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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

Preschoolers explore the nature yard.

On an overcast autumn day, a voice rang out in the Lower School nature yard. “Match!” it cried.

At the sound, the entire 4PreK class came running. One by one, they began smelling one of the yard’s plants, on a mission to find a scent match to a mystery plant they had been given that morning.

Research shows there are powerful benefits of sensory learning—building nerve connections in the brain, improving fine motor skills and perception, encouraging social interaction, and enhancing memory are among them.

This activity is one of several sensory learning exercises that Kate Nevins’ and Brittney Hansen’s preschool class enjoyed this fall, and was designed to engage students’ sense of smell. Before going outdoors, each child had been given a bit of the crumpled mystery plant (wild sagebrush), which they rubbed between their hands and smelled. The group then went to the nature yard to locate a full sage plant by scent alone. “Children ran from plant to plant smelling the scent on the palm of their hand and then smelling the plant to see if the scent matched,” the teachers wrote about the activity. “As soon as a child was sure they found the right plant they would yell, ‘Match!’ and we would all come running to smell for ourselves.”

Because research shows there are powerful benefits of sensory learning—building nerve connections in the brain, improving fine motor skills and perception, encouraging social interaction, and enhancing memory among them—Rowland Hall embraces opportunities to add it to lessons. “The five senses have been a part of the 4PreK curriculum for at least the past 20 years—it is such a critical unit for four- and five-year-olds to explore,” said Brittney.

In the 4PreK program, senses are introduced as tools for making scientific discoveries and observations about the world. And sensory learning can be quite simple. For example, for the listening exercise, the preschoolers walked to the McCarthey Campus back field, where they closed their eyes and concentrated on, and named, the sounds around them. When exploring touch, the children lay down on the grass and described how the blades felt against their bodies.

Our young naturalists were encouraged to slow down and use a keen eye. We are learning that scientists have to be patient and look very carefully.

Students also learned the importance of perseverance. For a color hunt designed to engage sight, each student painted the wells of an empty egg carton a different color, then went outdoors to collect items that matched those colors. “Some colors proved to be more difficult to find,” the teachers said. “Our young naturalists were encouraged to slow down and use a keen eye. We are learning that scientists have to be patient and look very carefully.”

The unit also recommended continuing sensory learning at home. After the color hunt, for instance, the teachers prompted parents and guardians to help students find ways to use their collection boxes around the house. “Encourage your children to take the cartons outside in your yard or with you on a neighborhood walk,” they told parents and caregivers. This helps create a powerful connection between school and home (an ongoing goal at Rowland Hall) and builds early childhood skills like language development, fine and gross motor skills, and problem-solving in a pressure-free, fun way.

Interested in other ways you can bring sensory learning into your home? Check out 31 Days of Sensory Play to get started.

STEM

Doing What Real Scientists Do: Fifth-Grade Science Share Celebrates Inquiry, Process, and (Sometimes) Failure

Each August when students at Rowland Hall enter fifth grade, they receive a special assignment: write a letter to your teacher introducing yourself and expressing your hopes and fears for the year ahead. According to Sarah Button and Chad Obermark, two Lower School faculty members with a collective 23 years of experience teaching Rowland Hall fifth graders, 75 percent of incoming students are worried about one thing in particular—the science share.

"We talk about the science share from day one," Chad said.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings. It takes approximately eight weeks for students to complete the entire process: choosing a question, forming a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, writing up their results using the claim-evidence-reasoning framework, and creating the presentation board and accompanying Keynote—digital documentation—for the science share.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings.

The sustained timeline, coupled with the independent nature of the research, is what contributes to student anxiety about the science share, Chad explained. "They've really got to own it," he said, "and for some kids it's daunting."

For some fifth-grade students, identifying their research question is the toughest part of the process. Mackenzie White, whose project explored whether the duration of egg-whipping affected the height of a pound cake, said that finding a genuine question was her biggest challenge.

Sarah said that students' initial questions frequently fall into that category: those they already know the answer to. When she pushes them to establish genuine questions, they grow concerned. "They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong," she said. "So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do."

At this year's science share on April 26, projects explored a range of questions, such as whether the type of string on a lacrosse stick impacts shot accuracy, or whether listening to music during a math test affects student performance. Faculty, parents, and other Lower School students made their way around the room, examining display boards, listening to presentations about the scientific method, and asking the fifth graders questions about their findings.

Some students were nervous about presenting their work to the community, though many spoke with pride about what they had learned. Will Chin, whose question was "does the temperature of a tennis ball affect how high it bounces?" described the painstaking process of data collection. After filming bouncing tennis balls—some of which had been cooled or heated—he pored over hours of video to extract precise height measurements, often slowing down and rewinding footage multiple times. However, his advice to future students was reassuring. "Once you get past the procedure," he said, "it's really fun."

They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong. So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do. —Sarah Button, fifth-grade teacher

Gigi Brown, Jojo Park, and Bea Martin also had good suggestions for next year's fifth-grade class: Make sure you pick a question that really interests you. Choose a project that doesn't involve living subjects. Start early, and don't be afraid to ask your teacher for help.

Even though some students may struggle with the science share, Sarah emphasized that the process of engaging with a meaningful question—not the end product on display—is what creates a positive learning outcome. Additionally, the experience can impact the way students approach future projects in the Middle School and beyond. For one of Sarah's former students whose science share wasn't particularly successful, that meant helping his brother out when he got to fifth grade. "He didn't want his brother to make the same mistakes he had," Sarah said, "and his brother's project ended up being one of the best in his class."

The celebration of scientific inquiry and process, including the occasional failure, presents an opportunity for the community too, according to Chad. While many other Lower School performances or events focus on the arts or literacy, the science share offers a critical window into STEM learning. "It's a big deal," he said, "and it's a big deal about science."

STEM

Student in science lab

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.

Kids are the scientists now, and teachers are the facilitators. —Molly Lewis, sixth-grade science teacher

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, Molly 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 Molly, Alisa 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."

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. —Alisa Poppen, Upper School science department chair

While the Upper School curriculum is focused on moving toward lab-based Advanced Topics courses—rather than using the NGSS as their guide—Alisa 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 Carly 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 Melissa: "I want students to embrace the identity of a scientist."

STEM

Annual Fund Sparks Young Minds
Mom Tonya Pickron was surprised by her daughter Lindsay's response to the routine question, "What's your favorite subject in school?" The fourth-grader's answer: math.
 
"Lindsay has always been good at math, but she's never showed the confidence in it that she does now," Tonya said. "Marianne Jenkins has a way of teaching that gets Lindsay fired up. Now, Lindsay not only loves being challenged with rigorous math problems, but she's also interested in architecture. It's like she is becoming this little STEM girl."
 
Since the implementation of Rowland Hall's 2014 Strategic Plan, teachers have increasingly engaged in professional development to help us achieve Goal 2—provide an outstanding math and science program. Last summer, when Marianne shared an interest in pursuing a math endorsement, Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus sent her to a workshop at Stanford University. "I just died—I was so excited," she said. "I sat right up front. It was so much fun."

At Stanford, Marianne met Jo Boaler, world-renowned math professor, math-education author, and founder of YouCubed, a Stanford center that provides teachers with math-education resources. Marianne learned about mathematical mindset, a technique that adapts Carol Dweck's theory of growth mindset and applies it specifically to math education. "So many kids label themselves as not being 'math people,' but everyone is a math person," the Rowland Hall teacher said. The Stanford workshop taught her how to talk to students about brain development and making mistakes. Now, Marianne writes three math problems on her classroom board twice a week, and one is always an extra-challenging word problem. Sometimes kids answer incorrectly. But because of the classroom culture, they can comfortably discuss where they went wrong. "When they think it through, they get a stomp stomp clap clap from their peers, acknowledging that their brains grew," Marianne said. "The kids have really begun to celebrate their mistakes and embrace the struggle because they understand that's part of their growth."

Students have loved the advanced activities from Jo Boaler's workshop and workbooks. The problems are often at a sixth-grade level, but Marianne presents them in a way that's appropriate for her students' brain development, and the fourth graders find solutions with modeling and simple algebra. "The workshop influenced me to believe that kids can do way more than we think they can," the teacher said. "They know that if something isn't hard, they're not learning. I want every student to be challenged. They know I expect a lot out of them, but they also know I care a lot about them. It's an equally tough and nurturing environment, a combination that stimulates growth."

Growth in the classroom is just as important for students as it is for educators. Because of leadership gifts to the Annual Fund, Rowland Hall's teachers are offered professional-development opportunities—just like Marianne's workshop—that directly enhance their students' academic experiences. Think of it like a math problem; the transitive property of equality says that if a=b, and b=c, then a=c.

(a) Annual Fund = (b) Support for Faculty/Staff Professional Development
(b) Support for Faculty/Staff Professional Development = (c) Student Growth and Thriving Kids
(a) Annual Fund = (c) Student Growth and Thriving Kids

It's simple math. Your contributions make a tremendous difference in the lives of Rowland Hall's students. Thank you so much for your support.

Academics

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.

STEM

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, Christian 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, Christian said. There's a deluge of tech jobs in Utah and across the US, 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, Christian 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,” John 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 Jeanne’s class proved they won’t be stuck behind. The third graders used iPads to play Minecraft, Flappy Bird, or Star Wars through Code.org, 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.

STEM

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 Jodi, now in her third year. Director of Marketing and Communications Stephanie Orfanakis sat down with Jodi to find out more about her job and how she inspires students to engage in flexible thinking and use math in everyday life.

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

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.

How does your role benefit the students?

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.

What has been the biggest surprise in your role?

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.

Why is it important to have someone in your position?

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.

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

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.

Tell me about your first memory of enjoying math.

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.

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

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.

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

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?”   

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

I stay current by spending a lot of time reading. I'm a member of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). NCTM.org 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.

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

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.

Academics

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,” Erika 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, Erika 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,” Erika 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

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

Since Erika 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

You Belong at Rowland Hall