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 ninth graders Eli Hatton, Aiden Gandhi, and Evan Weinstein at 2022 International Science and Engineering Fair.

Rowland Hall equips students with the skills and experiences they need to thrive in a dynamic world. We believe education is active, and that deep, authentic learning experiences engage students in powerful ways, enabling them to view themselves as innovators and creators. Our new vision and strategic priorities are helping to center and formalize this work, but it’s long been a part of the Rowland Hall experience, inspiring generations of students to pursue, create, and share knowledge both in and outside the classroom. In the past year alone, we’ve watched many of our young scientists and engineers, fueled by their personal passions, tackle real-world problems and offer innovative solutions designed to better our shared world. This fall, we’re spotlighting some of their stories. (Be sure to also check out "Ruchi Agarwal Named Runner-up in National Stockholm Junior Water Prize Competition.")


For many, air travel is a necessity in today’s world. It’s easier, faster, and, in many cases, cheaper than other transportation options. But there’s an environmental cost to that convenience: emissions. Currently, the aviation sector accounts for more than two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, an environmental impact that scientists and engineers are working to lessen. That group of researchers now includes three Rowland Hall students.

In fall 2021, Aiden Gandhi, Eli Hatton, and Evan Weinstein, then ninth graders, were hard at work choosing a science fair topic. They knew they worked well together (as middle schoolers, they had teamed up for the You Be the Chemist Challenge), and they were united in a common goal: to create a project that could qualify for the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest high school STEM competition and an opportunity the young scientists had been waiting to be eligible for. As upper schoolers, that wait was over, so the only question was: what topic did they want to tackle?

The team’s priority was to choose a project that balanced members’ individual interests in engineering and physics. They decided a project on sustainable aviation would meet that objective. The choice allowed each member to play to his strengths—a good strategy when aiming for ISEF-level research. Additionally, the team liked that an aviation project would let them address climate change.

“We had lots of ideas of different areas of science we wanted to work with,” remembered Eli, but the team’s priority was to choose one that balanced members’ individual interests in engineering and physics. After discussion, they decided a project on sustainable aviation would meet that objective. “It’s a blend of everything we’re interested in,” explained Aiden. The choice also allowed each member to play to his strengths—a good strategy when aiming for ISEF-level research. “We each have individual interests within aviation—physics, technical—which meant we had a pretty diverse background going in,” said Evan.

Additionally, the team liked that an aviation project would let them address climate change. Like their peers around the world, they’ve long been aware of environmental challenges facing their generation, and, as aviation enthusiasts, they’re also aware of the industry’s role in carbon emissions. And because flying isn’t going away, they explained, air travel needs to become more environmentally friendly and efficient. “If we can’t completely get rid of it, we can at least make it better,” said Evan. 

The team first considered designing an entire sustainable aircraft—an idea they soon dismissed. “We realized that was far too complicated,” said Eli. Instead, they chose to focus on what Evan called the part that “makes airplanes more or less efficient”: the engine. An airplane’s engine, after all, is the source of its power—it’s where jet fuel is burned to provide the machine’s thrust (the force that moves an airplane in the air). But jet fuel is inefficient and the main contributor to an airplane’s carbon output: after fuel is burned inside the engine’s combustion chamber, it releases carbon waste into the atmosphere. However, it’s tricky to find a good substitute for jet fuel. Research has been done on other fuels, but many still release potentially harmful chemicals into the environment, and others are too volatile or expensive. And even ideas around electric aircraft have limited reach—the team found that current designs were only capable of short-distance flights. They wanted their experimental model to both eliminate the use of jet fuel and be available for international travel.

Goal in mind, the team set to work on a computer-aided design of an engine that creates propulsion via electrically heated tungsten coils in the combustion chamber. Tungsten, they explained, can efficiently heat and pressurize air, so they felt it was the right material choice. By February, the group was ready to present their project, named Engine-ering the Future of Air Travel, for the first time at a regional science fair, where they qualified for state—the step at which they would be considered for ISEF. They felt good about their odds: they placed second in the Mechanical and Materials Engineering division and fifth overall at the University of Utah Science and Engineering Fair, putting them in excellent position for an invitation to ISEF, which arrived a couple weeks after state.

“We were really happy we were invited,” remembered Aiden of the moment the group learned they had reached their goal.

But the team’s ISEF invitation wasn’t the end of the road—in fact, in many ways, the group had to work harder than ever to ramp up for international competition. They used the weeks leading to the May ISEF meeting to adjust their presentation to meet fair requirements and to tinker with their engine’s design. One major change the group made at this time was swapping the tungsten coils for tungsten fits, which, said Aiden, “have more surface area and would be better for transferring heat from the tungsten to the air throughout the engine.” They also began testing their model in ANSYS—engineering software that simulates airflow, thermal, and physical stress—to refine it. Additionally, as ISEF competitors, they had access to new resources, including local engineers Daniel Baxter and Duke Speer, who could provide feedback on their project to ensure it was ready for a higher level of scrutiny. And the team continued to seek support from Rowland Hall faculty. Robotics coach Alex Beaufort ’13 went over the mechanics of their engine, while physics teacher Robin Hori reviewed its physical properties and concepts to make sure they made sense theoretically. Their project mentor, science teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida, was invaluable to the group’s presentation practice. A former ISEF judge herself, Dr. Rida knew what they needed for the international competition, and she was impressed by what she saw.

What blew me away about this team of young scientists was their unflappable spirit, their ability to see around corners, the initiative they demonstrated by taking on a challenge that even industry experts have struggled with, and their motivation to continually innovate, iterate, and improve their original engine design.—Dr. Padmashree Rida, Upper School science teacher

“What blew me away about this team of young scientists was their unflappable spirit, their ability to see around corners, the initiative they demonstrated by taking on a challenge that even industry experts have struggled with, and their motivation to continually innovate, iterate, and improve their original engine design,” said Dr. Rida. “When they presented their poster to me for a practice session, I was amazed by how they had thought through every minute detail of their design, and how hard they had worked to research their problem inside out and to think of good responses to potential questions and critiques. They received feedback with heartwarming grace, showed inspiring tenacity and focus when faced with setbacks, and were deeply committed to their purpose: to do something about the pressing crisis of climate change.”

Robotics coach Alex echoed Dr. Rida’s sentiment, calling out the team’s impressive determination even when encountering hurdles just a week before competition—a promising characteristic of these future professional scientists and engineers. "They overcame obstacles with tenacity,” said Alex. “Even during the last week, when they encountered problems, they were able to adequately address them in a professional manner, approaching the solution with the scientific mindset that is ever evolving.”

These weeks of preparation were valuable, the team said, not only when it came to making their project more realistic, but also in helping them learn to better convey their ideas. By the time they headed to Atlanta in May, Aiden, Eli, and Evan were confident their updated engine could compare to today’s commercially used engines, and they were ready to present their work to some of the top engineering minds in the field. And though competition was high (the three Rowland Hall students were among 1,750 competitors from 49 US states and 63 countries, regions, and territories), what they remember most is the feeling of camaraderie among attendees—an essential component of their future careers.

Finalists at the 2022 International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta.

Aiden (second from left), Eli (eighth), and Evan (ninth) with other ISEF finalists.


“It’s important because you need more than one person to make a significant change in the world,” said Aiden. Evan added, “Not only are you making friends, but you’re also creating partnerships. Likely, these are the people you’ll be researching with at high levels.”

It’s safe to say that Rowland Hall’s jet engine crew would have been satisfied at this point: as ninth graders they had already made it to ISEF, they were mingling with innovative students from around the world, and they got to present their original research to engineering experts. But they soon learned their hard work had paid off in another exciting way. As attendees, the group was eligible for the event’s Grand Awards, prizes presented to the first- through fourth-place winners in each of ISEF’s 21 categories. (Top ISEF awards are then selected from the group of 21 First Award winners.) As the young scientists and engineers gathered on award night, the Rowland Hall team was thrilled to hear their names called over the loudspeaker—they were the Fourth Award winners in the Engineering Technology: Statics and Dynamics category, which had 81 total entries.

“We were very surprised and shocked and happy. It felt surreal,” remembered Eli. “We thought just making it there was our biggest achievement.”

These achievements won’t be wrapping up anytime soon. Now sophomores, Aiden, Eli, and Evan are still immersed in their jet engine research, currently choosing a 2023 science fair project that will build on last year’s work (details are still being kept quiet at this stage). With the benefit of their first ISEF experience, the team is excited to see what they can do next, and they’re quick to encourage other students to try science fairs themselves, noting how a Rowland Hall education, including excellent faculty support, prepares young scientists and engineers for these opportunities to take on real-world problems. “The resources at Rowland Hall are incredible,” said Aiden. “Faculty, our schoolwork, and papers and research in history, science, math—all that definitely prepared us for ISEF.”

Without a doubt, these students will continue to do incredible things, and the Rowland Hall community is looking forward to watching what they take on next. “I am super excited about the positive impact they will have, and the changes they will drive,” said Dr. Rida.

STEM

Rowland Hall Upper School student Ruchi Agarwal,a runner-up in the 2022 Stockholm Junior Water Prize national competition.


Rowland Hall equips students with the skills and experiences they need to thrive in a dynamic world. We believe education is active, and that deep, authentic learning experiences engage students in powerful ways, enabling them to view themselves as innovators and creators. Our new vision and strategic priorities are helping to center and formalize this work, but it’s long been a part of the Rowland Hall experience, inspiring generations of students to pursue, create, and share knowledge both in and outside the classroom. In the past year alone, we’ve watched many of our young scientists and engineers, fueled by their personal passions, tackle real-world problems and offer innovative solutions designed to better our shared world. This fall, we’re spotlighting some of their stories. (Be sure to also check out "Three Rowland Hall Students Place Fourth at International Science and Engineering Fair for Aviation Engine Design.")


Last year, while on the lookout for a science fair research subject, upper school debater Ruchi Agarwal found inspiration in a topic that was being examined by policy debaters across the country: The United States federal government should substantially increase its protection of water resources in the United States.

"It’s a prominent issue right now,” Ruchi said, and one she became personally passionate about while researching water resources for debate competitions. She decided to focus her science fair project on the study of toxic cyanobacteria—algae mats that produce neuro and liver toxins poisonous to humans and animals—in streams and rivers. Though much research has been done on algal blooms in lakes, Ruchi explained, little has been done on their presence in flowing waterways, despite cyanobacteria’s threat to lives around the globe.

Though much research has been done on algal blooms in lakes, little has been done on their presence in flowing waterways, despite cyanobacteria’s threat to lives around the globe.“Once I realized that the toxic mat formation is not just a local issue, but a global one, I immediately embarked on researching more about this scientific issue,” Ruchi later wrote about her decision.

Ruchi hypothesized that because toxin-producing cyanobacteria co-exist with non-toxic producers, they can synergize with non-toxic bacteria nutrients, as well as other resources—a theory she wanted to test at the Virgin River in Utah’s Zion National Park. With the help of park employees, Ruchi collected samples at four sites over a period of four months, which, with the support of University of Utah professor Dr. Ramesh Goel and graduate research assistant Shadman Kaiser, she tested for certain water quality parameters, cyanobacteria genomic content, and the ability of toxic cyanobacteria to synergize with other bacteria. Her research, Ruchi wrote, confirmed that Microcoleus, the most common cyanobacteria worldwide, is “dominant in nutrient-deficient environments and exhibits strange metabolic behavior which makes this genus very competitive in terms of flourishing with respect to other toxin producers.”

To say Ruchi’s findings were well received would be an understatement. As planned, Ruchi first presented her project at the regional University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair (USEF), where she qualified to compete at the state USEF. At state, she received further accolades: first place in the Civil and Environmental Engineering division, as well as the Salt Lake City Public Utilities prize. She also received an unexpected but exciting opportunity: a nomination to apply to compete for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP), the most prestigious youth competition for water-related research.

Rowland Hall junior Ruchi Agarwal at the March 2022 University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair in Salt Lake City.

Ruchi at the March 2022 University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair.


When asked how it felt to be nominated for the SJWP, Ruchi remembered, “It was a mix of exciting and daunting … more the second emotion, primarily because receiving the nomination is just one step of many.”

Indeed, competing for the SJWP isn’t for the faint of heart: nominees (students in grades nine through twelve) must be working on projects “aimed at enhancing the quality of life through improvement of water quality, water resources management, or water and wastewater treatment,” and are required to write scientific research papers that are first submitted for state-level competitions, then—for the 50 young scientists chosen from each state—for national competition. The national winner then goes on to compete with scientists from 30 countries at the international competition in Stockholm, Sweden.

“I definitely hadn’t written a paper to this scale,” Ruchi said. And though the process came during the Upper School’s AP test season, she devoted time each day for three weeks to putting together her submission, leaning heavily on the knowledge she built in Upper School classes like biology, English, and debate—knowledge, Ruchi said, that equipped her with “the critical thinking skills that go into writing a 20-page paper.” In May she learned that her entry, “Water Scarcity in the Arid West: What is the Role of Harmful Algal Blooms?”, had earned the top prize for the state of Utah, and that she was headed to the national competition at the Colorado School of Mines in June.

“It was really nice to know it had paid off, and I was excited,” said Ruchi. That excitement grew once she arrived in Colorado, where she was able to learn more about water conservation and connect with students from across the nation. “It was inspiring talking to other people who are passionate about this,” she said.

Rowland Hall student Ruchi Agarwal was named a runner-up in the 2022 Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition.

Ruchi poses with SJWP judges after being named a runner-up in the national competition.


And though Ruchi’s research already had a track record of excellence, she remained modest about her paper’s chance at the national level. “I thought maybe I had a chance to win one of the special awards,” she said, referring to prizes awarded to two top competitors who are not named either the national winner or one of two runners-up. You can, therefore, imagine Ruchi’s reaction when she was announced as a runner-up. “I was literally shocked,” she said.

Doing work that is so fundamental to our health and daily lives is incredibly fulfilling. It helped me realize that I could use my passion for research as a way to create change and find solutions to pressing issues in the scientific community.—Ruchi Agarwal, class of 2023

Ruchi may have been, but her teachers, including debate coach Mike Shackelford, weren't. “Ruchi is one of our top debaters, and, while I was thrilled, I wasn't surprised by her success at the SJWP,” said Mike. “She's always been driven, creative, articulate, and bright, and has honed her critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills over many years of competitive debate. As a coach, I've always believed that debate is a means to end, not an end in itself. And while I'm certainly happy when debaters win trophies, I'm especially proud when they apply their skills and knowledge to real-world experiences.”

With a boost of confidence as a scientist, Ruchi has started her senior year ready to build on her SJWP experience. She’s looking forward to tackling new challenges in classes like AP Biology, reworking her SJWP paper for submission to other science competitions, and growing her research skills. As an aspiring biology major, she said, she now better understands how the research she’s already interested in can make a difference in quality of life for people around the globe, and she hopes to play a role in effecting policy solutions through her work.

“Doing work that is so fundamental to our health and daily lives is incredibly fulfilling,” Ruchi reflected. “It helped me realize that I could use my passion for research as a way to create change and find solutions to pressing issues in the scientific community.”

STEM

A Rowland Hall Debugging Club member works on a project.

Every day at Rowland Hall, students have their limits tested by a challenging curriculum and by mentors. It helps them grow. But what happens when the curriculum and mentors are pushed by challenging students?

More growth.

At the beginning of the school year, members of Rowland Hall’s technology team were approached by a number of ninth-grade students who had a complaint: they wanted to be able to do more on their school-issued laptops, but the current administrative settings wouldn’t let them. The restrictions were impeding their ability to grow as coders, they said. They didn’t just want more access, they needed it to learn.

The tech team is used to complaints, but not like this. They decided to try something new. They came to the students with an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“They challenged us to hack through the protections,” said Eli Hatton. “They said if we could do it they would let us keep the access instead of revoking it.”

This isn’t to say the tech team didn’t have their reservations. And they had very good reasons to say no. But they also knew this was an opportunity.

This isn’t to say the tech team didn’t have their reservations. And they had very good reasons to say no. But they also knew this was an opportunity. “We are always interested in cybersecurity,” said Alan Jeppson, associate director of technology. “Sometimes the only way to know if our security is working is to try and break it.”

Break it they did: the ninth graders were able to gain the access they desired, and then walked the tech team exactly what they had done so the weakness could be resolved. And thus the Rowland Hall Debugging Club was born.

“First thing we did was have them write a contract for acceptable use with their new machines,” said Alan. “Then we started looking around the school for more projects.”

Members of the Rowland Hall Debugging Club, working on the Lincoln Street Campus in Salt Lake City.

Debugging Club members met in late April to choose upcoming projects.


It didn’t take long to find them. Upper School Assistant Principal Bernard Geoxavier needed a solution for tracking students needing physical education credits while not playing a sport or taking a class. The Debuggers figured out a solution: students needing the credits can now log time in the weight room with just a swipe of their student IDs when they exit and enter. It was a learning experience for the club members they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. “We learned about readying software for very specific hardware and then deploying it,” said Eli. “Then we had to test it and see if it worked.”

Cybersecurity is a growing issue worldwide, and the club, along with members of the tech team and faculty, are looking at ways to improve their skills and the skills of the school community.

That was the first of many projects. Now the club is working on building a chatbot that will help students with everyday tasks, like navigating schedules, reviewing assignments, and performing other functions they would normally have to log in to the student portal to complete.

The opportunities are multiplying too, for both the benefit of the students and the school. Cybersecurity is a growing issue worldwide, and the club, along with members of the tech team and faculty, are looking at ways to improve their skills and the skills of the school community.

“We are looking at how we can get more kids involved, and how we could eventually compete in events like hackathons as a school,” said Ben Smith ’89, Upper School computer science teacher. “This would help these kids grow in areas where they could have real professional success in the future.”

Of course, the founding members of the Debuggers may have a future in store that no one has yet imagined. “This is a good group of super smart kids,” said Chief Information Officer Patrick Godfrey.  “It’s put all of us back on our toes how advanced they are and how they take a project and go after it.”

Added Alan, “These kids are crazy smart and talented. I really am interested in where they go from here.”

STEM

Rowland Hall Upper School students in disguise for the Drag Vs. AI workshop.

Editor's note: This piece is republished from Rowland Hall's 2020–2021 Annual Report.


2021 Inspired Brilliance Awards winner badge

This story won silver in the 2021 InspirED Brilliance Awards (magazine feature article writing category).


Computer science impacts our daily lives, but its workforce falls woefully short when it comes to reflecting national racial, ethnic, and gender demographics. Solving that problem starts with K–12 education. The subject’s proponents at Rowland Hall are ensuring equity is programmed into the curriculum—and the curriculum gets the attention it deserves—building toward a computing-literate society where everyone has a seat at the table.

During hybrid learning one February afternoon, about 40 Rowland Hall faculty, staff, and upper schoolers—some working from home, others from the Lincoln Street Campus—gradually populated a Zoom room. It started off as a standard pandemic-era Upper School class, but 20 minutes later, it looked more like an avant-garde digital dress rehearsal. Students unearthed accessories from family members’ closets and Halloween costumes past: a cowboy hat, a pair of aviation goggles, a leopard-print scarf. They cloaked themselves in masks, feather boas, heavy makeup, and oversized sunglasses.

Director of Arts Sofia Gorder and her dance students comprised half of these creative camouflagers, but despite appearances, it wasn’t prep for one of their performances. It was an open workshop held by teacher Ben Smith ’89 and his Advanced Placement Computer Science (CS) Principles class to show the Upper School community how facial-recognition technologies work and how they can be harmful, particularly for underrepresented groups.

One dance student, Mena Zendejas-Portugal ’21, wore a pink wig with bangs that covered her eyes. She used makeup to draw decoy eyes on her cheeks, below the magenta fringe. Mena and her peers smirked at their laptop cameras as a web-based program used artificial intelligence (AI) to guess their ages and genders. 

Rowland Hall computer science teacher Ben Smith participating in the Upper School's Drag Vs. AI facial-recognition workshop.

Computer science teacher Ben Smith '89 aged himself for the Drag Vs. AI workshop.


Before Mena wore her disguise, the program vacillated between misidentifying her as a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. After Mena changed her appearance, ironically, the program’s guess came closer to the reality: it classified her as a 16-year-old female. 

“It wasn’t a surprise how the AI read me since I have a rounder face along with short hair,” said Mena, one of the leaders of the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. “It’s just a confirmation for the thought of AI being built around stereotypes and constructed beauty standards that aren’t applicable to everyone.”

Algorithms permeate our daily lives, and flawed coding can have devastating real-world consequences, from wrongful arrests to housing discrimination. Ben educates the Rowland Hall community on these problems, and ensures his CS students are equipped to solve them.

Algorithms permeate our daily lives, and the type of flawed coding that Mena experienced can have devastating real-world consequences, from wrongful arrests to housing discrimination. Ben educates the Rowland Hall community on these problems, and ensures his CS students are equipped to solve them. “If these students are going to become leaders in technology, they need to have this perspective,” Ben said. “You can't ask people to have an interest in a career and not prepare them for the future ramifications of that.” 

Ben has long given students space to discuss JEDI issues but formally added it to his CS curriculum during the 2020–2021 school year. And at Rowland Hall, the marriage of CS and social justice is a natural development: the school prioritized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the 2014 Strategic Plan, and during the past school year, longtime JEDI work escalated as a priority. 

February’s facial-recognition workshop—Drag Vs. AI by the Algorithmic Justice League, which “combines art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms” of AI—helped a cross section of upper schoolers see firsthand why this work matters: “By just learning CS and not looking behind the scenes, the future could be less inclusive than we envision,” Mena reflected. Indeed, AI researcher Joy Buolamwini, a Black woman, launched the league after personally experiencing algorithmic discrimination in her work. In one project utilizing generic facial-recognition software, the program failed to detect Joy’s face until she wore a white mask. In another, she had to ask a lighter-skinned friend to stand in for her. We can solve these problems, Joy posited in a 2016 TED Talk with over 1.4 million views, by creating more inclusive code. Teams must be diverse and driven to create “a world where technology works for all of us, not just some of us, a world where we value inclusion and center social change.”

This ethos fuels Ben’s work. The Rowland Hall alumnus, now celebrating 20 years as a faculty member at his alma mater, started teaching CS in 2015 and shifted to teaching that subject exclusively two years later. From day one, he’s made it his mission to diversify CS, a field “plagued by stark underrepresentation by gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and family income,” according to CS advocacy nonprofit Code.org. The US needs more—and more diverse—computer scientists, and efforts to broaden that workforce need to start in K–12 schools. Computing jobs are the top source of all new wages in the US and they make up two-thirds of all projected new jobs in STEM fields, Code.org touts, making CS one of the most in-demand college degrees. And exposure before college makes a difference: students who learn CS in high school are six times more likely to major in it. Among traditionally underrepresented groups, the likelihood is even higher: seven times for Black and Latinx students, and 10 times for women.

Ben currently relies on one-to-one recruitment to grow CS enrollment among those underrepresented populations. He read a book around 2014, during graduate school in instructional design and educational technology at the University of Utah, that sparked his professional goals: Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing by Jane Margolis. The book chronicles the lack of access to CS courses for Black and Latinx students—and addresses how to change the system. “It was just one of those eye-opening moments,” he said. “There’s no logical reason—except institutional bias—for why computer science education looks the way it does today … It’s incredibly unjust.” Since then, Ben has prioritized combating what he calls the most glaring equity issue in education today. He collaborates with other schools and organizations that are trying desperately to expand CS opportunities, and works diligently to build an equitable CS program for Rowland Hall. “With Rowland Hall's support, I’m committed to a future where all computer science courses have a student population that mirrors the demographics of the school as a whole.”

Building Curriculum from the Ground Up

Fortunately, Ben isn’t starting from scratch when sixth graders meet him in Foundations of Computer Science, a required class since 2016. Since Christian Waters stepped into the role of director of technology integration in 2013, he has crafted an arsenal of computing lessons to captivate the full spectrum of beginning and lower schoolers. Christian teaches at least one unit of digital citizenship, coding, and robotics to every lower schooler. Kids engage in hands-on activities like programming colorful toy robots and building wearable tech comprised of LED lights affixed to felt. They also get the space to think big and consider computing’s real-world applications, like furthering one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. How might they use computing, for example, to remedy a problem like overcrowding or a lack of affordable and clean energy?

Director of Technology Integration Christian Waters at Lower School Maker Night 2018, on the Salt Lake McCarthey Campus.

Christian Waters with students at the 2018 Lower School Maker Night.


Christian draws curriculum from dozens of expert educational resources, including the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, Children’s Innovation Project, and Code.org. “We've built something that is really relevant, and the best combination of the best materials and resources,” Christian said. “It's not a curriculum that is sold in a big box that you wheel into a classroom, and everyone has to do it the exact same way. It's tailored to the needs of Rowland Hall and relevant to our goals and our objectives.” 

Thanks to ongoing collaboration between Christian and Ben, Rowland Hall’s CS curriculum is also vertically aligned: “We're preparing students for Advanced Placement Computer Science A Java in a way they never were before. Students in the Middle School are learning about objects, classes, functions, and variables,” Christian explained. “It's thanks in part to how we're building up from the Beginning School.”

One example of vertical alignment and mission-centric curriculum: Christian uses a Code.org activity where lower schoolers train a computer to recognize facial expressions—broaching some of the same issues upper schoolers examined in their February workshop. The crux of the Lower School lesson, according to the educator: “How do we distinguish between facial features and whether someone is happy or sad or excited, and is that even ethical to do that?” Students exercise their critical-thinking skills and confront questions involving how these programs work, and how to ensure they’re as ethical and unbiased as possible. “Ultimately what students get is that there is a lot of subjectivity in how we humans train computers,” Christian said. 

A Group Effort

Part of attracting younger and more diverse students to CS—and, down the road, reducing bias in code—entails continual, widespread exposure. Christian has not only integrated CS into classrooms, he’s also created community-wide opportunities to rally around computing and engineering. He organizes three annual events that are now synonymous with STEM culture on the McCarthey Campus: the beginning and lower school Family Maker Night in the fall, the school-wide Hour of Code in the winter, and Lower School Maker Day in the spring. “These events are designed to demystify technology and making,” Christian said. “All students can see themselves as computer scientists, coders, makers, roboticists, engineers.”

These events and the school’s CS curriculum as a whole are dominated by collaborative group work that occasionally reaches across subjects and divisions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Smith's Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles students collaborated annually with Tyler Stack's fourth graders to make an app that helps young students learn math. Upper schoolers worked in groups to devise and test app concepts on the lower schoolers and use their feedback to improve app design. For Katy Dark ’21, it was a highlight of Rowland Hall’s CS program: “The thing that will stick with me the most is using new interfaces to help people.” It’s a fitting favorite memory for Katy, who in 2020 became the first Rowland Hall student to win the top national award from the Aspirations in Computing program, sponsored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). She won, in part, for her efforts tutoring students and developing a coding club at Salt Lake City’s Dual Immersion Academy, a bilingual Spanish-English charter school she attended during her elementary years.

Two Rowland Hall computer science students learning how to program a robot to write on a white board.

Two CS students learning how to program a robot to write on a white board.


The app project is a prime example of group work that can encourage underrepresented populations to pursue CS, according to Dr. Helen Hu, a Westminster College computer science professor whose work examines how educators can improve diversity in CS. “In industry there's something called agile co-programming, which is people working in groups,” said Dr. Hu, also the parent of a Rowland Hall ninth grader and seventh grader. “This is actually an important skill in computing—being able to work with others.” While some students love computing for computing, she added, a lot of others love it because of what it can do, “because of the problems you can solve, because of the impact you can have,” she said. “By doing both, by emphasizing these other parts of computing, you're helping both types of students. The students who love to code, still get to code. The students who love coding to solve problems are getting to do that. We know that students aren't going to learn it as well when you just teach it at the level of, ‘Where does the semicolon go and where do parentheses go?’”

Alex Armknecht ’20, a 2019 Aspirations in Computing regional award winner who’s now a CS major at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), appreciated learning CS at a more holistic level. “I loved the CS classes at Rowland Hall and they were consistently my favorite classes throughout high school,” she said. “I loved the way Mr. Smith taught and allowed us creative freedom … his class is the main reason I am majoring in CS. I learned the importance of asking for help, creativity, and collaboration, which all have been helpful to me in my college CS classes.”

During her senior year, Alex also participated in another shining example of collaborative group work in CS: the Upper School’s For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge Robotics team. The team started off strong in its inaugural 2019–2020 year and has continued to evolve, Ben said: “It’s expanded the opportunities for young women to become leaders, compete, and see how other girls across the state are involved with technology and engineering.” 

During the 2020–2021 school year, juniors Irenka Saffarian and Tina Su stepped into unofficial leadership roles that bode well for the near future. Both have taken Advanced Placement CS A and are great coders, Ben said, and they pushed hard for the team to make it to the national semifinals in the FIRST Global Innovation Awards. Rowland Hall was the only team from Utah and one of only 60 teams internationally to make it that far. “Our theme right now is take it to the next level,” Ben said. “We realize we are right on the verge of getting to that level where we’re really competitive—where we actually compete with the best teams in the state.” And Irenka and Tina, Ben said, are committed to getting the team there. They embody the enthusiasm that Ben and Christian hope to cultivate across the school. “I hope that the future of taking computer science courses at Rowland Hall is increasingly coming from a place of excitement and interest and, ‘I cannot wait to use this skill in anything that interests me,’” Ben said. “It's not about a kid sitting in a basement all alone typing on their computer. This is about groups of people making exciting and interesting and really impactful decisions, and everyone needs to be at the table.”

Progress Made, and the Work Ahead

We are talking more about it, not just because it's zeitgeisty, but because technology has a lot of ground to make up here. We see ourselves as trying to help kids recognize that.—Christian Waters, director of technology integration

While Katy, Alex, Irenka, and Tina are recent success stories, Christian and Ben readily acknowledge that Rowland Hall isn’t exempt from racial and gender disparities. But the school is perpetually working “to change that from the ground up,” Christian said. Thanks in part to schoolwide training, JEDI values are ingrained in how Rowland Hall instructors design and teach tech-related classes. “We are talking more about it, not just because it's zeitgeisty, but because technology has a lot of ground to make up here. We see ourselves as trying to help kids recognize that.” 

Ané Hernandez, a junior who took AP computer science and robotics as a sophomore during the 2020–2021 year, appreciated the heightened JEDI focus. Ané’s parents are both engineers and she’s been interested in CS for as long as she can remember—the winner of a 2021 Aspirations in Computing regional honorable mention loves the art of programming. Ané, who is Mexican American, has also long been interested in JEDI issues and advocating for more equity and representation, including through Rowland Hall’s student JEDI committee. She found it compelling to see how two of her passions, JEDI and CS, are related. "As technology is rising, racial, gender, and socioeconomic problems still exist," Ané said, "so they're just becoming interwoven." 

While she’s grateful for how the JEDI units have furthered her passion for CS, she hopes her school also uses this momentum to self-reflect on, for instance, how to make CS more accessible to lower-income schools and communities. And that sort of community outreach isn’t unprecedented at Rowland Hall. In summer 2015, and in two summers that followed, Rowland Hall hosted a nonprofit Hackathon centered around teacher training. “That was a way that we contributed to a culture of learning and growth in our community,” Christian said. Educators from local public and independent schools convened on the Lincoln Street Campus to learn coding skills and how to use certain tools, like 3D printers and Arduino robots. The technology team helped cover some of the costs, Christian said, and teachers could earn state licensing credit for attending. Ben's resume is also flooded with conferences and workshops where he’s trained his peers. “It’s great for me to show a group of 15 or 20 educators how to teach a curriculum,” he said, “and then I can show them that I have a classroom with a majority of female students, and that I've been able to recruit and build, and that this is possible.”

Rowland Hall computer science teacher Ben Smith with a middle schooler on the Salt Lake City Lincoln Street Campus.

Ben teaching in the Middle School. Computer science is taught in all four Rowland Hall divisions.


These sorts of efforts could expand in the future. Rowland Hall is seriously considering ways to increase CS opportunities and spaces, and plans could solidify as early as the 2021–2022 school year. Christian and Ben are drafting a CS strategic plan that involves integrating CS with other subjects, training teachers, and expanding current classes. And Christian, Ben, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Wendell Thomas are starting a CS task force and have asked others to join: one or two teachers from each division, Dr. Hu, and Sunny Washington, a startup COO and CEO who also serves on the board of Equality Utah. One of the task force’s first actions will be to provide feedback on the strategic plan draft.

For now, Christian and Ben’s work to recruit more—and more diverse—CS students is paying off. Since 2014, 19 Winged Lions have earned a collective 25 awards from the Aspirations in Computing program, including one win (Katy’s) and two honorable mentions at the national level. Rowland Hall also won The College Board’s 2019 and 2020 Advanced Placement Computer Science Female Diversity Award for achieving high female representation in our AP CS Principles class. Dr. Hu lauded the achievement. “That's pretty impressive," she said—especially for Utah. "There are some states where they have tens of teachers who received this. We have three. I think that speaks to how difficult this is in the state." 

Ben, Christian, and the faculty and staff who support them remain focused on graduating good citizens armed with the tools to make tech work for all of us, not just some of us.

Ben, Christian, and the faculty and staff who support them remain focused on graduating good citizens armed with the tools to make tech work for all of us, not just some of us, as Joy Buolamwini so wisely said. Recent grad Katy is now attending Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and majoring in law—possibly cyber law. Anna Shott ’16 emailed Ben in December 2020 to share that she’d be joining Microsoft as a program manager the following year. “Your class truly influenced the path I chose, and I cannot thank you enough for sparking my interest in computer science,” wrote Anna, a University of Southern California grad who also worked as a K–12 CS camp counselor on her college campus. And current student Ané said what she learned in AP Computer Science Principles—that an algorithm can decide whether someone is granted a loan, for example—was a game-changer for her. “This experience has made me want to not only major in computer science, but a specific realm of computer science that maybe deals with AI and diversifying participants and coders so that there isn't such a large bias.”

Alex also plans on working in CS, another testament to Ben’s teaching: “I decided I wanted to go to my college when I met LMU's chair and professor of computer science and he reminded me of Mr. Smith,” she said. “I would not be a computer science major if it weren't for him. He pushed me to work my hardest, to try new things, and provided me with lots of opportunities.”

This sort of feedback keeps Ben laser-focused on boosting equity in CS at Rowland Hall and beyond. “I won’t pretend that it didn’t bring a tear to my eye,” he said. “It’s certainly fuel for the work that I do and it reminds me that it's worth doing. I could sit back on a curriculum and just deliver, and do fairly well at it. But this is beyond that. The work is more than what I teach—it’s who I’m teaching to.”

Timeline: Modern Computer Science at Rowland Hall

STEM

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.”

STEM

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 percent of scorers on the AMC 10 and the top 5 percent 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.

STEM

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.

You Belong at Rowland Hall