Empowering

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STEM in the Upper School

Through our science, technology, engineering, and math offerings, high schoolers develop as critical thinkers, flexible problem-solvers, and responsible citizens.

Core courses in biology and chemistry highlight fundamental concepts and provide students with a foundation to choose and excel in electives as upperclassmen. Teachers regularly provide students with opportunities to ask questions, conduct experiments, and analyze data. Upper schoolers become confident in evaluating evidence, constructing arguments, and applying their knowledge to novel situations.

Student uses a microscope

Teachers regularly provide students with opportunities to ask questions, conduct experiments, and analyze data.

In math, students are introduced to new techniques and strategies on a daily basis. They employ concepts from algebra, geometry, and statistics in modeling real-life applications and building a skill set that prepares them for college. Lessons challenge upper schoolers to take their abilities to the next level, be resilient to setbacks, and eventually, master the concepts. Students develop an approach to learning that ensures success in math and everyday life.

Our computer science program empowers students to solve problems through abstraction, algorithmic thinking, and utilizing the design process.

Computer science taps into students’ interest in technology, helping them become innovators who can design technical solutions to problems in science, math, social studies, the arts, and literacy. Class topics include proficiency and literacy in hardware, software, computer programming (coding), physical computing (engineering and robotics), data analysis, design, digital citizenship and computational thinking.

Upper schoolers enjoy plenty of opportunities for STEM experiential learning. During a class trip to the Uintas, freshmen study the biology, geology, and hydrology of the mountain range. Interim trips allow upper schoolers to explore the natural world of Utah and beyond. Computer science students make apps with real-world uses. And extracurriculars such as Make Club and Science Olympiad let our upper schoolers further explore their interests while they develop their peer-leadership skills.

STEM Education Across All Grade Levels

The Upper School Experience

Personalized Attention

High school science teacher with student.

Our Upper School has an average class size of 13. Every student is well-known and supported in the ways that best meet their needs.

Upper School STEM Stories in Fine Print Magazine

Rowland Hall biology teacher Rob Wilson watches his tank of jellyfish.

Teachers have many strategies to help build students’ excitement around science. If you ask Rowland Hall biology teacher Rob Wilson for one of his, he’ll say to give them access to living organisms.

“Over the years, I've become more and more focused on providing students access to the living organism,” he said. “I want my students to have a really sensory perception and experience of living things.”

Over the years, I've become more and more focused on providing students access to the living organism. I want my students to have a really sensory perception and experience of living things.—Rob Wilson, biology teacher

To do this, Rob is always on the lookout for organisms that can help simplify or solidify the concepts he teaches to upper schoolers. In a state like Utah, his students have access to a range of these resources, and Rob’s led them in conducting experiments on everything from birds to flower bulbs. But, Rob said, the state does have limitations.

“We don't have access to the ocean,” he said.

So Rob found a way to bring the ocean to Rowland Hall: in early February, he introduced three jellyfish, known as moon jellies, to his climate science and ninth-grade biology students. These small organisms—only about an inch in diameter across their upper bells—live in a two-gallon tank on Rob’s desk, where they’re serving as a powerful learning resource.

“My objective was to have a dynamic system that we could take care of, study, and use as a model for how larger systems work,” said Rob.

And for such a simple organism, the jellyfish are able to connect to loads of concepts around the life sciences. Since their arrival, Rob has led discussions around their tank environment, which lends itself well to topics like ocean currents and climate systems, and the jellyfish themselves, whose simple anatomy is easy for students to study. For example, said Rob, when the jellyfish arrived, his biology class was studying the respiratory system—how the body obtains oxygen and releases carbon dioxide—and the jellyfish provided an additional way for them to observe how other living creatures’ bodies process these gasses. They watched, amazed, as the jellies contracted their bodies to take in oxygen-rich water and then stretched to release carbon dioxide, causing a pulse that moves gases, nutrients, and waste through its tissues.

The tank’s neon lights help observers see details of the jellyfish anatomy. The mushroom-like bell is made of two tissue layers, between which are horseshoe-shaped gonads—the only part of the jellyfish that's not transparent—that produce egg cells in females and sperm cells in males. Adjacent to the gonads are the stomachs, which can be seen filled with brine shrimp larvae after a feeding. Radiating from the edges of the bell are tentacles, used to trap the food that the oral arms, which extend from the bottom of the bell, shuttle to the mouth at the bottom of the bell. A nervous system network can also be seen within the bell, which connects to poppy-seed-like eyes at the bell’s edges. “Symmetry, nerve networks, and multiple tissue layers are elements of jellyfish anatomy that provide evidence of shared common ancestry between jellyfish and other animals, including human beings,” said Rob.

In Rob’s climate science class, older students further benefit by helping to care for the jellyfish. “I wanted something that required us to monitor and maintain conditions within the system,” said Rob. “I've made sure that each class takes responsibility for it because it's way more valuable to them if they're participating.”

Students assist Rob with feeding the jellyfish brine shrimp larvae (hatched in a maze-like bowl referred to as the brine shrimp nursery) and monitoring water temperature and pH levels, which change as the jellyfish digest the shrimp larvae and produce ammonia, a toxin that builds up quickly in a two-gallon tank. “We want to make sure it's within a suitable range of pH and the metabolic products of the jellyfish,” said Rob.

Taking care of the jellyfish has put into perspective the actual scale and impact of climate change within our oceans. It only takes us one day of missing our chemical testing or transitioning water incorrectly to affect the mini-ecosystem in our classroom.—Katie Moore, class of 2021

At least once a week, students use a water-testing kit to examine ammonia levels, then condition the tank with a mixture of bacteria—one type consumes the ammonia and produces nitrite, a less toxic compound that a second bacteria then consumes, producing even a less toxic waste in the water called nitrates. Students help track these levels on a shared spreadsheet, an activity that’s helping them think about how variations in the environment can have far-reaching repercussions.

“Temperature, pH, nitrogen compounds—they fluctuate,” explained Rob. “Depending on what you add or take out, it'll push it in one direction or another. I use that as an analogy to better understand that the earth system works in similar ways. It builds the students’ ability to understand the flow of material through a system, and then how the balance of material in any one place affects how the system behaves.”

It’s clear when talking to students that these concepts are sticking. Senior Katie Moore, a climate science student, noted, “Taking care of the jellyfish has put into perspective the actual scale and impact of climate change within our oceans. It only takes us one day of missing our chemical testing or transitioning water incorrectly to affect the mini-ecosystem in our classroom. Now think about our ocean. How many days have we ignored the changes we've observed but not documented? How many days have our actions impacted the lives of ocean inhabitants with, or without, our noticing?”

It’s a significant way to think about the interconnectedness of all living organisms that share the planet, and a lovely reminder that those connections we share can bind us closer. Rob noted people only need a moment of observation before they start to feel a fondness for the jellies, and that many of his colleagues, as well as students who are no longer in his classes, like to stop by to enjoy them. “As soon as anyone comes in, I'll just sit back quietly and let them watch for a while,” he said with a smile.

Close-up of Rob Wilson's moon jellies, which he uses in his climate science and biology classes.

The jellyfish have charmed Rob Wilson’s students, who have even named them. In senior Katie Moore’s climate science class, the largest jellyfish (who, Katie said, has only three stomachs instead of the usual four) is known as Big Bertha, the medium-sized jellyfish is Gerald, and the smallest jellyfish is Bob.​​​​

It's fun to invite that kind of close observation—to go beyond glancing at something to taking a really close look.—Rob Wilson

“We are very concerned about their well-being. We absolutely love them like children and love to talk about their endeavors,” added Katie, who noted that the students, after many weeks of observation, can tell the difference between the jellyfish, have named them, and worry about their survival. “We have a full-fledged conspiracy theory about how they keep dying and Mr. Wilson keeps replacing them hoping we will not notice.”

Luckily, moon jellies can live up to three years if well cared for, and Rob and students are committed to making sure that’s the case at Rowland Hall. Rob even comes in on weekends and breaks to keep them alive, and he has designated a space in his home for them to live in during summer break, as he’s planning on bringing them back to school in the fall to continue to enhance lessons—and to inspire the kind of wonder that access to living creatures offers.

“It's fun to invite that kind of close observation—to go beyond glancing at something to taking a really close look,” he said. “There's so much to learn from watching the simple organism.”

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Rowland Hall's robotics team.

Rowland Hall’s young women in computer science have continued their outstanding track record of earning accolades from the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing (AiC) annual awards program.

This year, six Winged Lions earned awards from our regional Northern Utah NCWIT Affiliate: senior Maddy Eatchel and junior Irenka Saffarian secured wins; sophomore Ane Hernandez and freshman Sophie Zheng earned honorable mentions; and junior Tianyi Su and freshman Claire Wang were named rising stars.

Our students’ AiC success is due in part to the efforts of computer science (CS) teacher Ben Smith ’89, himself a past winner of two educator honors at the affiliate level. Ben always encourages promising CS students to apply for the awards; this year, he’s glad that many still did, despite the challenges of the pandemic. “It’s really a testament to the school's dedication to make computer science, robotics, and technology an accessible and exciting option for all students,” the teacher said.

Senior Maddy Eatchel, an affiliate AiC winner, is now captain of our robotics team after helping to start the team last year. She wants to study CS in college, and is working on a research project applying machine learning to data in order to find new compounds for batteries.

This year’s recognized group from Rowland Hall skews younger than usual, and that bodes well for our CS program’s future, Ben said: students who receive higher levels of recognition typically apply for the awards two or more years in a row. For lone senior Maddy, a 2020 honorable mention recipient, this year’s win is a natural progression: she’s now captain of Rowland Hall’s robotics team after helping to start the team last year. She wants to study CS in college, and is currently working on a research project applying machine learning to data in order to find new compounds for batteries.

"Maddy took my intro to Java course on a whim as a sophomore, with very little interest other than the need to fill a class period," Ben said. "She has gone on to take my AP Java class, and to be an integral member of the new school robotics team, leading the team in a very challenging year."

Rowland Hall students will attend the regional affiliate’s virtual award ceremony on March 20. In addition to recognizing awardees, the ceremony will include a panel of college students and networking opportunities with women in the tech industry.

Ben started encouraging his students to enter the AiC awards back in 2014. Since then, 19 Winged Lions have earned a collective 25 awards, including one win and two honorable mentions at the national level. Under Ben’s leadership, Rowland Hall has been committed to ensuring all students—especially young women, who are underrepresented in computing careers—feel welcomed and supported in CS.

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Top image: The Rowland Hall robotics team at the Freedom Prep Academy FIRST Tech Challenge state qualifier in Provo, Utah, on March 13. From left to right: senior Yuchen Yang, sophomore Jordyn VanOrman, freshman Gabe Andrus, freshman Adam Saidykhan, senior captain and regional AiC winner Maddy Eatchel, senior Daniel Carlebach, and freshman Joey Lieskovan (cut off on the right edge).

Anna Shott receiving her high school diploma at graduation.

Alum Anna Shott ’16 sent the following email to middle and upper school computer science (CS) teacher Ben Smith ’89 on December 3, 2020. Anna graciously agreed to let us republish it here. We last interviewed Anna in 2016 when she was a senior taking her first CS class with Ben and enjoying the collaborative, problem-solving aspects of the field, which often gets falsely stereotyped as an antisocial and rote career choice. Ben has worked hard over nearly a decade to show his students—especially young women, who are underrepresented in the field—the reality: that programmers typically work together in teams to solve real-world problems and ultimately help people. This year, Ben is even weaving in social justice as a theme, using the Algorithmic Justice League as one of his teaching resources. We're grateful for Ben's dedication to CS education and can't wait to see what he and his former students like Anna do in the future. If you're an alum with a story about how a Rowland Hall teacher helped to inspire your career choice, let us know.


Dear Mr. Smith,

Hope you are doing well and enjoying a nice holiday season! I am reaching out with an update and to say thank you. 

After graduating from Rowland Hall in 2016 I took a gap year where I worked at my family's company and traveled. In 2017 I enrolled as a freshman at the University of Southern California studying computer science and business. The last two summers I interned at Microsoft, first as an Explore intern and then as a program management intern. I am now a senior finishing up my last few classes before graduation in May. Next fall I’m heading to Seattle to join Microsoft full-time as a program manager.

I would not have even thought to try out programming, let alone make computer science my undergraduate major and career priority, if it weren’t for the very first computer programming class you taught at Rowland Hall during my 2015–16 senior year.

I’ve spent much of my last four years participating in startup incubators, building companies, and exploring Los Angeles. I've stayed involved in the engineering community as a counselor for an on-campus computer science camp for K–12 students and as a teacher's assistant for one of USC's core software engineering classes. I would not have even thought to try out programming, let alone make computer science my undergraduate major and career priority, if it weren’t for the very first computer programming class you taught at Rowland Hall during my 2015–16 senior year. Your class truly influenced the path I chose, and I cannot thank you enough for sparking my interest in computer science.

I've had so much fun reading the various articles on the Rowland Hall website regarding the incredible computer science program you have built. Congratulations on the numerous accolades you and your students have earned over the years. I hope the program continues to grow and expose students to computer science and engineering, and ultimately inspire many to pursue a career path in those disciplines. 

I wish you and your family all the best and hope you are staying happy and healthy during this time.

Many thanks again, and happy holidays!

Sincerely,
Anna Shott
Class of 2016


Top: Anna Shott ’16 at her graduation, receiving her diploma from now-retired head of school Alan Sparrow.

Alumni

Rowland Hall's 2020 American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME) qualifiers

For three hours on March 11, four exceptional Rowland Hall mathematicians—juniors Zach Benton and Yuchen Yang, freshman Zach Klein, and eighth grader Sophie Zheng—were in the Eccles Library, focused on the 15 problems that made up this year’s American Invitational Mathematics Examination.

The AMC 10 and AMC 12 are optional mathematical exams designed to promote the development and enhancement of students’ problem-solving skills. Each test is 75 minutes long and consists of 25 multiple-choice questions. The AMC 10 is offered to students in 10th grade and below, while the AMC 12 is offered to students in 12th grade and below. AMC 10/12 qualifiers are invited to take the AIME, a three-hour exam that consists of 15 questions, with each answer an integer number between 0 to 999.

Known to test takers as simply the AIME, this exam is offered to students who excel at the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) 10 or AMC 12 exams (see sidebar). According to the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), which creates the AMC exams, approximately the top 2.5% of scorers on the AMC 10 and the top 5% of scorers on the AMC 12 qualify to take the AIME.

“The fact that we had four students from Rowland Hall take the AIME is extraordinary,” said Upper School math teacher Adella Croft. In fact, this is the largest number of AIME qualifiers in Rowland Hall history. (It’s also worth noting that Nathan Zhou, who took the AIME at Rowland Hall on March 11, attended the school last year and was coached with the other qualifiers.)

“The AIME is about mathematics beyond the classroom, about kids’ ability to be creative,” Adella explained. “And it’s typically non-traditional problem-solving—it’s very clever, sometimes even humorous. It’s cool.”

The MAA points out a variety of exam benefits, from helping students develop positive attitudes toward analytical thinking and mathematics that can assist in future careers, to challenging them with interesting questions that align with what they’re learning in school. But to be prepared for this level of competition, students must be willing to devote hours outside of class to studying topics like number theory, set theory, geometry, and probability. Rowland Hall students also meet weekly for Math Club and with coach Hiram Golze, one of Adella’s former students and a one-time USA Mathematical Olympiad qualifier (the Mathematical Olympiad is the next level of competition for top AIME scorers). Adella likened these preparatory measures to violin soloists who devote hours each day to mastering their instrument. “This is like taking math to the level of an artist,” she said.

And it’s that devotion to mathematical proficiency that truly motivates these students. While earning as high a score as they can on the AIME is always a goal, it’s clear there’s much more to the experience than that. These exams, taken by some of the brightest young mathematicians in the world, are extremely difficult—in 2006, for example, 22,764 students sat for the AIME and earned an average score of 2.741 out of 15 points (and only four students had a perfect score that year). In 2019, the average score was 5.87. But rather than discouraging them, the difficulty drives the Rowland Hall students toward their individual bests, helping them sharpen problem-solving skills, embrace hard work, and enjoy pursuing knowledge for its own sake—skills that will serve them for life.

It is a persistence exercise. They do it in absolute silence and isolation, pitting their mental faculties against each problem.—Upper School math teacher Adella Croft

“It is a persistence exercise,” said Adella. “It’s too bad it’s not a spectator sport because these are as competitive performers as any. They do it without an audience. They do it in absolute silence and isolation, pitting their mental faculties against each problem. They’re resilient, they’re passionate, they’re driven, they’re fearless.”

And they’re also not letting social distancing stop them. Each week, the students are meeting virtually for tutoring and for Math Club—amazingly, as a bigger group.

“It’s growing!” Adella said, noting that after she sent an email to students about ways to participate in Math Club during distance learning, she received several replies from kids who were interested in joining for the first time.

“Beyond finding a way, it’s spreading. It’s infectious in a good way,” she laughed.

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Due to COVID-19, the MAA has put an indefinite hold on all aspects of the AMC program, including postponing until further notice competitions and the scheduled grading session. We will update this story with news as it becomes available.

In the meantime, if you’re curious about what the AIME looks like, visit Art of Problem Solving. They create test prep resources for math exams and offer a collection of past AIME questions and answers.


Top photo, from left, standing: Yuchen Yang, Nathan Zhou, Sophie Zheng, Zach Klein, and Hiram Golze. From left, seated: Adella Croft and Zach Benton.

Robotics students and teacher in team uniforms.

In their inaugural year, our Upper School FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) robotics team not only racked up enough wins to qualify for the Utah Championship at Weber State University on February 22—they also left that event with the coveted Control Award.

According to teacher Ben Smith, Rowland Hall cinched that accolade—one of 10 awards in a competition among 36 teams—"for use of telemetry, image recognition, autonomous programming, and creative coding."

"This was our rookie year," Ben explained, "and given that fact and the fact that it was the first robotics experience for many of the team members, our qualifying for state and winning the Control Award is commendable to be sure." Below, watch Ben's video of Rowland Hall's robot roaming an Upper School hallway prior to the state match.

Senior Lucas Erickson, the team’s lead coder, said the group had hoped to continue in the challenge beyond the state level—but they still agree they did a great job for their first year. “Building the robot and getting to become a member of the FIRST competition community was well worth the time and effort that we spent, even if we're not thoroughly satisfied with our performance at state,” Lucas said. And the Control Award was no small feat, he added. Competition for it was stiffer than usual this year, “and we were still able to beat out the veteran teams that have been perfecting their code for years.”

Building the robot and getting to become a member of the FIRST competition community was well worth the time and effort.—Senior Lucas Erickson, lead coder

FTC is a global competition for teams of up to 15 members, and it’s open to students in grades seven through twelve. It involves designing, building, programming, and operating robots to complete tasks based around a given theme. The theme is reimagined annually, meaning challenges change every year. Watch FTC’s video explaining this year's theme, SKYSTONE, and how the competition works.

Our team—known in competitions as Rowland Hall Rowbotics (emphasis added to show the intended pun)—is currently made up of seven active members who have coding, organizational, and engineering skills to share. This year's team leaders include seniors Lucas (coding), Logan Bateman (organizing), and Shoji Mori (engineering), as well as junior Maddy Eatchel (scouting). After their success at the state competition, the group also got a chance to showcase their robot at the March 10–11 Utah Coalition for Educational Technology Conference in Provo. Following the COVID-19 outbreak and our campus closure, the team now maintains its momentum via regular Zoom meetings. And there are some virtual and in-person events still planned for the summer, Ben said.

Looking ahead, Ben hopes to expand this program for next year: in addition to a varsity team of 10 to 15 members, he wants to add a rookie team for students in grades seven through nine.

If you’re a Rowland Hall community member interested in volunteering to coach or otherwise help organize our growing FTC robotics program, or you know of a business or enterprise that might want to sponsor the team, Ben wants to hear from you—email bensmith@rowlandhall.org.

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Rowland Hall teacher with award-winning women computer-science students.

After several years of success in the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing (AiC) awards program, 2020 marks Rowland Hall’s winningest year yet—the capstone of which is our first national winner, junior Katy Dark.

Katy is one of 40 high schoolers tapped from a pool of 4,700 applicants to receive the highest AiC honor this year. She and the other winners will receive cash, prizes, and a trip to the Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, to celebrate and network in early March.

“I’m ecstatic that I’ve gotten the privilege to win the national award,” Katy said, adding the recognition for pursuing her passion has left her stunned. Katy has applied for the AiC awards three times; in 2019, she won an honorable mention from the NCWIT Northern Utah Affiliate.

In addition to Katy’s national win, the NCWIT Northern Utah Affiliate gave senior Ellie Nichols and juniors Maddy Eatchel and Yuchen Yang AiC honorable mentions. Teacher and alum Ben Smith ’89 earned the Educator Award.

In addition to Katy’s distinction, our local affiliate gave senior Ellie Nichols and juniors Maddy Eatchel and Yuchen Yang AiC honorable mentions. And after an honorable mention last year, computer science (CS) teacher and alumnus Ben Smith ’89 secured our affiliate’s Educator Award for his steadfast support of young women in computing.

NCWIT’s Award for AiC honors women, genderqueer, or non-binary high schoolers for their computing-related achievements and interests. Winners are picked for their aptitude and aspirations in tech and CS—as demonstrated by their computing and leadership experience, tenacity in the face of barriers to access, and plans for college.

Not only is Katy committed to pursuing a computing career, she’s already using her knack for the subject to make a difference in her community. She’s been teaching coding to students—primary at-risk Latinx youth—at Salt Lake City’s Dual Immersion Academy since the school lost funding for CS in 2018. Read our story on her President’s Volunteer Service Award. Now, Katy hopes to make her program permanent through a combination of grants and fundraising.

“I’m honored to have Katy as one of my students,” Ben said. “She is deserving of the NCWIT national award because she has taken her interest in and passion for technology, cybersecurity, coding, and computer science and found ways to bring that passion to students who would not ordinarily have the opportunities that she has had. She is selfless and dedicated to making the world a better place.”

Ben started encouraging his students to enter the AiC awards in 2014. Since then, 13 Winged Lions have earned a collective 18 awards, including one win and two honorable mentions at the national level. On top of that, Ben won two educator honors at the affiliate level. Under Ben’s leadership, Rowland Hall has been committed to ensuring all students—especially young women, who are underrepresented in computing careers—feel welcomed and supported in CS. That effort shows in our classes: in January, Rowland Hall earned the College Board's 2019 Advanced Placement (AP) CS Female Diversity Award for achieving high female representation in our AP CS Principles class. Out of 20,000 institutions that offer AP courses, 818 won the award. We're one of only two in Utah.

Update, May 29, 2020: After the initial round of awards, senior Violette Truong also won an AiC National Certificate of Distinction (CoD). From NCWIT: "National CoDs represent approximately 10% of the application pool. These students are selected from all applicants who were not selected for another award designation. CoDs are selected on the basis of score and experience that indicates that they would benefit from being part of the AiC Community. Most CoD recipients have experience and achievements comparable to Affiliate Honorable Mentions but in many cases were not selected due to capacity limits for the Affiliates that cap the number of recipients that can be selected. This Award is designated by NCWIT." Congrats, Violette!


Top photo: from left, Yuchen Yang, Ben Smith, Maddy Eatchel, and Katy Dark at the NCWIT Utah Affiliate Award Luncheon on March 7.

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Four students sitting around their teacher, learning about computers and circuits.

After years of watching CSforAll Summit videos online, Rowland Hall alumnus and computer science teacher Ben Smith ’89 is elated to attend the national conference in person: the third-annual event is happening October 21–23 here in Salt Lake City, at the University of Utah.

In conjunction with the summit, CSforAll asks participants to make a specific commitment to support the ultimate goal of “making high-quality computer science an integral part of the educational experience of all K–12 students and teachers.” Accordingly, Rowland Hall is committing to increase girls’ participation in computer science to more closely mirror the school's demographics. 

Read on for a Q&A with Ben about that commitment, the summit, and why this matters to Rowland Hall.

Graphic: Rowland Hall commits to increasing the participation of girls in computer science.

Who from Rowland Hall is attending the CSforAll Summit?  

I’m going with Chief Information Officer Patrick Godfrey and Director of Technology Integration Christian Waters. It’s Rowland Hall’s first time sending anyone. The summit was originally held in the Obama White House for the first few years, and now it travels to a new city each year. This is a great opportunity to have this event in our hometown, very close to the school.

The summit is the one place each year that focuses on equity, inclusion, and access to CS for all students, a goal that Rowland Hall and the computer science program have been dedicated to for quite some time.—Computer Science teacher Ben Smith ’89

Why are you excited to attend the summit?

I’m a member of the CSforAll teacher community, and I watch the announcements and videos coming out of the summit each year. The summit is the one place each year that focuses on equity, inclusion, and access to CS for all students, a goal that Rowland Hall and the computer science program have been dedicated to for quite some time.

Why did we set a broad commitment, as opposed to a narrow one (for instance, “launch a coding camp”)?

We wanted a commitment that each division and each teacher could adopt, even if the method by which they accomplish it varies based on circumstances. Perhaps one division could pursue integrating CS into all science and math classrooms, thereby reaching all students, while another one might make a concerted effort at recruitment strategies, and another might reconfigure the course offerings or schedule to accommodate CS for all students.

What do you hope to get out of the conference that will help us reach our goal?

I hope to hear from people about structures, innovative strategies, and methods for making our commitment possible. There are some important topics at the conference, such as "Teaching Ethics and Social Impacts of Computing in K–12 CS," "Building a Supportive Pathway for Girls in CS, Engineering, and Beyond," and "Inspiring Engagement through Popular Culture and Media."

What has our male/female CS participation looked like in the past several years?

We’ve tracked participation in tech and CS classes in the Middle School and Upper School for six years. In both divisions, we’ve moved the needle for girls participating in CS classes closer to our school demographics (which are roughly 50/50), with the Middle School reaching a high in 2017 of 40% participation by girls. This year, the Advanced Placement CS courses in the Upper School have 60% girls—a majority for the first time at Rowland Hall. We still have challenges with the competing interests of sports, theater, dance, and music on students’ schedules, as CS is not a required course. What’s impressive is that we’ve been able to consciously and successfully close the gap for girls, though we still need to look at students of color and other demographic factors.

Add anything else you think is important.

Rowland Hall's CS, engineering, and STEM program has grown immensely in the last six years, and we’re on the precipice of changes and adoption at all divisions.

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students conducting science experiment

By Alisa Poppen, Upper School science teacher and department chair

Editor's note: Alisa gave the following talk—lightly edited here for style and context—during a September 3 Upper School chapel that explored creativity in academics and life.


If you’re a sophomore in chemistry right now, I wouldn’t fault you for thinking that science is solely about precision. We’ve spent days and days making sure you know how to include the appropriate number of digits in a measurement. Most of you are with one of two women who seem strangely enthusiastic about the difference between 12 and 12.0.

When, in first-period chemistry last year, then-sophomore James Welt said, “In math, those two numbers might be the same, but in science…,” I nearly teared up. And then quoted him at least 25 times. And possibly mentioned it at parent-teacher conferences. And in the first semester comments. And, most importantly, secured his permission to mention it, again, today.

The start of the year has been all about measurement and certainty. And doing it right. And if that was all you learned, you might lose sight of the fact that science is, at its essence, a creative endeavor.

If you’re in Advanced Topics Biology, you’ve been counting and counting, and then carefully making graphs on which you place your error bars correctly to represent the range in which we would expect to find most sample means. In short, the start of the year has been all about measurement and certainty. And doing it right. And if that was all you learned, you might lose sight of the fact that science is, at its essence, a creative endeavor.

An example: In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel bred pea plants. Lots and lots of pea plants. He knew that, like many flowering plants, peas were most likely to self-pollinate, but he asked, “What if I force them to cross-pollinate?” When he finished, he counted pea plants. This many with purple flowers, this many with white…that’s all he had: numbers of purple and numbers of white. But to make sense of those numbers, he imagined. What could be going on, deep inside those pea plants, to explain those numbers? He settled on this: each plant has two factors, pieces of information, only one of which was transferred to offspring. He couldn’t see those factors with the naked eye, but he imagined they must be there. How else would those numbers make sense?

teacher talking to students

Alisa Poppen talks to chemistry students about a lab for which they're creating a representative sketch of an experiment and graphing actual results.

Mendel's rudimentary model inspired others—far too many to name—to creatively search for and characterize his factors. Spoiler alert: they’re chromosomes, composed of DNA. Along the way, we’ve realized that Mendel’s factors alone don’t determine how we develop. And so we continue to look. A woman in California, Jennifer Doudna, characterized a protein complex from bacterial cells called CRISPR, and because of her work, we now ask questions like this: what if we could modify our own DNA? And (for Upper School ethics and English teacher Dr. Carolyn Hickman) if we could, should we?

We get to imagine. Anyone who tells you that creativity belongs only to the artists, or the writers, hasn’t been paying attention. Science is, at its core, the act of asking questions—What if? How? Why?—and then creatively designing experiments to test those questions.

The summer before last, I worked in a lab that uses cotton as a model to study how genomes change. I would love to go on and on about the work, but to keep this short, I’ll just say this: the cotton seeds were breathtakingly uncooperative. On Monday they behaved one way, and on Thursday they were completely different. The data were never the same twice. After testing several possible explanations, we were stumped.

Sitting in the lab one afternoon, I threw out a possible explanation that, truth be told, I wasn’t completely sure of. Justin, my grad student/mentor, thought for a moment and then said, “What if that’s it?” and then grabbed three paper towels and a Sharpie. “We could do this,” he said, while sketching out the experiment. “And if we’re right, the results will look like this,” and he quickly drew a graph. We then sat quietly for a minute or so, staring at the paper towels, and then he said this: “This is my favorite part, when we get to imagine what the experiment would look like.”

We get to imagine. Anyone who tells you that creativity belongs only to the artists, or the writers, hasn’t been paying attention. Science is, at its core, the act of asking questions—What if? How? Why?—and then creatively designing experiments to test those questions. Testing a scenario that hasn’t been tested before. Yes, we measure, and yes, we replicate, so that the answers to our questions are supported by evidence. But the measuring and the replicating is always preceded by an act of creativity. And that, for us, is often the favorite part.

STEM

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