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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEM

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEM

 

Explore More Academics Stories

students conducting science experiment

By Alisa Poppen, Upper School science teacher and department chair

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


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

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

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

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

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

teacher talking to students

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEM

student with teacher at event

After honing her letter-to-the-editor skills in Kody Partridge’s English 11 class, junior Laura Summerfield took that lesson to the next level: she entered and won Westminster College's annual Honors College Statewide Essay Contest. Read her winning essay in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Laura—an aspiring journalist herself—penned the persuasive piece in response to the following prompt: “Write an essay (600 words or less) that explores the role played by media in promoting or impeding civility in our political and civic discourse. In an age of Twitter and ‘fake news,’ what responsibility does the media have to encourage civility?”

My generation may be one of the last that remembers civility in politics unless we do something to reignite it.—Laura Summerfield, Class of 2020

The contest drew 85 entrants from 22 high schools across Utah, according to Westminster Honors College Dean Richard Badenhausen. A distinguished, bipartisan panel of five judges (a former Salt Lake City mayor, an acclaimed author, a lobbyist, a professor, and a Trib reporter) evaluated 13 finalists. Although it was an extremely close contest—Laura won by one point—her essay was the only one that appeared on every judge’s ballot.

Westminster held the contest in conjunction with a March 19 lecture by New York Times Op-Ed Editor James Dao. Laura received her prize, a $2,000 check, that evening, and the Trib published her piece not long after.

“When I received the email telling me I had won, I literally didn't believe it,” Laura said. “Even when my essay was in the Trib, I didn't believe it. I still don't believe it.”

I want students to know that their words matter to me and to others.—Upper School English Teacher Kody Partridge

Incredulous as she may be, there’s no denying that Laura—thanks in part to family discussions and Kody’s class—was well prepared to respond to this year’s prompt. “The topic resonated with me because my family's go-to pre-dinner, dinner, and post-dinner programming is the news and political talk shows, so I knew the state of our political climate,” Laura said. “This topic is important because my generation may be one of the last that remembers civility in politics unless we do something to reignite it.”

Kody attended the March event to support Laura and hear the lecture. Though Laura didn’t write the award-winning essay specifically for Kody’s class, the beloved Upper School teacher of over 16 years has a unit that covers writing letters to the editor, and respectfully and compellingly voicing opinions outside of the classroom. “I want students to know that their words matter to me and to others,” Kody said. The lesson certainly got through to Laura, and Kody is a proud teacher. “Laura is a talented writer and a thoughtful young woman,” she said. “It was a fantastic letter.”

Pictured, top: Laura and Kody at the March 16 event.

Writing

Teacher helping students with a computing activity

Junior Alex Armknecht named Aspirations in Computing Northern Utah Affiliate winner, sophomore Katy Dark and teacher Ben Smith ’89 receive honorable mentions

It helps me confirm my commitment to equity and inclusion of girls in computer science classes at Rowland Hall.—Teacher Ben Smith ’89

Computer science teacher and alumnus Ben Smith ’89 has spent the past several years encouraging his students as they apply for—and often place in—the National Center for Women and Information Technology's (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing awards. For the first time this year, NCWIT recognized the teacher alongside his students.

Ben learned in March that he’d been named a 2019 Northern Utah Affiliate Honorable Mention recipient of the NCWIT Educator Award, which goes to teachers who continually encourage young women’s aspirations in computing.

“I have been active with NCWIT for several years now, and it was good to get recognition for those efforts—it was a bit of a surprise,” Ben said. “It helps me confirm my commitment to equity and inclusion of girls in computer science classes at Rowland Hall.”

Ben was one of three teachers honored by the regional affiliate, junior Alex Armknecht was one of 16 student winners, and sophomore Katy Dark was one of 30 honorable mentions. Student winners are selected annually "based on their aptitude and aspirations in technology and computing; leadership ability; academic history; and plans for post-secondary education," according to Aspirations in Computing (AiC).

Teacher with students at awards ceremony for women in computing.

From left, sophomore Katy Dark, teacher Ben Smith, and junior Alex Armknecht at the regional awards ceremony in March.

Since 2014, 11 Rowland Hall students have earned a collective 14 NCWIT awards, including two honorable mentions at the national level.

Alex’s 2019 award follows her honorable mention last year. A Middle School coding seminar first sparked Alex’s interest in the subject—from there, she worked with administrators and faculty to create a computing elective, and even recruited other girls to take the class. Last year in Ben’s AP Computer Science Principles class, Alex made a math app to help kids learn division, and fourth graders in teacher Tyler Stack's class picked her project as their favorite. She plans to keep studying computer science.

Katy also plans to pursue computing. In addition to the AiC award, she recently won a national President's Volunteer Service Award for her work tutoring students and developing a coding club at Dual Immersion Academy, a bilingual Spanish-English charter school she attended during her elementary years.

Ben, Alex, and Katy attended a March 16 ceremony in Provo where they met peer students and teachers, accepted their awards, and left with swag bags—a much-anticipated highlight for Ben. “Every year I see my students getting these killer swag bags and I go home empty handed,” the teacher joked before attending the ceremony. “I might just get one of my own this year.”

Since 2014, 11 Rowland Hall students have earned a collective 14 NCWIT awards, including two honorable mentions at the national level. The center and its AiC awards have become big names in the computer science world. Women are underrepresented in that field, but the 2004-founded organization is working hard to move the needle and empower women to pursue and succeed in computing.

Related stories

STEM

Student in traditional Islamic dress gestures toward a pot.

On March 20, seventh graders used illustrations, demos, dioramas, and even virtual reality to transport Rowland Hall community members to a different time and place—the Golden Age of Islam that started in the seventh century and stretched from Spain to China.

According to seventh-grade world studies teacher Margot Miller, last week's exhibition was driven by one question: "How can we showcase the Golden Age of Islam in order to educate our community about Islamic inventions and challenge assumptions and misconceptions about Islam and Muslims?"

The middle schoolers used the book 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilizations and conducted additional research to become experts on their topics. For the main attraction, they transformed the Middle School's upstairs art hallway, adjacent staircase, and the band room hallway into a funnel of knowledge—visitors snaked through topical sections dealing with food, fashion, medicine, school, astronomy, architecture, and more. The seventh graders also prepared oral and written presentations, and eagerly enlightened all who passed through the exhibition.

World Studies

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