Explore Topics

Custom Class: post-landing-hero

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

Computer Science Teacher, Students Earn Regional Recognition from Women in Tech Nonprofit

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

Explore More STEM 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

At the Intersection of Homelessness, Healthcare, and Humanity

Rowland Hall alumnus Jeff Norris lives his purpose treating and advocating for underserved populations as the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego When Jeff Norris ’03 applied to medical school, the admissions office at the University of Utah called him in for a rare second interview. He had submitted a personal statement focused on the connection between medicine, public health, and social justice, and that intersectional approach raised some eyebrows.
 
Admissions officers asked Jeff if he was sure he wanted to go to medical school, and not study public health or social work. But he assured them: he knew he wanted to be a clinician who worked with, and advocated for, underserved populations.

Jeff credits Rowland Hall with launching his career trajectory. In high school, under the mentorship of then-faculty member Liz Paige, he volunteered with Amnesty International and prepared and served food at local youth groups. The positive experience of serving others and making an impact—and relevant content in history and psychology courses—got the wheels turning in Jeff’s brain: “I started reflecting on my role in the world and how I could try to do something to make a difference for others. What is my purpose for being here?”

Jeff's self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success.

The service and activism Jeff began at Rowland Hall carried through his years as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as a med student at the University of Utah, and as a Family Medicine resident at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. His self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success: in 2016, Jeff became the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages, an award-winning nonprofit that provides integrated services to people experiencing homelessness in San Diego.
 
Jeff’s day-to-day work requires a breadth of skill, knowledge, and tenacity: he estimates he spends about 40 percent of his time treating patients and the other 60 percent engaged in clinic administration, fundraising, and advocacy—including ensuring that state and federal legislation supports nonprofits like his. He serves on a number of boards, including a large network of clinics with over 100,000 patients in the San Diego area. For Jeff, it’s about more than staying connected and representing the interests of Father Joe’s Villages. “It is being present in the community to advocate for the needs of not just those experiencing homelessness, but underserved populations more broadly.”


At the clinic he leads—which serves walk-ins along with residents of Father Joe’s Villages and people receiving assistance from other local agencies—Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health. “The challenges our patients face are pretty unique, compared to most patient populations,” he said. “Their lives are very chaotic, and they have a lot going on medically, psychiatrically, behaviorally, socially…in all senses.” A significant portion of his time is spent managing programs to deliver medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD)—drugs such as buprenorphine (suboxone) or naltrexone—and for alcohol abuse. 

At the clinic he leads, Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health.

Among the most recent and cutting-edge programs Jeff and his team at Father Joe’s Villages are running is the Street Health Program, which launched this spring and is already impacting lives for the better. As the name suggests, the initiative involves going out into the streets and providing healthcare directly to people experiencing homelessness. So far, they’ve reached a number of people who’ve avoided or been underserved by traditional healthcare. One example: a man who had been using heroin for 30 years and had never before been interested in treatment. Pending a grant, the street health team hopes to treat patients with OUD at the first point of contact. In the meantime, they wrote a prescription for this particular patient because, as Jeff said, “it was the right thing to do.”
 
One of the long-term goals of the Street Health Program is to develop rapport with individuals so that they will visit the clinic for treatment. Additionally, the launch has created quite a buzz throughout San Diego, so Jeff hopes other clinics and treatment centers will consider similar programs (which do already exist in other large metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco). “It can’t just be us,” he said. “There are enough folks experiencing homelessness that we certainly cannot meet the need unilaterally.”
 
Jeff is rightly proud of his advocacy work and the impact his clinic makes on a daily basis, and he speaks passionately of the need for everyone to recognize the homelessness crisis—not just in San Diego, but also in Salt Lake City and urban areas throughout the country. While rising housing costs and relatively stagnant wages are the two primary drivers of the problem, Jeff doesn’t discount the power of the individual to make a difference, whether through volunteering, donating goods, or elevating the dialogue to fight the stigma against those experiencing homelessness.
 
When he’s not working, Jeff stays active outdoors, taking advantage of all that San Diego’s famously temperate climate has to offer. He also prioritizes time with his family: two-year-old daughter Alex keeps Jeff and wife Sonia Ponce—a practicing cardiologist—quite busy.
 
Rowland Hall’s Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund is not at all surprised that Jeff is making a difference in the lives of others. He recalled how, as a high school student, Jeff was always highly engaged and motivated to serve, often being the last to leave a volunteer event. “Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion,” Ryan said. “It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare.”
Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion. It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare. —Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education

Just as Jeff credited Rowland Hall for sparking his interest in a life of service to others, Mr. Hoglund credits Jeff for setting an example of genuine student leadership at the school. And, to the student leaders today, Jeff sends these words of encouragement: “Figure out what gives you energy and makes you feel like you're contributing to the world in some positive way, then grab that bull by the horns and don’t let go of it. That’s where you're going to be able to make a difference, to be satisfied with who you are and what you're doing in this world.”

 

All photos courtesy of Father Joe's Villages.

 

Alumni

Student leans on lockers in hallway.

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.”

Volunteerism

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

You Belong at Rowland Hall