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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% of incoming students are worried about one thing in particular—the science share.

"We talk about the science share from day one," Chad 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, Chad 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.

Sarah 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, Sarah 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 Sarah'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," Sarah 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 Chad. 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% of incoming students are worried about one thing in particular—the science share.

"We talk about the science share from day one," Chad 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, Chad 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.

Sarah 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, Sarah 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 Sarah'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," Sarah 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 Chad. 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

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Mick Gee visiting Ben Smith's class

As we enter the second half of the academic year, the Rowland Hall team is hard at work preparing for milestone events, including the April 24 all-community celebration honoring beloved Head of School Alan Sparrow, who retires in June. After Alan’s departure, Rowland Hall will begin a new era, with Michael “Mick” Gee installed as our 19th head of school; he begins July 1.

Mick was the natural choice to lead Rowland Hall, and the Head of School Search Committee, formed after Alan announced his retirement in October 2018, was unanimous in recommending him for the job. In her June 2019 email to the Rowland Hall community, Board Chair Jennifer Price-Wallin wrote, “Throughout our comprehensive process, Mick emerged as the educational leader who best embodies the core attributes our school community seeks in our next head.”

Mick’s background—rich in administrative leadership and teaching experience—will be instrumental in building on Alan’s 28-year legacy and the school’s 153-year history. Many in our community are especially excited about how Mick’s science training will help shape the school. Prior to becoming an administrator, Mick taught courses like physics and chemistry, which greatly influenced his approach to education and his beliefs about how students learn and their capacity for knowledge.

“I always say there’s a big difference between teaching science and teaching kids to be scientists,” Mick explained. “We do a lot of the former—we teach a lot of knowledge, and we do labs and things like that. But we don’t often give kids a chance to be real scientists who create knowledge—who actually go into uncharted areas and solve problems by devising their own experiments.”

It’s important for students to feel that the work they’re doing can have an actual impact. That’s an incredibly powerful experience.

This mentality dovetails with the momentum from Rowland Hall's Strategic Plan that is already happening on our campuses: teachers such as Molly Lewis and Alisa Poppen have championed similar ideas around empowering students to become scientists. And this approach is especially appealing to today’s students, Mick said, because they are looking for context and meaning for what they learn in class—and they want to make a tangible difference.

“I think it’s important for students to feel that the work they’re doing can have an actual impact,” he said. “That’s an incredibly powerful experience.”

One way Mick has supported active learning was through the creation of three Centers for Impact—for STEM and innovation, global engagement, and entrepreneurship—at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York, where he is currently head of school. Today, these centers give students opportunities to apply classroom skills and knowledge in real-world ways—for example, their science research course is designed to allow students to choose their own research thesis, collaborate with an expert in their chosen field, and present their findings to peers. Some students have even been published.

“It sounds like I’m describing PhD research—and some of the students that I’ve seen do this are in third grade,” Mick said. “We used to think students in third, fourth, or fifth grade could only learn knowledge—they couldn’t create knowledge. It’s just not true. Now we see students of all ages engaged in problem solving from a scientific and engineering point of view. They’ve got the skillset, they’re applying the skills, and they’re coming up with solutions that many adults haven’t thought of.”

Importantly, Mick believes that teachers of any subject, not just the sciences, can create active engagement opportunities that prepare students to enjoy pursuing knowledge, helping them thrive in an ever-changing world.

“Schools are where we find the joy in learning,” he said.


Top photo: Mick Gee, center, visiting Ben Smith's classroom on the Lincoln Street Campus.

STEM

Student leans on lockers in hallway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stem

Preschoolers explore the nature yard.

On an overcast autumn day, a voice rang out in the Lower School nature yard. “Match!” it cried.

At the sound, the entire 4PreK class came running. One by one, they began smelling one of the yard’s plants, on a mission to find a scent match to a mystery plant they had been given that morning.

Research shows there are powerful benefits of sensory learning—building nerve connections in the brain, improving fine motor skills and perception, encouraging social interaction, and enhancing memory are among them.

This activity is one of several sensory learning exercises that Kate Nevins’ and Brittney Hansen’s preschool class enjoyed this fall, and was designed to engage students’ sense of smell. Before going outdoors, each child had been given a bit of the crumpled mystery plant (wild sagebrush), which they rubbed between their hands and smelled. The group then went to the nature yard to locate a full sage plant by scent alone. “Children ran from plant to plant smelling the scent on the palm of their hand and then smelling the plant to see if the scent matched,” the teachers wrote about the activity. “As soon as a child was sure they found the right plant they would yell, ‘Match!’ and we would all come running to smell for ourselves.”

Because research shows there are powerful benefits of sensory learning—building nerve connections in the brain, improving fine motor skills and perception, encouraging social interaction, and enhancing memory among them—Rowland Hall embraces opportunities to add it to lessons. “The five senses have been a part of the 4PreK curriculum for at least the past 20 years—it is such a critical unit for four- and five-year-olds to explore,” said Brittney.

In the 4PreK program, senses are introduced as tools for making scientific discoveries and observations about the world. And sensory learning can be quite simple. For example, for the listening exercise, the preschoolers walked to the McCarthey Campus back field, where they closed their eyes and concentrated on, and named, the sounds around them. When exploring touch, the children lay down on the grass and described how the blades felt against their bodies.

Our young naturalists were encouraged to slow down and use a keen eye. We are learning that scientists have to be patient and look very carefully.

Students also learned the importance of perseverance. For a color hunt designed to engage sight, each student painted the wells of an empty egg carton a different color, then went outdoors to collect items that matched those colors. “Some colors proved to be more difficult to find,” the teachers said. “Our young naturalists were encouraged to slow down and use a keen eye. We are learning that scientists have to be patient and look very carefully.”

The unit also recommended continuing sensory learning at home. After the color hunt, for instance, the teachers prompted parents and guardians to help students find ways to use their collection boxes around the house. “Encourage your children to take the cartons outside in your yard or with you on a neighborhood walk,” they told parents and caregivers. This helps create a powerful connection between school and home (an ongoing goal at Rowland Hall) and builds early childhood skills like language development, fine and gross motor skills, and problem-solving in a pressure-free, fun way.

Interested in other ways you can bring sensory learning into your home? Check out 31 Days of Sensory Play to get started.

STEM

Family creates flashlight at Maker Night.

Paper rockets whizzed through the air. Hot-air balloons fashioned out of fruit containers and plastic bags spiraled up a wind tunnel. Light from popsicle-stick flashlights and homemade circuits flared. And the sound of laughter—from both kids and adults—filled the room.

Rowland Hall’s first Maker Night, which attracted more than 140 people, was a success.

The event, held in the McCarthey Campus Field House on November 7, was inspired by the Lower School’s Maker Day, where kids explore a variety of science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) activities. Maker Night built on this event by including Beginning School and Lower School families in the hands-on learning experiences.

As Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus surveyed the activity around the room, he couldn’t help but grin. “We love the fact that families can experience what kids experience in the classroom,” he said.

Maker Night attendees traveled among stations, engaging a variety of skills as mini scientists and engineers. As the night progressed, parents like Jenna Pagoaga, mother of second grader William and preschooler Ollie, found themselves managing a small cache of completed experiments. “It’s a great community event,” she said as she watched William run to the Sky Floaters table to design a blimp for a Lego passenger. “It’s fun to see them be creative and use what they learn in class.”

Slideshow: Images from Rowland Hall's first Maker Night.

One of the biggest draws of the night was Nerdy Derby, where kids built cars and raced them on one of the three lanes of a tall, curvy track. The evening was punctuated with the cheers of those whose cars made it to the end of the track—and the groans of those whose creations fell apart on descent. Undeterred, those students simply grabbed the debris and ran back to the design table to figure out how to strengthen their vehicles. That is the point of Maker Night.

It's important for parents to see what their kids are capable of. Give them a pile of stuff. Let them explore. The play-based part of it, the creativity part, is very important.—Jodi Spiro, Lower School math specialist

“Kids are learning it’s OK to try things out, mess up, and try again,” Jij explained. He also noted the importance of giving children independence when it comes to exploration. “Often, learning outcomes are decided beforehand; this is more open-ended,” he said. “It’s exciting to think of kids leading their own learning.”

Lower School Math Specialist Jodi Spiro echoed this idea. Maker Night, she said, emphasized to parents and caregivers the scientific process of thinking, planning, testing, and redesigning. And it showed that kids don’t always need formal instruction to learn. “It’s important for parents to see what their kids are capable of,” she said. “Give them a pile of stuff. Let them explore. The play-based part of it, the creativity part, is very important.”

Tasha Hatton, who attended Maker Night with her fifth grader, Gabrielle, is excited by how simple an environment of exploration can be. She remembered how Gabrielle lit up when she saw fourth-grade teacher Haas Pectol’s recycled-plastic station, where children were braiding the plastic from discarded Halloween costumes into ropes that can be turned into things like baskets—or even, as Haas demonstrated, crocheted clutches. Maker Night, Tasha said, stimulated her family’s curiosity. “It’s introduced us to ideas we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.”

Tasha also marveled at how something as simple as recycled plastic can do wonders for a child’s imagination. “They’ll look at the world differently,” she said. “The next time they see something like that, it might spark a new idea.”

STEM

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