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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Sophomore Katy Dark’s family immigrated to Salt Lake City from Argentina when she was a toddler, but the bilingual student still seamlessly slides into her first language on a dime—like when she greets her abuela visiting Rowland Hall for Grandparents Day, or when she volunteers for the after-school coding club she founded at Dual Immersion Academy (DIA).
In February, Katy won a President's Volunteer Service Award for her work at DIA, among other efforts. The sophomore earned the gold-level award for 2018, meaning she volunteered over 250 hours in one year. She’s the first Rowland Hall student to win this national award in over a decade, according to Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund.
Katy was surprised by the distinction but grateful to Rowland Hall—her invaluable experiences here inspired her to help DIA after they lost funding for computer science this school year. “Rowland Hall opened up a lot of possibilities for me,” Katy said, “and I know that coding can give DIA students new opportunities.”
Katy has accomplished much in the past few years, with help from the Rowland Hall community. That's part of why she’s now paying it forward to DIA students. “As a Latina, I don’t get all these opportunities normally,” she said. “I wanted to be able to even the playing field.”
Katy, a Patricia C. Brim Memorial Scholar who’s been here since sixth grade, has had an especially remarkable few years. In March, she won an Aspirations in Computing regional honorable mention. She’s only a sophomore, and she said she already has a scholarship offer from a local college. Also this year, she traveled to Costa Rica for interim and to Southern Utah, Nashville, and Portland for student diversity and leadership retreats. Last summer, she interned with the National Security Agency, and the summer before that she studied criminology and computer science at the University of Cambridge in England. She did all these things, she said, with help from the Rowland Hall community, which is part of why she’s now paying it forward to DIA students. “As a Latina, I don’t get all these opportunities normally,” Katy said. “I wanted to be able to even the playing field.” The DIA coding club has taken a lot of work, she said, but she’s invested in the community and up for the challenge.
The sophomore has remained fluent in Spanish thanks in part to attending DIA for elementary school. Her mom, Patricia Dark—one of DIA’s co-founders—enrolled Katy and older sister Elli (now a Rowland Hall senior) in the bilingual academy to keep their language skills sharp. When Katy left DIA she kept close ties, volunteering after school and on weekdays when Rowland Hall wasn’t in session.
DIA has about 500 students total in kindergarten through eighth grade, and they take classes in English and Spanish: the academy prepares students to become “bilingual, bi-literate, and bicultural while developing the tools to be successful in higher education, the workforce and in life,” according to their mission. It’s a Title One school where about 98% of students (compared to about 57% of Salt Lake City School District students) come from economically disadvantaged families and qualify for free or discounted school lunch.
After hearing about DIA’s funding cuts, Katy—a passionate computer science student who’s already laser-focused on pursuing a career in the field—sprang into action and started the coding club. She spends her weekends planning lessons, which she delivers Tuesdays from 3 to 5:30 pm—except in spring when she golfs for Rowland Hall and friend Alex Armknecht, a junior, subs for her. Katy has taught her 22 club members about programming basics using kid-friendly sources such as Hour of Code and Scratch. She’s also gotten to know the kids, tailored her approach based on their levels of comfort with the material, invited them to community coding events, helped them with non-computing schoolwork, and served as a mentor. “These kids are incredible,” Katy wrote in an essay about her volunteerism, “and they can do so much more than most people realize.” She said she hopes the club encourages DIA students to take computer science in high school, and ultimately, college.
Katy is self-motivated and didn’t necessarily expect recognition for her service, but teachers agree the national distinction is deserved. “Katy is incredibly dedicated to computer science,” said Ben Smith, her AP Computer Science teacher. The coding club was entirely her idea, he added. “I gave her some advice, but she really took off on her own.”
Katy also runs Rowland Hall’s Latinx affinity group, has volunteered with the Rotary Club, and has been “a tireless contributor to her community,” according to Ryan. “Katy sets a clear bar amongst her peers about the importance of giving back,” the ethical education director said, “and not waiting for an opportunity to arise, but instead creating those opportunities where she sees them.”
By Steven Doctorman, Class of 2020
I begin by applying a double-sided adhesive sticker to a motion-reflective marker—a small, silvery sphere. There are about 30 markers on the floor, each one in need of a sticker. These markers are then applied to certain parts of the patient's body, each one in a specific location in relation to a joint or muscle mass.
Patients crack the occasional joke: about the tight shorts they have to wear, about how tearing off the markers will feel like removing a Band-Aid, about how their midriff is on display when markers are used to track hip joints.
As I became more interested in lab work my sophomore year, I reached out to Dr. Laura Johnson, who manages student internships. She's the archetypal Rowland Hall teacher, dedicated to helping her students succeed. Her efforts were heartwarming: she worked tirelessly to identify an opportunity that matched my schedule and interests.
I sit on a stool, scoot behind the computer, and watch as one of the personal trainers gives the same instructions: the cameras in the ceiling track every movement, and we first have to calibrate those cameras by having the patient make certain movements, such as marching with one leg or kicking out to the side. The markers appear on the computer and we record movements, from walking and running to jumping and squatting. Patients are here because of certain injuries, and by monitoring movements the computer algorithm can calculate the data necessary to diagnose treatment options. I, both literally and figuratively, take a backseat to the computer work, but I'm captivated by the procedure and by doctors' discussions of the asymmetry of certain joints.
I intern at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH) in a lab that works with physical trainers to help individuals in post-surgical recovery. My responsibilities range from data tracking and analysis to marker prep and observation. On days when we don't have a patient, I use a computer program to identify flaws in previously recorded data and replace those flaws with accurate estimates. On days when we have a patient, I help apply adhesive stickers to markers and then observe data collection and doctors' analyses. This kind of lab work fascinates me, and witnessing the real-world implications of technical and biomedical innovation is inspirational.
I first learned about Rowland Hall's internship program from a flyer on a hallway bulletin board. It described how students worked in a blood-synthesis lab over the summer, and what they learned. As I became more interested in lab work my sophomore year, I reached out to Dr. Laura Johnson, an Upper School English teacher who also manages student internships. She's the archetypal Rowland Hall teacher, dedicated to helping her students succeed. Her efforts were heartwarming: she worked tirelessly to identify an opportunity that matched my schedule and interests. She contacted an array of labs and eventually found the TOSH internship in September, the beginning of my junior year.
My work at TOSH has directly intersected with my classes, and vice versa. My schoolwork applies to real-world concepts, which, in my opinion, is priceless.
My work at TOSH has directly intersected with my classes, and vice versa. In Advanced Topics Biology, learning about data collection with standard error bars allowed me to identify whether someone's hip flexion was within the healthy range. In physics, learning about motion and gravity have helped me understand the results from force plates. Even calculus has helped me with data synthesis, as I'm able to track a graph on the x-, y-, and z-axes and apply the correct computer algorithm to replace faulty data. My schoolwork applies to real-world concepts, which, in my opinion, is priceless.
As recording wraps up, I help one of the physical trainers remove the markers. I take off the adhesive stickers and throw them away. I then watch as the doctors write a report about what treatment and exercises are needed. They compare the patient's data with a database that shows the abilities of healthy individuals. When I'm not actively helping, I either watch the doctors write their report, or return to old data and correct errors. The latter improves their database. And each recording helps make a difference in people's lives, which is an added bonus to an already meaningful internship.
This summer, Rowland Hall senior Aislinn Mitcham embarked on an exciting learning opportunity: she spent four weeks at Oxford University in England, taking classes taught by university professors and living in the undergraduate dorms. While many peers spent the summer preparing to apply for college, Aislinn experienced what attending college might actually be like, and she considers herself fortunate. "It reinvigorated me for the college application process," she said, and gave her a balanced perspective heading into the busy fall semester.
Aislinn—who earned one of the program's highly selective scholarships—opted to major in engineering and minor in medical science. In her engineering class, which met for three-hour sessions six days a week, students tackled projects ranging from building an FM radio to learning Python, a coding language.
Founded in 1985, the Oxford Tradition offers high school students entering grades 10 through 12 a chance to study with leading academics and earn college credit. Each student must choose a major and minor area of study from a wide variety of courses, and Aislinn—who earned one of the program's highly selective scholarships—opted to major in engineering and minor in medical science. In her engineering class, which met for three-hour sessions six days a week, students tackled projects ranging from building an FM radio to learning Python, a coding language. Aislinn plans to study engineering in college and found the class a perfect fit, especially since Rowland Hall doesn't offer specific courses in engineering. She credited Upper School teacher Robin Hori, who encouraged her to attend the program and wrote a letter of recommendation for her scholarship application, saying that the project-based learning in his physics class prepared her well for the demands of Oxford.
Rowland Hall prepared Aislinn to test the waters of the college experience in a practical sense too. While the program has structured times for classes and many suggested social activities for the evenings, students are ultimately responsible for their own schedules. "It's your responsibility to be up, to know when breakfast is, to know when dinner is," Aislinn said. "And I do feel we have that responsibility here, to a certain extent. If you don't have a class, you're allowed to be other places, but you have to be back on time, and get your stuff done."
Aislinn also embraced a mentoring role in her peer group—one she doesn't always play at home, as the younger sibling—and even taught other program students how to do laundry.
Aislinn and her friends at the end-of-program formal dinner.
The people she met, and the friendships she formed, are what Aislinn will remember the most about her time at Oxford. She bonded with other students during cultural activities, including visiting local museums, going on ghost tours, and attending a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Aislinn acknowledged that being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar faces was intimidating at first, but she got over any initial shyness. "Getting to meet people who have completely different world views and world experiences was really important to me," she said.
Getting to meet people who have completely different world views and world experiences was really important to me. —Aislinn Mitcham
Aislinn will use her experience studying abroad to help guide her future learning as well. While she previously regarded attending an out-of-state college as a must, she is now considering nearby options—such as the U—as well. "I loved being away in a new environment, but I also realized how important my family is to me," she said, adding that the U is a really good school, and students shouldn't "just ignore it because it's close."
Regardless of where she ends up, Aislinn has real-world practice in engineering that she can draw upon, thanks to the Oxford program. The last week of class, they attempted to build robots, but they couldn't get them to synchronize successfully with their phones. "One of my favorite things about the program," Aislinn said, "was learning how much of engineering is trying and failing, trying and failing. Even my teacher didn't always know why things were failing."
The process of discovery—in the classroom and throughout her time abroad—is something Aislinn hopes other Rowland Hall students can have as well. "Go into it with an open mind," she encouraged. "It's an amazing experience."
While summer break often conjures up images of relaxation, such as reading a paperback novel on a sandy beach or sipping lemonade on a shady porch, in reality, many members of the Rowland Hall community are working between June and August. The months without daily classes allow staff to tackle major projects, including upgrades to campus facilities, and teachers have more time for collaboration and conference travel.
This summer, three of our faculty members in the middle and upper schools will be engaged in particularly exciting professional development opportunities, which are sure to reap benefits for the entire community. Read on to learn where Rob Wilson, Alisa Poppen, and Jeremy Innis are headed!
Upper School biology teacher Rob Wilson (pictured, top) will spend four days at the University of California, Davis, for a Penn State-sponsored program called Arctic Plant Phenology Learning through Engaged Science (APPLES). Led by a group of researchers, Rob and a cohort of selected teachers will study climate science as it relates to Arctic ecology, with a focus on developing a classroom project he can implement at Rowland Hall next year.
Rob has been making changes to his curriculum over the past few years, both to support the school's Strategic Plan and to align with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The APPLES workshop will incorporate three-dimensional learning from the NGSS and even provide teachers with equipment—such as cameras or warming chambers—they can use to conduct experiments with students in the future.
"We don't spend a lot of time with living things in biology classrooms nowadays," Rob said. He believes the new equipment and methodology will enable him to teach with more living models, in turn empowering his students to develop an intuitive sense of living systems. "It's something you can't really test—you have to experience it," he added.
The APPLES workshop will also allow Rob to begin a collaboration with leading climate science researchers, one he hopes to continue for several years.
Alisa Poppen, Upper School science department chair, travels to Ames, Iowa, in mid-June to spend seven weeks working as a research assistant in a genetics laboratory at Iowa State University. The paid assistantship is part of the Research Experiences for Teachers program, funded by the National Science Foundation.
"Because I'm in the classroom all day, I don't have the opportunity to engage in long-term research projects," Alisa said. "I'm excited to spend this time on a college campus, in a lab, interacting with people who focus on scientific research all day."
Alisa's participation in the program comes at an ideal time for Rowland Hall, as the Upper School will be transitioning all science courses from Advanced Placement to Advanced Topics (AT) beginning in the fall. She hopes the material she encounters in the genetics lab—which for her, specifically, will be the study of chromosomal variation in species of cotton—will help inform the curriculum for AT biology courses, especially in the area of molecular biology. She also plans to use her summer-immersion experience to reinforce the value of classroom laboratory practices with students.
"I believe it's motivating for our students to know that what we're doing is the same thing real scientists do," she said.
Interfaith Chaplain Jeremy Innis was one of 25 teachers selected to participate in the Religious Worlds Institute, a summer fellowship supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Jeremy will spend three weeks in New York City participating in field studies, reading texts, attending presentations, and collaborating with peers to assess and develop curriculum.
Jeremy applied for the Institute in large part because he wants to enhance the experiential learning component of world religions courses at Rowland Hall. He hopes visiting religious sites in New York City and participating in community rituals will give him new ideas for preparation and student reflection on field visits.
He is excited to have the opportunity to be a student again and mentioned looking forward to a presentation on Islam by one of his former professors from Harvard. "Broadening my own perspective on the diversity of religious beliefs and practices will also help me develop new curriculum for the chapel program," Jeremy said. "I'm fascinated by some of the sites we will visit and looking forward to meeting and speaking with many different people of faith."
Congratulations to senior Alison Kimball (pictured, top left), junior Anya Mulligan, and sophomore Alex Armknecht, who earlier this year won regional honorable mentions from the Aspirations in Computing awards. The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) sponsors the awards, which recognize high school girls for their computing-related achievements and interests as part of an effort to encourage more women to choose careers in technology.
Since 2014, nine Rowland Hall students have won 12 NCWIT awards, including two honorable mentions at the national level—read about the most recent national award. This year, Alison, Anya, and Alex were three of 31 Northern Utah Affiliate award recipients selected for their aptitude and interest in information technology and computing, solid leadership ability, good academic history, and plans for post-secondary education.
For the second consecutive year, Rowland Hall students captured the Best Young Entrepreneur award at the University of Utah Center for Medical Innovation's Bench to Bedside Competition night Monday, April 9.
Seniors Michael Palmer, Chris Ausbeck, Nico Edgar, Joseph Wang, and Leo Doctorman won $1,000 for SmoothStop, a wheelchair brake that provides a safer, more comfortable stop for users riding downhill.
Michael said the win left him feeling excited about the project's future. "Competition night was the culmination of a serious amount of effort by me and the team, and seeing that effort pay off was gratifying," he said.
Bench to Bedside has been a seminar class at Rowland Hall since the 2016–2017 school year. Director of Curriculum and Instruction Wendell Thomas and Upper School Assistant Principal Dave Samson joined the SmoothStop team at the Utah Capitol for competition night, and applauded their work. "They represented Rowland Hall exceptionally well," Dave said.
According to the seniors, current wheelchair braking systems are unreliable at high speeds and can thus lead to user injury. The team learned about this problem during Bench to Bedside's physician reverse-pitch night October 18.
SmoothStop is a simple add-on for a wheelchair—its manual disc brake is similar to a bicycle's hand brake—and it would cost one-third the price of a competing device. It allows users to access variable braking pressure, which gives greater control over the speed of their descent on a slope.
Michael said the team is evaluating how to use their $1,000 prize. They may put the funds toward visiting potential manufacturers and clients, and improving their prototype for increased durability, easier installation, and cost-effectiveness.