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Developing Strengths

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STEM in the Middle School

Middle School STEM subjects help our active learners take their problem-solving skills to the next level.

Sixth graders study life science and physical science, including air quality and other relevant local topics. Seventh grade covers earth science and physical science, and students travel to the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to learn about the ecosystem and outdoor exploration. Eighth grade presents a survey of physical sciences and scientific processes with an emphasis on hands-on experimentation, analytical thinking and problem solving, and development of technical communication skills.

Middle School math topics range from pre-algebra to geometry. Students hone problem-solving strategies through mathematical investigations. They analyze real-life situations and study how those situations can be modeled by linear, inverse, exponential, or quadratic relationships. Recognizing patterns, defining and manipulating variables, collecting and graphing data, and predicting outcomes are all central to the curriculum.

Sixth graders take Foundations of Computer Science, which culminates in the design of a game or an interactive story. STEM electives available for seventh and eighth graders include Computer Science, Robotics, and Make Club.

Middle School STEM Activities

Aviation simlulator

High-fives complete the circuit using MaKeyMaKey controllers and the Scratch programming language.

High-fives complete the circuit using MaKeyMaKey controllers and the Scratch programming language.

Experimenting with physics concepts including friction, velocity, and Newton's Laws of Motion. 

Testing the strength of structures.

Testing structural hypothesis

Maker class

Maker class

Personalized Attention

Middle School student and teacher chatting.

Our Middle School has an average class size of 16 students. Every child is well-known and supported in the ways that best meet their needs.

Middle School STEM Stories in Fine Print Magazine

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, 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."

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—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."



Aviation Curriculum and Culture Takes Off Under Direction of Retired Navy Pilot

Pilots have the greatest office in the world. It's one of the simple-yet-effective pitches from Middle School teacher Bill Tatomer to pique interest in aviation.

At Rowland Hall, interests are piqued. Middle schoolers pack Mr. Tatomer's aviation electives. Upper schoolers recently started a lively Aviation Club. One recent alumnus—Davis Kahler '17—is studying at Westminster College to become a pilot, and some current students want to follow suit.

Mr. Tatomer's matter-of-fact passion for aviation helps to sell the subject. Beyond the incredible view from the "office," flying is just fun, the retired US Navy pilot said. "You're flying different profiles with different people, seeing different places," he said. "The dynamic environment made for a wonderful profession." Even his old uniform, a green flight suit, still brings him joy. "I miss wearing this pretty much every day because it's so darn comfortable," he said on Halloween, clad in the coveralls as an easily accessible costume.

Mr. Tatomer flew planes in the Navy for 22 years before retiring in 2007. Like so many former military pilots, he planned to become a commercial airline pilot. But he sought to reverse his career trend of spending about 40% of his time away from his two daughters and wife Linda, now the Lower School specialty principal. After Mr. Tatomer's final military tour in Hawaii, the family returned to Bill and Linda's former home of Salt Lake City. Mr. Tatomer landed a coaching job at Rowland Hall while he waited to interview with the airlines. Then, former Middle School Principal Stephen Bennhoff offered him a long-term maternity substitute position for seventh-grade world studies teacher Margot Miller. "I got into the class setting with the kids, and just fell in love," he said. He subsequently canceled scheduled interviews with Southwest and FedEx, and now celebrates 10 years in our classrooms.

Within two years of his Rowland Hall tenure, Mr. Tatomer convinced Mr. Bennhoff to let him teach a six-week aviation elective. From there, the curriculum grew: he now teaches three six-week intro classes, a six-week flight design class, and a trimester advanced flight class.

The intro class covers topics such as professions in aviation, aerodynamics, and Bernoulli's principle. In flight design, students learn about the aircraft engineering process and design one of their own prototype airplanes, guided by constraints such as size, materials, and flight distance. In the advanced course—an abbreviated Federal Aviation Administration ground-school class—students learn pilotage using simulators, and as a capstone activity actually pilot a real flight with instructors from Westminster College, Mr. Tatomer's alma mater.


Bill Tatomer with students and planes

↑ During a field trip to the Westminster College Flight Center, located in the southeast corner of the Salt Lake City International Airport, Bill Tatomer fist-bumps a Middle School aviation student after she correctly answered a question.

As classes expanded, so did corresponding equipment in Mr. Tatomer's classroom: he now has four flight simulators thanks to ongoing tech help from Lincoln Street Campus Network Manager Nick Banyard, and general program support from current Principal Tyler Fonarow. When practicing on the so-called sims, students reference flight checklists straight from the Westminster program. Mr. Tatomer serves as air traffic controller. Sims are linked so students can see each other taxiing out, flying on their assigned mission profile, and following the aircraft landing pattern. A deer might show up on the runway, and birds might hit the plane mid-flight. "The realism is incredible," Mr. Tatomer said.

The aviation curriculum aligns with our commitment to experiential education, and with our Strategic Plan goal of providing the region's most outstanding math and science program. "From metereology to aerodynamics to flight physiology, there are so many STEM applications," Mr. Tatomer said. "Every class is STEM based."

Junior Ned Friedman, president of the Aviation Club and an aspiring Air Force pilot, agreed. For the past couple of years, he's attended summer camp to fly gliders and has learned, for example, about aircraft engineering and how weather—especially wind—affects the physics of flight. Ned didn't attend Rowland Hall's Middle School, but commended Mr. Tatomer for his infectious love of the subject, and for serving as faculty liaison for the Aviation Club and connecting that group with Westminster's myriad aviation resources.

Sophomore Sophie DuBois, club vice president, loved taking Mr. Tatomer's beginning and advanced aviation classes, and especially loved flying from Salt Lake to Heber in the latter class. Now, she said unequivocally, "I want to be a pilot."

"That's why Rowland Hall is so great," she said. "We can have experiences like this that not a lot of other schools, at least locally, are able to offer," Sophie said. Mr. Tatomer, she added, was her favorite eighth-grade teacher. He's inclusive and tries to get everyone interested in what he's teaching. The Utah Air Force Association agrees: in May, they named him Chapter 236 (Southern Utah) Secondary Teacher of the Year.

In addition to dovetailing with our Strategic Plan, the rise of aviation at Rowland Hall coincides with a national pilot shortage. To curtail that shortage, the industry could encourage more women to join the field, since they comprise just 5% of pilots. Westminster is doing a bit better: there, the percentage of women in the aviation program is about thrice that, according to Aviation Admissions Counselor Stacie Whitford, one of Mr. Tatomer's main Westminster liaisons. The retired Navy commander is doing his part to close the gender gap—Sophie said he recruited plenty of girls for her Middle School classes. The teacher hopes to continue building on our school's partnership with Westminster, and sending them aviation students, especially young women.

Upper schoolers who want to advance in their aviation studies can do so through a Westminster course for high schoolers that runs January through April, and through a new Rowland Hall Interim trip that condenses Westminster's aviation summer camp into five days. Plus, the roughly 15-member Aviation Club meets 9:20 am Tuesdays in Mr. Tatomer's room, MS 203. In addition to educational trips after school or on weekends, the group is diving into community service. Through December 8, they're collecting donated toys, school supplies, clothes, and more for Angel Flight West's Utah Santa Flight, which will bring the items to students at a title 1 school in Roosevelt, Utah.


Experiential Learning

Middle Schoolers Ace Mathcounts Competitions, Follow in Principal's Footsteps

As an eighth grader back in 1985, Tyler Fonarow calculated his way to second place in his California home county's Mathcounts Competition Series. Now, Middle School Principal Fonarow is ushering in the new era of the mathlete here at Rowland Hall.

Team and individual Mathcounts trophies are starting to pile up since Mr. Fonarow rebooted Rowland Hall's Mathcounts program in 2014. In 2015, the team took third in the North Salt Lake Chapter. In 2016, they took fourth in the chapter, then leapfrogged some chapter competitors to take fourth in the state. This year, they took first in the chapter, then third in the state, with one Winged Lion for the first time in school history making the Utah team to compete at nationals, and another student ranking fourth in the state.

When Mr. Fonarow was a middle schooler, he thrived on the competitive aspect of Mathcounts. "I want our kids to have that opportunity and see math in a different way," he said. "Rowland Hall has energetic kids who love to be stimulated, and watching the dialogue around a math problem is really fun."

According to the nonprofit, Mathcounts provides students with "experiences that foster growth and transcend fear to lay a foundation for future success." Mathcounts competitions take place at four levels—school, chapter, state, and national—and each level has four rounds. In the sprint round, students have 40 minutes to solve 30 math problems. In the target round, they solve four pairs of problems in six minutes per pair. In the team round, four students collaborate to solve 10 math problems in 20 minutes. Finally, the countdown round is known as the most rigorous: students go head-to-head and have a maximum of 45 seconds to buzz in with the correct answer to a problem.

The level of focus and intensity at a Mathcounts chapter or state competition rivals that of any athletics championship game—including for Mr. Fonarow, who's coached soccer for 15 years. He laughed as he imitated the leg-shaking, nail-biting experience of watching his math students on stage during the countdown round: "The only thing that's been as stressful for me is watching a penalty kick in soccer." View the Mathcounts multifaceted problem of the week, and imagine a middle schooler solving that problem quickly, flawlessly, and with an audience.

The students rise to the challenge. "It makes math more interesting," said seventh-grader Curtis Schaefer, a basketball player and the youngest student on Rowland Hall's four-member Mathcounts competition team. "People that are more competitive like makes you want to win."

Mathcounts presents an opportunity to push students who excel in math, Mr. Fonarow said. Eighth-grader Andrew Yang, Rowland Hall's first student to compete at the Mathcounts National Tournament, echoed that thought. "It's a big step for high-level thinking," he said. Mathcounts problems go beyond simply calculating the area of a circle, for example. "You need to think about the problems more."

Mathcounts—coupled with the Middle School's math faculty and curriculum—has also helped show students just how good they are in the subject. Eighth-grader Zach Benton said he didn't "feel that strong about math" before coming to Rowland Hall this year. At the chapter competition in February, Zach took fourth place in aggregate score and the countdown round. At state in April, the top four students in the countdown round would make the Utah team and go to nationals. Zach placed fourth in Utah overall and fifth in the countdown round, one question away from joining Andrew at nationals—quite an accomplishment for a student who was previously unsure of his math prowess. "Rowland Hall has really strengthened my math skills," Zach said.

Mr. Fonarow said he's proud of the students for developing a culture around aptitude in math. "For some of those kids who didn't realize that they were strong math students, the confidence is half of it," he said. "Once they find success, they're going to keep working at it."

Seventh-grader Kaitlyn Bates agreed: "It's able to boost your confidence when you get something right," she said. "It is also able to help you when you get something wrong."

Mathcounts also fosters friendships across grade levels. Seventh-grader Lizzie Carlin said of working with her older peers, "It's nice to see how they've solved problems, and then they can help me learn what to do for next time."

At nationals in Orlando, Florida, Andrew placed 144th out of 224 students, and Utah ranked 28th out of 56 teams—a huge improvement from last year's ranking of 46th. "I was quite proud of that," he said.

Andrew embodies the growth mindset that yields success in Mathcounts. In sixth grade, he said he barely snagged the fourth and final spot on Rowland Hall's Mathcounts team. Mr. Fonarow held a mock competition and Andrew beat the fifth-place student by a point. From then, he set a goal to get to Mathcounts nationals and worked towards it. "If you really want to do well and you work hard, there's a great chance that you'll do well regardless of where you are in math coming into sixth grade," he said. Weekly practices at school encompassed just 10% of Andrew's Mathcounts studies. He spent the bulk of his study time on the internet researching the kinds of problems asked at competitions, and then practicing those problems.

Andrew said doubts crept in, but didn't stop him: "I thought there would be four kids that are better than me in Mathcounts, that would beat me to nationals," he said. "But I kept working and I got there."

Like Zach, who used Mathcounts in part to meet people at a new school, Andrew emphasized Mathcounts isn't all work and no play. Andrew bonded with his Utah teammates and they keep in touch via social media. In Orlando, they hung out together in a hotel room, talked, joked, and played video games. "It's a cool way to just talk to other people and make friends," he said. "We're actually just kids, and we want to have fun, too."


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.






Upper, Middle Schoolers Win National EcoChallenge Prize, Endow Fund for Student Sustainability Projects

On April 22, Earth Day, 17 middle and upper schoolers found out they’d turned trash into treasure. The students learned that a sustainability project they spearheaded won the Shane McConkey EcoChallenge’s grand prize of $6,000 to benefit sustainability endeavors at Rowland Hall.

Now-seniors Alicia Lu and Cindy Shen, along with help from now-freshman Hailey Hauck, led an inspiring cross-divisional charge last school year to collect garbage and turn it into eco-bricks—plastic bottles stuffed with non-recyclable trash—to build a bench on the western side of the Lincoln Street Campus. They collected about 10 large trash bags, or 1,000 gallons, of dry non-recyclables in a month. Watch their EcoChallenge video entry here.

Cindy and Alicia were thrilled at news of the win, and their Middle School counterparts were “almost more excited than we were,” Cindy said. The victory left Hailey speechless. “I knew that we had a chance, but winning a national award seemed too farfetched,” she said.

Seventh-grade World Studies Teacher Margot Miller advised Alicia and Cindy on this undertaking, which served as the juniors’ Project 11. Ms. Miller also helped them galvanize the Middle School community in support of the cause.

“They were motivated to do something about the environment,” Alicia said of her younger peers.

Sixth through eighth graders made promotional project posters, donated the most trash, and stuffed the most bottles. Middle schoolers also came up with the idea to create a competition between grade levels to fuel productivity. Whichever grade donated the most non-recyclables earned a free dress day; the youngest group, sixth graders, won.

“At Rowland Hall, everyone sort of thrives on competitiveness, so we needed to make some sort of competition for our project,” Hailey said.

Some students were inherently motivated, but multiple incentives helped to drive project participation, Alicia explained. “We felt like it’s great to be altruistic, but you kind of need an incentive to stuff trash into trash,” she joked. The incentives worked. For example, at the May 20 All-School Carnival, the EcoChallenge team gave out donut holes to anyone who would stuff a bottle. Volunteers from all divisions pitched in, including little beginning schoolers who tried their hands at bottle-stuffing for a few minutes.

That sort of community collaboration helped to make the project highly successful. Hailey, a Rowland Hall lifer and an eighth grader last year, valued the opportunity to spend time with and learn from upper schoolers. “It’s sort of hard to motivate people in your grade, because you’re their peers,” Hailey said. “It can be done, but it’s much easier when you have people who are older than you to help you with that.” There was a sense of looking to Alicia and Cindy as role models, she said. Cindy and Alicia, in turn, gave middle schoolers an equal voice in the project and gave them full credit for bringing a “creative edge” to the table, including the competition idea.

Alicia, Cindy, and Hailey completed work on the bench last summer, with help from Rowland Hall staff members and a professional contractor. While the bench itself is made partially with sustainable supplies—the eco-bricks—its main purpose is to raise community awareness. Before the end of 2016, the students plan to install a commemorative plaque that lists the prize-winning project and all students involved, along with a dedication to Ms. Miller.

Alicia and Cindy used some of the EcoChallenge prize money to finish the bench, but the vast majority remains and will be made available to students who want to pursue similar sustainability projects in the future. Alicia and Cindy set up a formal application process for students who want to conduct environmental projects; view the application here. And for any future student-run sustainability projects that win prize money, that money would ideally go back into the sustainability project fund.

Ethical Education

Sixth Graders Inspired to Make Change

In an August 2015 study on short-term particle pollution, the American Lung Association ranked Salt Lake City as the seventh most polluted city in the nation. Concerned Rowland Hall sixth graders have decided to do something about it.

Each year, Middle School Math and Science Teacher Molly Lewis incorporates environmental education into her science curriculum. In past years, students have studied the city’s air quality by accessing data from the Department of Air Quality (DAQ). Now, thanks to a donation to Rowland Hall from Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, students can add new data to their research with their very own Purple Air sensor. Placed outside the Middle School entrance, the sensor monitors air quality in real time.

Students focused their research on PM2.5 air particles—fine particles with diameters less than 2.5 micrometers. These particles have been determined to pose the greatest health risks. By gaining access to PM2.5 readings right outside the door, students can hypothesize and test their theories, experimenting with a scientific phenomenon that threatens their own community.

Sixth-grader Ella Houden is conducting an experiment that looks at the PM2.5 count as a function of automobile traffic. She measures levels during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up (high traffic), and then she compares that data with PM2.5 levels at mid-day (low traffic). Although Ella compliments  Rowland Hall parents for not idling, she suspects the PM2.5 peaks with the traffic.  

Sixth-grader Samantha Lehman is using data from the sensor placed at 18th Avenue in Salt Lake City to compare PM2.5 levels in the Upper Avenues with those outside school. She hypothesizes that due to atmospheric conditions, she will find higher levels of PM2.5 at the Lincoln Street Campus than in the Upper Avenues.

Purple Air sensors are growing in popularity throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Along the Wasatch Front, over 40 sensors are reporting air quality in real time. When asked how the data from Purple Air sensors compares to that of the DAQ, sixth grader Tyler Gerstein said that although the data is not equivalent, the data gathered by the Purple Air sensors is more than sufficient. “These monitors are attainable and great for personal use. Anyone interested in monitoring air quality should get one for their home,”  Tyler said.

Rowland Hall sixth graders hope their research and discoveries will be used to inform and educate the general public. Olivia Milavetz said poor air quality affects everyone, and with convincing data at students’ fingertips, they are motivated to inspire change.

“Everyone can pitch in to make a difference in air quality,” Ella said. “By simply walking more and not driving on the weekends, we can reduce the number of pollutants we put into our air and into our lungs.”

UPDATE: Kimberly Nelson from Good4Utah Channel 4 interviewed our students about their experiments. Hear what they had to say here



Teens and Science in the Tetons

By Garrett Stern, Middle School Math Teacher

We asked seventh grade math teacher, Garrett Stern, to write an article about the annual seventh grade trip to The Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from the perspective of a student. In addition to learning important lessons about nature and outdoor exploration, the middle schoolers learned about friendship, resilience, and what it means to trust the process.

“'G-d, when will this end?' I asked as the bus rolled into our new campsite. As you can see, I was not thrilled to be stuck out here. I’d grown up living in a place where free Wi-Fi was always within six feet … We stood outside in the pouring rain, silently cursing our bad luck. But the next day was worse. Rain beat down even harder, and we were forced to hang our tarp up on trees, using shoelaces to hold it together."

This year, the seventh grade annual pilgrimage to Grand Tetons National Park was met with inclement weather. Our sixty-four seventh grade souls, including the author of the snippet above, were tested by windy and frigid conditions. Some students feared the weather while others were daunted by teenage social challenges.

Our goals for the trip included leadership, camaraderie, and connection to nature. With names changed to protect the innocent, here are some anecdotes from the trip that met each of our goals.

Eli confided in Peyton, “Maria has been nice to me,” as he fished for information. Peyton cautioned, “You got to watch out for these girls. They will lead you on and you never know where you will end up.” Peyton, a 12-year-old boy who is wise beyond his years, took on a leadership role with Eli as he helped him navigate the dizzying world of seventh grade dating.

Believe it or not, some students choose to wake up a half hour early to play Uno. Boys willingly set their alarm clocks for 6:30 a.m., to play cards before 7:30 am breakfast. This tenacity demonstrates that seventh graders can get out of bed when sufficiently inspired. It also represents a wonderful example of camaraderie, as many students who do not ordinarily hang out together gathered each morning for a game.

At one of our meal times, a girl named Sophie was sitting alone. Then another seventh grade girl walked over to her to invite her to sit at her table. This act of kindness demonstrated laudable leadership. Furthermore, Sophie had a place to sit during lunchtime for the rest of the year. Lunch used to be her most feared time slot of the day; now, it is something to which she looks forward.

We spent as much time in nature as possible, uninhibited by harsh conditions. The teachers wondered if having the students spend time outside in the cold and rain would dampen their connection to nature.

Here is what one girl had to say:

“I’ve never been this close to nature ever in my life. Learning about the science of nature helped me understand why parts of the world are how they are today. Being out in the Tetons opened my eyes to the world around me, and I understand it better now. Also, I don’t just see the world now; I notice things about it. It’s as if I never realized the true beauty of the world; I only looked from the outside. I will never forget this trip and the memories I've made. I won't forget the sound of laughter, the wind’s breath, or the giant mountains."


Maker's Movement Comes to Our School

The quest to solve problems by making tools from available materials has marked the advancement of cultures and satisfied the human desire to invent since the beginning of time. Curiosity has driven us to question and seek practical solutions such as determining time by the length and position of a shadow cast on a stick. Each new idea has filled a need through ingenuity, creativity, and the basic human desire to create.

Right now, the Maker Movement, a new way to think about creation and innovation in the school setting, is taking the country by storm. This movement with the common sense name is based on the idea of constructing knowledge by building physical artifacts with real-world applications.

On a practical level the movement’s boom is a result of accessible, affordable, and often free tools, instructions, and inventions online. On a material level, the place for the Maker Movement—a Maker's Space—should be equipped with 3D printers, microprocessors, “smart” textiles, robotics materials, and more to encourage students to be masters of their own learning rather than passive collectors of information.

Two years ago, the interest level of faculty, a generous and anonymous grant from Rowland Hall parents, and a suddenly available classroom resulted in what Upper School Principal Lee Thomsen describes as “the perfect confluence of events. It presented a relatively small-scale opportunity to experiment with a classroom maker's structure to see how it could work and if our students would be interested.” His interest in the Maker Movement was piqued during a 2013 Entrepreneurship Interim he led at the Design School at Stanford University, where he became intrigued by their flexible spaces and “how the spaces, combined with the theories of design, construction, and programming, impacted learning.” This “perfect confluence” also included Christian Waters becoming the school's first director of Technology Integration in 2013, the timing of Upper School faculty member Ben Smith completing his master’s degree in Instructional Design and Educational Technology, and one of our fine arts teachers, Dan Mitchell, being already on board and fascinated by 3D printing.

Almost simultaneously, Rowland Hall began to incorporate robotics into its curriculum, to more closely investigate the 'learning by doing' model of education, and to explore different types of learning assessment. Then, Tyler Fonarow, Middle School principal, also found a small classroom that could be set up as a Maker's Space for Middle School students, and added a Maker's class to that division's list of learning extension electives.

Most agree that the spaces are exciting and the philosophy intriguing, but the movement is not meant to replace traditional education. “The real world application of solving a problem,” Ben Smith emphasizes, “starts with content and concludes with applying the content to demonstrate knowledge.” In the past, technology was extremely expensive and required a vast amount of knowledge to even start a project. However, technology has gotten so inexpensive and accessible that now it is possible for our students to make objects that solve high tech problems (far beyond their current knowledge base) for a few dollars that in the past, as Mr. Smith points out, “would have required a team of engineers, a million dollars, six months in a lab, and board room to figure out.”

Also, the unique spaces and philosophy seem to give students confidence in their own thinking. “Because of open source, students don’t have to know everything about every aspect of the project,” Mr. Smith explained. “There are many pieces of the problem—the bricks of the problem—that have already been built that you can look up and use."

“An open space suggests an open and flexible mindset,” Mr. Thomsen said. “Just the freshness of coming into a room that encourages a different experience can feel good over the course of a seven-hour school day.”

The Middle School Maker's Space features a green screen wall for video projects, a wall-sized dry erase board for design and ideating, storage shelf space for projects and materials, a 3D printing station, three butcher block industrial work stations, a locking tool bench, and a peg board for tool organization. There are also a variety of low-tech hand tools and materials as well as high-tech electronics, wiring, and circuit components.

The Upper School Maker's Space includes an industrial workstation, a locking tool bench, pegboards, multiple power sources, and a variety of supplies and materials. Whenever possible, only one set of supplies and resources were purchased to share between the two spaces. For example, one Arduino electronic computer is available for both spaces; the schools also share hand tools and supplies.

Upper School students are using their space to build a hovercraft. A generous donation from parent Derek Mannelin last year provided funds for the kit. Building the hovercraft gives students an opportunity to experience the difference between having an idea and executing and engineering a solution. Challenges constantly need solutions, including finding the right materials, such as fiberglass, and making correct measurements and interpreting instructions. The project provides an opportunity to tackle a large construction project in a learning environment.

Also in the Upper School, environmental science students are learning to use the Arduino microcontroller platform to design wind and solar energy stations and build an air pollution sensor. The class uses their time in the Maker's Space to discuss the scientific process and experimental design and to "use basic electronics, coding, and engineering to better understand concepts of air pollution and renewable energy and make connections between facts and concepts in the real world,” according to Mr. Smith. Roughly $7,500 of the $10,700 originally donated has been spent, with one big-ticket item still on this year's wish list—a laser cutter* that will allow students to design and etch or cut into wood and plastic to build large-scale 3D models and prototypes. 

“We are thrilled with the Maker Space redesign in both divisions,” Mr. Waters said. “We have students gathered by the door asking, 'How can I sign up for this class?’”

*The best option for a laser cutter is a Full Spectrum 45W Hobby Laser, which runs $4,300 with shipping. This would require an additional $1,100. If a donation of this type interests you please contact our director of Institutional Advancement, Robyn Payne (


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