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Advanced Research Classes Immerse Students in Real-World Questions, Further Rowland Hall’s Strategic Vision

People don’t often associate high school with opportunities to develop an original thesis or conduct research alongside an expert. But at Rowland Hall, we're working to change that.

Rowland Hall has a long and proud history of preparing students to thrive not only in college, but in career and life. As a leader in education, we know this begins with ongoing opportunities to build student confidence, whether that’s by climbing a tree or testing a new invasive insect trap. As a result of our approach, many students enter the Upper School with an understanding of their own interests and passions. They’re ready to grow the knowledge and skills they’ll need after graduation, as well as to embrace new, self-directed learning opportunities that allow them to address real-world questions, including some of the toughest we’re facing today.

To ensure that students are well prepared for what lies ahead, the Upper School offers a wide array of advanced courses that build knowledge as well as provide opportunities to practice skills. These include Advanced Placement classes and faculty-designed Advanced Topics courses, which deeply dive into their subjects and offer more opportunities for lab, hands-on, and project-based work.

I'm not sure many other high schools can or do offer the opportunity to do such in-depth research on a topic of your choice. These classes were incredibly fulfilling for me because they were more independent, and I could dictate what I wanted to research based on my own interests.—Sophie Baker, class of 2024

An increased focus on research-based courses, particularly over the last four years, is further setting apart Rowland Hall’s program. Classes including Research Science, unveiled in fall 2020, and authentic learning opportunities such as collaborating on peer-reviewed journal articles have helped prove that high school students can help find solutions to real-world problems and create impactful knowledge—a key focus of Rowland Hall’s strategic vision. To further this important work, the Upper School recently took steps to formalize and expand research classes. The result? A new class designation, Advanced Research (AR), which was applied to four areas of study—chemistry, biology, humanities, and debate—in its first year, 2023–2024.

“Advanced Research is a program across different disciplines that allows students with significant interest, and some advanced coursework already under their belts, to go deep in an area of study with the goal of a college-level, real-world application to their work,” explained Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson. To be designated AR, a class must allow students to develop original theses and/or conduct research under the guidance of an expert, offer some student choice in what is studied, and provide opportunities to present original work or compete for an external audience. And because AR classes are so advanced, they tend to be more intimate (even for a school with an already impressive nine-to-one faculty-to-student ratio), providing more opportunities for one-on-one mentoring and bonding with peers.

“I'm not sure many other high schools can or do offer the opportunity to do such in-depth research on a topic of your choice,” said senior Sophie Baker, who took AR Biology and AR Humanities this year. “These classes were incredibly fulfilling for me because they were more independent, and I could dictate what I wanted to research based on my own interests.”

Below, we provide a glimpse at each of the four AR classes offered in the program’s inaugural year. You can also check out each section individually: AR Chemistry, AR Biology, AR Humanities, and AR Debate.


AR Chemistry and the Promise of Algae

For most, the word algae calls to mind a carpet of green scum atop a body of water. But to this year’s AR Chemistry students, the word holds the promise of a more sustainable world.

“There are many unique ways algae can be used,” said science teacher Tascha Knowlton—from biofuel to biodegradable plastic to medicine. And because algae also captures large amounts of carbon, it’s becoming an important tool for a greener future.

Algae first captured upper schoolers’ attention last spring, when Tascha asked her students, including those enrolled in her upcoming AR Chemistry class, to research the organism for an end-of-term project. The students were so excited by what they found, they asked if they could make algae the focus of their AR Chemistry research. While Tascha had been planning to continue the graphite research started in Research Chemistry (the original name of AR Chemistry), she was happy to change course to follow the students’ interest.

And though there were several directions the students could take their research, the six seniors in this year’s class decided to focus on two: the use of algae as a wastewater treatment and as a substitute for limestone in cement, both of which contribute to a more sustainable world. As a wastewater treatment, algae provides a more effective alternative to the chemicals and bacteria that remove pollutants in water; the byproducts of this process can also be used to create bioproducts. In cement, the calcium carbonate byproduct of algae can take the place of limestone, which lessens the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during limestone mining.

Rowland Hall students learned about algae at Utah's Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.

Class member Quinn Orgain testing water at the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.


This fall, the students began diving into current research on these subjects, as well as writing their own proposals and abstracts and conducting lab work. One group studied the effect of two types of algae, chlorella and Scenedesmus, in wastewater, and the other focused on the use of Emiliania huxleyi, a special type of algae that produces a calcium carbonate shell, in biocement. They also spoke with experts, including Dr. Ronald Sims from Utah State University—who took them on a tour of the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, which recently piloted an algae wastewater cleaning program—and biocement specialists. These opportunities to immerse themselves in their chosen areas of research made a big impression on the young scientists.

These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values.—Gabriella Miranda, class of 2024

“These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values,” said Gabriella Miranda, a member of the wastewater group. “Truly, I think the AR program embodies academic freedom and gives students valuable insight.”

By the spring, the class was ready to take their work on the road. In early March, both groups competed at the University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair, where the wastewater team placed third in the Biology & Microbiology category and the biocement team placed second in the Chemistry & Biochemistry category. Later that month, they traveled to New Orleans for the American Chemical Society spring conference, where they confidently shared their work with attendees from around the world.

“Their posters and how they presented themselves was on par or better than any undergraduate posters, and there are hundreds,” said Tascha. And she wasn’t the only one impressed—many attendees shared their amazement that the Rowland Hall group was still in high school; one undergraduate even said he wished he’d had this type of experience before college. Tascha hoped moments like these provided the students with perspective about their experience, showed them their capabilities, and gave them the confidence they’ll need to hit the ground running as undergraduates. “They’ll be able to jump in and expand opportunities in college, versus having to get familiar with the work later,” said Tascha.

The experience may even inspire careers.

“Prior to taking AR Chemistry, I wasn’t particularly passionate about any given subject. With the pressure of college majors looming, I often dismissed the decision entirely,” said class member Halle Baughman. “Through this in-depth investigation, I was able to explore my passion for sustainability by integrating it with my interest in the sciences. I found a topic with the promise of success and my personal investment.” As a result, Halle changed her indicated major from undecided to sustainability and design.

“My project excited me in ways I couldn’t imagine,” said Halle. “The process was truly life-changing.”

Learn more about the AR Chemistry class’s time in New Orleans.


AR Biology Works to Better Understand and Find Treatments for Aggressive Cancer

To Upper School science teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida, providing students with research opportunities is a no-brainer.

“It’s important to invest in mentoring and guiding high schoolers,” she said. “This is how you’re going to build on the next generation of people who can impact big areas.”

With the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand student research opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

That’s why the former university research scientist and breast cancer researcher, who joined the faculty in 2021, has been on a constant lookout for ways to bring students into the process of research science. In addition to sharing her expertise in class, Dr. Rida has even welcomed students to the teams of researchers she collaborates with on peer-reviewed papers. (Two, now-alums Max Smart ’22 and Tianyi Su ’22, have already been published.) And with the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand these opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

And it all begins, she explained, by deciding what to study.

“Defining the scope of the work is itself a big step,” she said, and one she wanted the three seniors enrolled in her first AR Biology class to experience. Though Dr. Rida did provide some parameters (she encouraged students to choose a topic within her area of expertise, and one that can be done on campus—after all, the school has no biosafety clearance to work with cancer cells), she wanted students to have a say in what they studied. She also wanted them to get familiar with identifying research worth pursuing by learning what kind of questions to ask: What is already known about a topic? What are people not yet asking that is of value to the field? What are some of the gaps in our knowledge that we can help fill?

Armed with this guidance, the students kicked off the year by reading papers and brainstorming subjects that were both manageable and could make a contribution to the research field. By early November, they’d chosen their topic: to uncover more about why androgen receptor-low triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is so lethal. By understanding drivers of the disease, they hoped to help identify novel, actionable treatment targets, as this cancer currently has no approved targeted treatments and, as a result, poor outcomes, particularly in Black women.

“Black women are twice as likely as white women to get TNBC, and within this subgroup Black women are disproportionately afflicted with the androgen receptor-low form of TNBC,” said Dr. Rida. “Identification of potential treatment targets for androgen receptor-low TNBC could therefore help us ameliorate the stark racial disparities observed in breast cancer outcomes.”

To further keep research manageable, the students limited their scope to the centrosome biology that may play a role in this cancer subtype’s deadly impact. Centrosomes, miniscule structures in cells that organize the cell’s cytoskeleton, are critical for cell division; however, excessive centrosomes, which are commonly found in cancer cells (and at a higher level in tumors of Black women), are implicated in the aggressive clinical behavior of TNBC. That’s because cancer cells cluster their extra centrosomes during cell division via a process that increases genomic instability and clonal heterogeneity inside tumors, contributing to treatment resistance and disease progression. Although we have known for a few decades that, to survive, cancer cells must dial up their centrosome-clustering mechanisms as they generate extra centrosomes, exactly how this accompanying upregulation is achieved was undefined.

Rowland Hall students attend the 2024 meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.

The AR Biology students and Dr. Rida at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.


In pursuit of answers, the AR Biology students began analyzing publicly available gene expression data to identify the pathways that are in overdrive in androgen receptor-low TNBCs, while keeping their eyes peeled for crucial links that connect centrosome-amplification mechanisms to centrosome-clustering pathways. The students were fortunate to identify oncogenes (genes with the potential to cause a cell to become cancerous) that connect these two pathways, synchronously upregulating both drivers of aggressive disease, said Dr. Rida. This helped identify potential treatment targets for high-risk patients. And the students did all this alongside learning how to navigate databases and perform in silico analyses, wade through dense primary sources, create publication-quality figures, and collaborate with researchers outside Rowland Hall. It could be tough at times, but it was worth it.

We were working on something that actually had real-world value.—Sophie Baker, class of 2024

“We were working on something that actually had real-world value,” said senior Sophie Baker, as well as something that allowed the group to discover their own capabilities. “The most important thing that I learned about myself this year is that I can actually complete research of this scale,” Sophie continued. “It's impossible to know if you're capable of doing something until you try, so it was nice to be given the opportunity to try in a supportive environment.”

Best of all, the students’ potentially life-changing work didn’t stay in the classroom. In April, they traveled to San Diego to present their findings as a poster at the American Association of Cancer Research’s annual meeting. And later this spring, they were part of a group (including City of Hope researchers) that submitted a journal manuscript that’s currently in its first round of peer review. Dr. Rida said both opportunities have brought immense value to the students.

“It helps place work they did in the context of the real world issues—this actually can advance understanding of tumor biology, or guide clinicians or researchers,” she said. And on the flip side, she continued, these opportunities also show clinicians and higher education researchers the benefits of welcoming high school students to the table.

“We’re changing the culture,” said Dr. Rida.

Click the image below to view the poster presented by AR Biology students at the American Association of Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting.


AR Humanities Expands Opportunities for Student Voices

Rowland Hall students are known for their writing. Throughout their time at the school, there is an ongoing emphasis on developing strong writing skills, and faculty members provide expert guidance as students grasp the foundations of language and grammar, then begin to build on their skills, knowledge, and confidence. Year by year, the school graduates exceptional writers, many of whom share their voices, whether that’s through poetry, science, or newspaper op-eds.

With the introduction of AR Humanities, Upper School students can apply and build writing skills on a whole new level: through college-level humanities research.

“Even though I'm a ‘STEM student’ of sorts and really like robotics and whatnot, I was really interested in doing some sort of deep dive into writing and humanities-based research,” said Omar Alsolaiman, one of the six seniors enrolled in AR Humanities in fall 2023. “And I thought the idea of getting to a full paper by the end was super exciting.”

Omar is referring to the 15- to 20-page research paper that is the pinnacle of the AR Humanities experience. Written over the 17 weeks of the fall semester, each student’s paper is the culmination of their time tackling research like professional scholars: by choosing a focused project question, developing unique arguments, and examining primary and secondary sources.

This class is an opportunity for students to craft questions around something that’s meaningful and interesting to them ... and to ultimately make small but meaningful contributions to a larger body of knowledge about whatever topic they want to study.—Dr. Nate Kogan ’00, history teacher

“This class is an opportunity for students to craft questions around something that’s meaningful and interesting to them, and to work to pursue that in the way one would an undergraduate senior thesis,” said history teacher Dr. Nate Kogan ’00. “They’re more independently trying to emulate the methods and practices and scholarship they’ll be more fully immersed in when they go to college, and to ultimately make small but meaningful contributions to a larger body of knowledge about whatever topic they want to study.”

In addition to providing the students with his own support as a historian and academic, Nate uses Wendy Belcher's Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, a workbook for academic publishing, to guide them through the research process. “I try to give the class a well-scaffolded and accessible entry point to the type of work real scholars in the humanities use,” he said. “This book helps plan the course by setting up a practical and accessible framework of steps you have to go through, which can often be opaque and challenging for students.”

And whatever a student’s inquiry, said Nate, they pursue the same process, meaning that over the semester, each class member became familiar with how college-level research unfolds as they pursued individualized research topics:

  • how American media coverage of Haiti employed necropolitical narratives;
  • how the medieval kingdom of Al-Andalus fostered social cohesion amongst a multiethnic and religiously diverse community;
  • how neoliberal economic and regulatory policies toward pharmaceutical companies exacerbated in opioid crisis in Appalachia;
  • how neoliberal economic policies exacerbated the gender wage gap and intensified racially driven critiques of welfare policy;
  • how changing attitudes toward migrant players in the US men’s soccer program limited the competitiveness of the team at international competitions; and
  • how the community-based ideologies and practices of the original Black Panther Party evolved into a more exclusionary form with the New Black Panther Party in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I learned a lot about what college-level writing would be like, and I definitely learned a ton of great formal writing strategies while also researching something I'm really interested in that I hope to continue learning about,” said Omar, who worked on the Al-Andalus project and credits AR Humanities for building his ability to write efficiently and systematically—a skill he believes will be invaluable in college.

I learned a lot about what college-level writing would be like, and I definitely learned a ton of great formal writing strategies while also researching something I'm really interested in that I hope to continue learning about.—Omar Alsolaiman, class of 2024

And since this is an AR class, the experience also included the chance for the students to share their work. As the semester began to wind down, the group worked to condense their arguments into eight-minute presentations for a mini-conference, held at the Upper School in December. Not only was the conference a chance to share their research with more people, but it also improved their final papers.

“The goal of the presentation is to serve as a testing ground for the clarity of their written arguments: ‘Can I take this stuff I've been mulling over and writing about and communicate it clearly to other people?’” said Nate. “That process of distilling an argument and trying to articulate it in a more condensed format also helps with the final revision stage: ‘Which points landed? Where do I need to play up the evidence more clearly?’”

By the end of the semester, all six students had completed beautifully written research papers that reflected their diverse and wide-ranging interests. (Though it wasn’t required, one student submitted their paper to The Concord Review, a high school history scholarship journal, in addition to Nate.) When asked to reflect on the class experience, Omar said it was valuable in many ways, not least of which was its reminder of the importance of the humanities as well as the ability to write well—areas that can easily be forgotten in the noise of a technology-heavy world.

“This class definitely reminded me how important the humanities are to me, so in college I'm hoping to find some outlet or focus on the humanities, despite my overarching path in engineering and STEM,” he said. “It also recentered my strengths in writing as one of my most important skills for the future.”

Click the video below to listen to this year’s AR Humanities students share their research at their mini-conference.


AR Debate Soars in First International Debate Research Opportunity

Rowland Hall and debate go hand in hand. For nearly 40 years, the school has offered a top debate program—we’ve even been named a Debate School of Excellence by the National Speech and Debate Association, and our debate team has claimed the last four 3A speech and debate state championships (2021–2024).

Needless to say, a lot of exceptional debaters roam the Upper School halls, so when the division’s administrative team was identifying potential areas for AR classes, they knew that a high-level debate-based research class would appeal to and benefit the school’s most advanced debaters. And for debate coach Mike Shackelford, AR Debate offered an ideal space for debaters to not only work on ongoing prep for their Policy and Public Forum competition events, but to harness their knowledge and skills in a new way.

“Our kids are really good at research, and it was important to me to give them an opportunity to show off their research skills in a more traditional format,” he said.

And Mike knew just the right outlet: the International Public Policy Forum global essay contest, which he had heard about from some of his national colleagues. Jointly administered by the Brewer Foundation and New York University, this contest “gives high school students around the globe the opportunity to engage in written and oral debates on issues of public policy.”

To participate in the IPPF contest, teams of at least three students from the same school are invited to submit a qualifying essay of no more than 3,000 words on an annual topic (this year’s was “Resolved: Governments should provide a universal basic income”). Teams can either affirm or negate the topic in qualifying essays. From there, a panel of judges chooses the top 64 schools to advance to a single-elimination, written debate tournament—in other words, teams are invited to engage in a pen pal-style debate competition. During each round, a team receives a competitor school’s latest 3,000-word essay via email, then writes an 1,800-word rebuttal. Judges review both essays and choose the top response from each round. The contest ends with the final eight teams traveling to New York City in early May for IPPF Finals Weekend.

Even with steep odds, the Rowland Hall team stood out. They were selected to move on to the top 64—and called out for their exceptional work on their qualifying essay. "This is a fantastic paper, bordering on brilliant,” one judge wrote. “This paper reflects scholarship rivaling post-graduate work.”

In October, the eight AR Debate students (three seniors, three juniors, and two sophomores) began working on their qualifying round essay. To stand out, the Rowland Hall group decided to write their essay using a critical feminist analysis, affirming universal basic income as a way to reduce domestic violence, reverse the stigma of welfare, and promote a more just concept of work that’s valued in the United States.

"We took this approach because we thought other papers would be written from traditional economic topics, and we didn’t want to silence an important perspective,” said Mike.

The team hoped to qualify to the round of 64, but suspected competition would be stiff. Indeed, this year, 311 teams, representing schools in 26 countries, submitted qualifying essays to the IPPF. But even with these steep odds, the Rowland Hall team stood out. They were selected to move on to the top 64—and called out for their exceptional work on their qualifying essay.

"This is a fantastic paper, bordering on brilliant,” one judge wrote. “This paper reflects scholarship rivaling post-graduate work.”

Buoyed by this feedback, the group jumped into the competition, ultimately submitting and defending seven different essays to and against schools from Texas to Canada. With a trip to New York as their new focus, the AR Debate students remained nimble, switching sides in their essays as required and working closely to write their best responses.

Rowland Hall debaters qualified to the Sweet 16 of the International Public Policy Forum global essay contest.

This year's AR Debate class with their Sweet 16 IPPF Contest medals.


“It’s rare, at least in debate, to have that much of a collaborative research opportunity—to have one product with six cooks in the kitchen, writing, collaborating, and thinking,” said Mike of this new opportunity for debaters. “The competitive debate world is so insulated, so this experience was so valuable in translating the skills they’ve been building. They know intuitively they’re great researchers, but I don't think they ever had practice taking their debate cases and translating them into papers.”

The small nature of the AR Debate class created an environment that facilitated targeted, individual growth in addition to improvement as a team. This meant that each of us got more individual attention in terms of feedback and skill improvement than before.—Eli Hatton, class of 2025

Class members also felt the benefits of stretching their skills. “AR Debate has given us the opportunity to use our research and argumentative skills beyond Policy Debate competition. I am glad I took AR Debate mainly because of the dedicated time and space for focusing on improving debate skills, practicing debates, and building arguments and strategy,” said junior Eli Hatton, who plans to continue debating in college and appreciated how the research-based approach of the class challenged class members, helping them become stronger debaters.

“The small nature of the AR Debate class created an environment that facilitated targeted, individual growth in addition to improvement as a team. This meant that each of us got more individual attention in terms of feedback and skill improvement than before,” Eli continued. “I personally learned quite a lot about the areas where I needed to improve and became a much better debater as a result.”

And though the team didn’t make it to New York City (they were defeated in the Sweet 16 round, in a 2-1 decision, in early April), they are proud of what they accomplished and how far they went in their first IPPF contest. Returning debaters are even looking forward to next year’s competition.

“After the close loss, I was expecting students to be hesitant in making the same investment next year," said Mike. "Instead, they unanimously said it was a positive and fun experience and that they would want to do it again.”

Check out the AR Debate students’ work: view one of the team’s negative essays (submitted during the round of 32) and one of their affirmative essays (submitted during the round of 16).


Editor’s note: In addition to the classes covered in this article, Rowland Hall will expand AR offerings to include AR Computational and Mathematical Sciences in fall 2024. This class will provide a new opportunity for student-driven projects in computer science and math.

Research

Advanced Research Classes Immerse Students in Real-World Questions, Further Rowland Hall’s Strategic Vision

People don’t often associate high school with opportunities to develop an original thesis or conduct research alongside an expert. But at Rowland Hall, we're working to change that.

Rowland Hall has a long and proud history of preparing students to thrive not only in college, but in career and life. As a leader in education, we know this begins with ongoing opportunities to build student confidence, whether that’s by climbing a tree or testing a new invasive insect trap. As a result of our approach, many students enter the Upper School with an understanding of their own interests and passions. They’re ready to grow the knowledge and skills they’ll need after graduation, as well as to embrace new, self-directed learning opportunities that allow them to address real-world questions, including some of the toughest we’re facing today.

To ensure that students are well prepared for what lies ahead, the Upper School offers a wide array of advanced courses that build knowledge as well as provide opportunities to practice skills. These include Advanced Placement classes and faculty-designed Advanced Topics courses, which deeply dive into their subjects and offer more opportunities for lab, hands-on, and project-based work.

I'm not sure many other high schools can or do offer the opportunity to do such in-depth research on a topic of your choice. These classes were incredibly fulfilling for me because they were more independent, and I could dictate what I wanted to research based on my own interests.—Sophie Baker, class of 2024

An increased focus on research-based courses, particularly over the last four years, is further setting apart Rowland Hall’s program. Classes including Research Science, unveiled in fall 2020, and authentic learning opportunities such as collaborating on peer-reviewed journal articles have helped prove that high school students can help find solutions to real-world problems and create impactful knowledge—a key focus of Rowland Hall’s strategic vision. To further this important work, the Upper School recently took steps to formalize and expand research classes. The result? A new class designation, Advanced Research (AR), which was applied to four areas of study—chemistry, biology, humanities, and debate—in its first year, 2023–2024.

“Advanced Research is a program across different disciplines that allows students with significant interest, and some advanced coursework already under their belts, to go deep in an area of study with the goal of a college-level, real-world application to their work,” explained Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson. To be designated AR, a class must allow students to develop original theses and/or conduct research under the guidance of an expert, offer some student choice in what is studied, and provide opportunities to present original work or compete for an external audience. And because AR classes are so advanced, they tend to be more intimate (even for a school with an already impressive nine-to-one faculty-to-student ratio), providing more opportunities for one-on-one mentoring and bonding with peers.

“I'm not sure many other high schools can or do offer the opportunity to do such in-depth research on a topic of your choice,” said senior Sophie Baker, who took AR Biology and AR Humanities this year. “These classes were incredibly fulfilling for me because they were more independent, and I could dictate what I wanted to research based on my own interests.”

Below, we provide a glimpse at each of the four AR classes offered in the program’s inaugural year. You can also check out each section individually: AR Chemistry, AR Biology, AR Humanities, and AR Debate.


AR Chemistry and the Promise of Algae

For most, the word algae calls to mind a carpet of green scum atop a body of water. But to this year’s AR Chemistry students, the word holds the promise of a more sustainable world.

“There are many unique ways algae can be used,” said science teacher Tascha Knowlton—from biofuel to biodegradable plastic to medicine. And because algae also captures large amounts of carbon, it’s becoming an important tool for a greener future.

Algae first captured upper schoolers’ attention last spring, when Tascha asked her students, including those enrolled in her upcoming AR Chemistry class, to research the organism for an end-of-term project. The students were so excited by what they found, they asked if they could make algae the focus of their AR Chemistry research. While Tascha had been planning to continue the graphite research started in Research Chemistry (the original name of AR Chemistry), she was happy to change course to follow the students’ interest.

And though there were several directions the students could take their research, the six seniors in this year’s class decided to focus on two: the use of algae as a wastewater treatment and as a substitute for limestone in cement, both of which contribute to a more sustainable world. As a wastewater treatment, algae provides a more effective alternative to the chemicals and bacteria that remove pollutants in water; the byproducts of this process can also be used to create bioproducts. In cement, the calcium carbonate byproduct of algae can take the place of limestone, which lessens the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during limestone mining.

Rowland Hall students learned about algae at Utah's Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.

Class member Quinn Orgain testing water at the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.


This fall, the students began diving into current research on these subjects, as well as writing their own proposals and abstracts and conducting lab work. One group studied the effect of two types of algae, chlorella and Scenedesmus, in wastewater, and the other focused on the use of Emiliania huxleyi, a special type of algae that produces a calcium carbonate shell, in biocement. They also spoke with experts, including Dr. Ronald Sims from Utah State University—who took them on a tour of the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, which recently piloted an algae wastewater cleaning program—and biocement specialists. These opportunities to immerse themselves in their chosen areas of research made a big impression on the young scientists.

These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values.—Gabriella Miranda, class of 2024

“These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values,” said Gabriella Miranda, a member of the wastewater group. “Truly, I think the AR program embodies academic freedom and gives students valuable insight.”

By the spring, the class was ready to take their work on the road. In early March, both groups competed at the University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair, where the wastewater team placed third in the Biology & Microbiology category and the biocement team placed second in the Chemistry & Biochemistry category. Later that month, they traveled to New Orleans for the American Chemical Society spring conference, where they confidently shared their work with attendees from around the world.

“Their posters and how they presented themselves was on par or better than any undergraduate posters, and there are hundreds,” said Tascha. And she wasn’t the only one impressed—many attendees shared their amazement that the Rowland Hall group was still in high school; one undergraduate even said he wished he’d had this type of experience before college. Tascha hoped moments like these provided the students with perspective about their experience, showed them their capabilities, and gave them the confidence they’ll need to hit the ground running as undergraduates. “They’ll be able to jump in and expand opportunities in college, versus having to get familiar with the work later,” said Tascha.

The experience may even inspire careers.

“Prior to taking AR Chemistry, I wasn’t particularly passionate about any given subject. With the pressure of college majors looming, I often dismissed the decision entirely,” said class member Halle Baughman. “Through this in-depth investigation, I was able to explore my passion for sustainability by integrating it with my interest in the sciences. I found a topic with the promise of success and my personal investment.” As a result, Halle changed her indicated major from undecided to sustainability and design.

“My project excited me in ways I couldn’t imagine,” said Halle. “The process was truly life-changing.”

Learn more about the AR Chemistry class’s time in New Orleans.


AR Biology Works to Better Understand and Find Treatments for Aggressive Cancer

To Upper School science teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida, providing students with research opportunities is a no-brainer.

“It’s important to invest in mentoring and guiding high schoolers,” she said. “This is how you’re going to build on the next generation of people who can impact big areas.”

With the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand student research opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

That’s why the former university research scientist and breast cancer researcher, who joined the faculty in 2021, has been on a constant lookout for ways to bring students into the process of research science. In addition to sharing her expertise in class, Dr. Rida has even welcomed students to the teams of researchers she collaborates with on peer-reviewed papers. (Two, now-alums Max Smart ’22 and Tianyi Su ’22, have already been published.) And with the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand these opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

And it all begins, she explained, by deciding what to study.

“Defining the scope of the work is itself a big step,” she said, and one she wanted the three seniors enrolled in her first AR Biology class to experience. Though Dr. Rida did provide some parameters (she encouraged students to choose a topic within her area of expertise, and one that can be done on campus—after all, the school has no biosafety clearance to work with cancer cells), she wanted students to have a say in what they studied. She also wanted them to get familiar with identifying research worth pursuing by learning what kind of questions to ask: What is already known about a topic? What are people not yet asking that is of value to the field? What are some of the gaps in our knowledge that we can help fill?

Armed with this guidance, the students kicked off the year by reading papers and brainstorming subjects that were both manageable and could make a contribution to the research field. By early November, they’d chosen their topic: to uncover more about why androgen receptor-low triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is so lethal. By understanding drivers of the disease, they hoped to help identify novel, actionable treatment targets, as this cancer currently has no approved targeted treatments and, as a result, poor outcomes, particularly in Black women.

“Black women are twice as likely as white women to get TNBC, and within this subgroup Black women are disproportionately afflicted with the androgen receptor-low form of TNBC,” said Dr. Rida. “Identification of potential treatment targets for androgen receptor-low TNBC could therefore help us ameliorate the stark racial disparities observed in breast cancer outcomes.”

To further keep research manageable, the students limited their scope to the centrosome biology that may play a role in this cancer subtype’s deadly impact. Centrosomes, miniscule structures in cells that organize the cell’s cytoskeleton, are critical for cell division; however, excessive centrosomes, which are commonly found in cancer cells (and at a higher level in tumors of Black women), are implicated in the aggressive clinical behavior of TNBC. That’s because cancer cells cluster their extra centrosomes during cell division via a process that increases genomic instability and clonal heterogeneity inside tumors, contributing to treatment resistance and disease progression. Although we have known for a few decades that, to survive, cancer cells must dial up their centrosome-clustering mechanisms as they generate extra centrosomes, exactly how this accompanying upregulation is achieved was undefined.

Rowland Hall students attend the 2024 meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.

The AR Biology students and Dr. Rida at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.


In pursuit of answers, the AR Biology students began analyzing publicly available gene expression data to identify the pathways that are in overdrive in androgen receptor-low TNBCs, while keeping their eyes peeled for crucial links that connect centrosome-amplification mechanisms to centrosome-clustering pathways. The students were fortunate to identify oncogenes (genes with the potential to cause a cell to become cancerous) that connect these two pathways, synchronously upregulating both drivers of aggressive disease, said Dr. Rida. This helped identify potential treatment targets for high-risk patients. And the students did all this alongside learning how to navigate databases and perform in silico analyses, wade through dense primary sources, create publication-quality figures, and collaborate with researchers outside Rowland Hall. It could be tough at times, but it was worth it.

We were working on something that actually had real-world value.—Sophie Baker, class of 2024

“We were working on something that actually had real-world value,” said senior Sophie Baker, as well as something that allowed the group to discover their own capabilities. “The most important thing that I learned about myself this year is that I can actually complete research of this scale,” Sophie continued. “It's impossible to know if you're capable of doing something until you try, so it was nice to be given the opportunity to try in a supportive environment.”

Best of all, the students’ potentially life-changing work didn’t stay in the classroom. In April, they traveled to San Diego to present their findings as a poster at the American Association of Cancer Research’s annual meeting. And later this spring, they were part of a group (including City of Hope researchers) that submitted a journal manuscript that’s currently in its first round of peer review. Dr. Rida said both opportunities have brought immense value to the students.

“It helps place work they did in the context of the real world issues—this actually can advance understanding of tumor biology, or guide clinicians or researchers,” she said. And on the flip side, she continued, these opportunities also show clinicians and higher education researchers the benefits of welcoming high school students to the table.

“We’re changing the culture,” said Dr. Rida.

Click the image below to view the poster presented by AR Biology students at the American Association of Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting.


AR Humanities Expands Opportunities for Student Voices

Rowland Hall students are known for their writing. Throughout their time at the school, there is an ongoing emphasis on developing strong writing skills, and faculty members provide expert guidance as students grasp the foundations of language and grammar, then begin to build on their skills, knowledge, and confidence. Year by year, the school graduates exceptional writers, many of whom share their voices, whether that’s through poetry, science, or newspaper op-eds.

With the introduction of AR Humanities, Upper School students can apply and build writing skills on a whole new level: through college-level humanities research.

“Even though I'm a ‘STEM student’ of sorts and really like robotics and whatnot, I was really interested in doing some sort of deep dive into writing and humanities-based research,” said Omar Alsolaiman, one of the six seniors enrolled in AR Humanities in fall 2023. “And I thought the idea of getting to a full paper by the end was super exciting.”

Omar is referring to the 15- to 20-page research paper that is the pinnacle of the AR Humanities experience. Written over the 17 weeks of the fall semester, each student’s paper is the culmination of their time tackling research like professional scholars: by choosing a focused project question, developing unique arguments, and examining primary and secondary sources.

This class is an opportunity for students to craft questions around something that’s meaningful and interesting to them ... and to ultimately make small but meaningful contributions to a larger body of knowledge about whatever topic they want to study.—Dr. Nate Kogan ’00, history teacher

“This class is an opportunity for students to craft questions around something that’s meaningful and interesting to them, and to work to pursue that in the way one would an undergraduate senior thesis,” said history teacher Dr. Nate Kogan ’00. “They’re more independently trying to emulate the methods and practices and scholarship they’ll be more fully immersed in when they go to college, and to ultimately make small but meaningful contributions to a larger body of knowledge about whatever topic they want to study.”

In addition to providing the students with his own support as a historian and academic, Nate uses Wendy Belcher's Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, a workbook for academic publishing, to guide them through the research process. “I try to give the class a well-scaffolded and accessible entry point to the type of work real scholars in the humanities use,” he said. “This book helps plan the course by setting up a practical and accessible framework of steps you have to go through, which can often be opaque and challenging for students.”

And whatever a student’s inquiry, said Nate, they pursue the same process, meaning that over the semester, each class member became familiar with how college-level research unfolds as they pursued individualized research topics:

  • how American media coverage of Haiti employed necropolitical narratives;
  • how the medieval kingdom of Al-Andalus fostered social cohesion amongst a multiethnic and religiously diverse community;
  • how neoliberal economic and regulatory policies toward pharmaceutical companies exacerbated in opioid crisis in Appalachia;
  • how neoliberal economic policies exacerbated the gender wage gap and intensified racially driven critiques of welfare policy;
  • how changing attitudes toward migrant players in the US men’s soccer program limited the competitiveness of the team at international competitions; and
  • how the community-based ideologies and practices of the original Black Panther Party evolved into a more exclusionary form with the New Black Panther Party in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I learned a lot about what college-level writing would be like, and I definitely learned a ton of great formal writing strategies while also researching something I'm really interested in that I hope to continue learning about,” said Omar, who worked on the Al-Andalus project and credits AR Humanities for building his ability to write efficiently and systematically—a skill he believes will be invaluable in college.

I learned a lot about what college-level writing would be like, and I definitely learned a ton of great formal writing strategies while also researching something I'm really interested in that I hope to continue learning about.—Omar Alsolaiman, class of 2024

And since this is an AR class, the experience also included the chance for the students to share their work. As the semester began to wind down, the group worked to condense their arguments into eight-minute presentations for a mini-conference, held at the Upper School in December. Not only was the conference a chance to share their research with more people, but it also improved their final papers.

“The goal of the presentation is to serve as a testing ground for the clarity of their written arguments: ‘Can I take this stuff I've been mulling over and writing about and communicate it clearly to other people?’” said Nate. “That process of distilling an argument and trying to articulate it in a more condensed format also helps with the final revision stage: ‘Which points landed? Where do I need to play up the evidence more clearly?’”

By the end of the semester, all six students had completed beautifully written research papers that reflected their diverse and wide-ranging interests. (Though it wasn’t required, one student submitted their paper to The Concord Review, a high school history scholarship journal, in addition to Nate.) When asked to reflect on the class experience, Omar said it was valuable in many ways, not least of which was its reminder of the importance of the humanities as well as the ability to write well—areas that can easily be forgotten in the noise of a technology-heavy world.

“This class definitely reminded me how important the humanities are to me, so in college I'm hoping to find some outlet or focus on the humanities, despite my overarching path in engineering and STEM,” he said. “It also recentered my strengths in writing as one of my most important skills for the future.”

Click the video below to listen to this year’s AR Humanities students share their research at their mini-conference.


AR Debate Soars in First International Debate Research Opportunity

Rowland Hall and debate go hand in hand. For nearly 40 years, the school has offered a top debate program—we’ve even been named a Debate School of Excellence by the National Speech and Debate Association, and our debate team has claimed the last four 3A speech and debate state championships (2021–2024).

Needless to say, a lot of exceptional debaters roam the Upper School halls, so when the division’s administrative team was identifying potential areas for AR classes, they knew that a high-level debate-based research class would appeal to and benefit the school’s most advanced debaters. And for debate coach Mike Shackelford, AR Debate offered an ideal space for debaters to not only work on ongoing prep for their Policy and Public Forum competition events, but to harness their knowledge and skills in a new way.

“Our kids are really good at research, and it was important to me to give them an opportunity to show off their research skills in a more traditional format,” he said.

And Mike knew just the right outlet: the International Public Policy Forum global essay contest, which he had heard about from some of his national colleagues. Jointly administered by the Brewer Foundation and New York University, this contest “gives high school students around the globe the opportunity to engage in written and oral debates on issues of public policy.”

To participate in the IPPF contest, teams of at least three students from the same school are invited to submit a qualifying essay of no more than 3,000 words on an annual topic (this year’s was “Resolved: Governments should provide a universal basic income”). Teams can either affirm or negate the topic in qualifying essays. From there, a panel of judges chooses the top 64 schools to advance to a single-elimination, written debate tournament—in other words, teams are invited to engage in a pen pal-style debate competition. During each round, a team receives a competitor school’s latest 3,000-word essay via email, then writes an 1,800-word rebuttal. Judges review both essays and choose the top response from each round. The contest ends with the final eight teams traveling to New York City in early May for IPPF Finals Weekend.

Even with steep odds, the Rowland Hall team stood out. They were selected to move on to the top 64—and called out for their exceptional work on their qualifying essay. "This is a fantastic paper, bordering on brilliant,” one judge wrote. “This paper reflects scholarship rivaling post-graduate work.”

In October, the eight AR Debate students (three seniors, three juniors, and two sophomores) began working on their qualifying round essay. To stand out, the Rowland Hall group decided to write their essay using a critical feminist analysis, affirming universal basic income as a way to reduce domestic violence, reverse the stigma of welfare, and promote a more just concept of work that’s valued in the United States.

"We took this approach because we thought other papers would be written from traditional economic topics, and we didn’t want to silence an important perspective,” said Mike.

The team hoped to qualify to the round of 64, but suspected competition would be stiff. Indeed, this year, 311 teams, representing schools in 26 countries, submitted qualifying essays to the IPPF. But even with these steep odds, the Rowland Hall team stood out. They were selected to move on to the top 64—and called out for their exceptional work on their qualifying essay.

"This is a fantastic paper, bordering on brilliant,” one judge wrote. “This paper reflects scholarship rivaling post-graduate work.”

Buoyed by this feedback, the group jumped into the competition, ultimately submitting and defending seven different essays to and against schools from Texas to Canada. With a trip to New York as their new focus, the AR Debate students remained nimble, switching sides in their essays as required and working closely to write their best responses.

Rowland Hall debaters qualified to the Sweet 16 of the International Public Policy Forum global essay contest.

This year's AR Debate class with their Sweet 16 IPPF Contest medals.


“It’s rare, at least in debate, to have that much of a collaborative research opportunity—to have one product with six cooks in the kitchen, writing, collaborating, and thinking,” said Mike of this new opportunity for debaters. “The competitive debate world is so insulated, so this experience was so valuable in translating the skills they’ve been building. They know intuitively they’re great researchers, but I don't think they ever had practice taking their debate cases and translating them into papers.”

The small nature of the AR Debate class created an environment that facilitated targeted, individual growth in addition to improvement as a team. This meant that each of us got more individual attention in terms of feedback and skill improvement than before.—Eli Hatton, class of 2025

Class members also felt the benefits of stretching their skills. “AR Debate has given us the opportunity to use our research and argumentative skills beyond Policy Debate competition. I am glad I took AR Debate mainly because of the dedicated time and space for focusing on improving debate skills, practicing debates, and building arguments and strategy,” said junior Eli Hatton, who plans to continue debating in college and appreciated how the research-based approach of the class challenged class members, helping them become stronger debaters.

“The small nature of the AR Debate class created an environment that facilitated targeted, individual growth in addition to improvement as a team. This meant that each of us got more individual attention in terms of feedback and skill improvement than before,” Eli continued. “I personally learned quite a lot about the areas where I needed to improve and became a much better debater as a result.”

And though the team didn’t make it to New York City (they were defeated in the Sweet 16 round, in a 2-1 decision, in early April), they are proud of what they accomplished and how far they went in their first IPPF contest. Returning debaters are even looking forward to next year’s competition.

“After the close loss, I was expecting students to be hesitant in making the same investment next year," said Mike. "Instead, they unanimously said it was a positive and fun experience and that they would want to do it again.”

Check out the AR Debate students’ work: view one of the team’s negative essays (submitted during the round of 32) and one of their affirmative essays (submitted during the round of 16).


Editor’s note: In addition to the classes covered in this article, Rowland Hall will expand AR offerings to include AR Computational and Mathematical Sciences in fall 2024. This class will provide a new opportunity for student-driven projects in computer science and math.

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