is a crucial math and science skill.”

Rowland Hall’s participation in the Hour of Code wasn’t just about exposing children to computer science, or encouraging them to pursue STEM career paths.

“Technology is such an integral part of kids’ day-to-day experience,” Rowland Hall Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus said. “Coding is a great way to understand how technology works while developing skills like creativity and collaboration—skills that are valuable whether you’re sitting in front of a screen or you’re out in the world.”

Waters added that he hopes to see Rowland Hall extend coding activities beyond the Hour of Code. Teachers could use the Blockly iPad app, for instance, to program spherical, cyclops-like robot toys named Dash and Dot already owned by the school. Plus, there are plenty of coding apps and websites classes can continue to explore, Waters said.

“In the words of Steve Jobs, learning how to code teaches you how to think,” the Director of Technology Integration said. “Logic, sequential reasoning, and math skills are all intrinsically linked to computer programming and we want our students to develop those skills.”


Stream Studies in the Nation's Second Driest State

In the fourth grade, our students embark on a yearlong, interdisciplinary exploration of place: Utah's unique history, environment, and culture.  One component of this rich experience involves the investigation of our local watershed and the issues that affect it and relate to it.  Considering that Utah is the second driest state in the country with one of the highest per capita consumption rates, we need our students to understand the importance of this resource.

A watershed is defined as an area of land that contains a common set of streams and rivers that all drain into a single larger body of water, such as a larger river, a lake or an ocean.  Every person on the planet lives in a watershed.  A watershed can cover a small area or a large one, depending on the scope of study.  At Rowland Hall, our fourth graders focus their study on the Jordan River watershed, which includes a nearby stream called Red Butte Creek.  Throughout the year, we visit this stream three times: in the fall, winter, and spring. 

During their first visit in the fall, our students learn how to collect and record some basic stream data, such as stream bottom substrate, depth, width, and velocity, as well as water temperature, odor, and appearance.  They are also asked to think about the following questions:

  1. Where is the water coming from?  What is the source of the water?
  2. Where does the water go after it passes by this location?
  3. Why is the stream flowing in a specific location and not, for example, through the park or our schoolyard?
  4. If you studied this stream again in another month of the year, what measurements might be different?  Why?

Following this first visit, students build their own mini-watersheds in the classroom and learn the definition of a watershed.  They get to see how water travels downhill until it reaches the lowest parts of the landscape, also known as basins.  Building on this, our students investigate how water shapes the land through weathering and erosion.  They go on field studies to both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons where they observe the effects of weathering and erosion first hand, such as the U-shaped canyons, erratic boulders, and smooth, rounded cobbles in the streambeds.  In the science lab, the fourth graders also use stream tables to model how the Colorado Plateau was slowly eroded away to form the many beautiful desert canyons that Utah is so famous for. 

By the end of the first trimester, our students have a much deeper understanding about the power of moving water.  It is at this point that we visit our local stream a second time.  During this visit, the students play a more active role in collecting stream data.   They also focus on how the stream looks, sounds, and feels different than before.  This November, Red Butte Creek was partially frozen and the water measured a freezing zero degrees Celsius.  Observing water in its frozen state is a perfect prelude to our winter science unit called Water is Everything.  In this unit, our students study the unique properties of water, the water cycle, water quality, water use, and finally, the importance of water conservation. 

To further explore the full value of fresh, clean water coming out of our faucets, our students go on a field trip to a local water treatment plant and we visit our stream a third and final time.  In addition to collecting another set of stream data, each student is responsible for carrying one gallon of water back to the classroom.  We do this to create awareness for how hard most people on the planet have to work in order to get clean water.  This practice along with many others helps us all, students and teachers alike, conserve water on a very thirsty planet. 

Last, but not least, we end the school year with a field trip to a different stream, one found close to the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake.  In this stream, our students observe a variety of macroinvertebrates living in the stream water.  When we return to school, we play a game called MacroMayhem, which introduces them to the concept of bioindicators.  The students learn that certain macroinvertebrate populations, like Mayflies and Stoneflies, can actually tell us how clean a stream is, which in turn helps us to measure the water quality in our local watershed.  At this point, students start to realize that they have only just begun to chip away at all our local streams have to offer, but alas, it is summertime.  Another year has come and gone, but our fourth graders have changed.  Through their in-depth explorations, natural curiosity, and openness to change, they have become young movers and shakers for a water planet that needs all the fresh, clean water it can get!

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