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Bucking Trends, Rowland Hall Girls are at the Forefront of STEM
Posted 04/28/2016 03:56PM

Rowland Hall junior Cindy Shen is a cellist and fencer, and enjoys drawing for fun. She's polite and gritty, and speaks quickly and confidently about topics that interest her.

One of those topics is coding. Cindy taught herself HTML and CSS in eighth grade, and since then has created and sold Tumblr themes for a profit.

Cindy is just one member of a sizeable group of Rowland Hall young women currently excelling in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Notable recent accomplishments include the following:

  • In February, the National Coalition of Women in Technology (NCWIT) named Cindy, senior Sophia Nielsen, and junior Marguerite Tate Northern Utah Affiliate winners for Aspirations in Computing awards, "designed to increase women's meaningful participation in computing careers." Senior May Shaaban won runner-up.
  • As sophomores, Sophia and now-senior Rachel Nelson founded Rowland Hall's Science Olympiad Team. Not long after the NCWIT awards this year, the team—eight students, all girls—competed in regionals, placed among the top 25 teams, and qualified to the state tournament. At the state competition in late April, the team—this time with a few young men in the mix—had a strong showing, placing fifth in three Olympiad categories and sixth in another.
  • Cindy and junior Alicia Lu, along with 15 middle schoolers, spearheaded a project that in late April won first place in the Shane McConkey EcoChallenge. The victory comes with $6,000 to be used for environmental projects at Rowland Hall. The group collected over 1,000 gallons of dry non-recyclables to make eco-bricks for a bench around a tree on campus. Cindy and Alicia will use their STEAM (STEM plus art, specifically creative design) skills to finish the project.

Cindy's mom is an engineer, so coding wasn't a foreign concept to her. But she initially preferred English and didn't have an inherent love for STEM subjects—"If anything, I wanted to deter from it," she said. For Cindy, who has been at Rowland Hall since ninth grade, it took a good teacher in middle school to spark her interest in math. "I hated math forever and then I think in seventh grade, I was like, 'Oh, actually, maybe I like this,'" Cindy said.

Women make up 26% of the STEM workforce. That percentage is on an upward trend, except in computing, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. A slideshow further explains that "the STEM problem is in computer science": 67% of all new jobs are in computing, but only 8% of STEM graduates are in computer science. Women are veering away from computing as employers are clamoring for computer scientists.

Nuanced Teaching and Collaborative Learning

Goal 2 of Rowland Hall's five-year Strategic Plan is to "provide the Intermountain West's most outstanding math and science program." While striving to accomplish this, Rowland Hall has an opportunity—and is on the right track—to reverse the trend of the underrepresentation of women and students of color, according to Ben Smith, who graduated from Rowland Hall in 1989 and returned here to teach in 2001. The school has recently increased participation in seventh- and eighth-grade robotics, computer science (CS), and Make Club, where Cindy and Marguerite are co-presidents.

"In two years, we have gone from virtually male-dominated classes to a much more representative comparison," said Mr. Smith, who currently teaches CS and environmental science.

Rowland Hall offers a sixth-grade grade CS Foundations course taught by Allison Spehar. That course is also taught in gender-separated classes—"an opportunity for girls at an early age to explore computer science in an environment free of stereotypes," Mr. Smith said.

"We also have a culture that celebrates academic achievement, and being a 'nerd' is 'cool.'"

Like Cindy, Sophia has a family STEM connection: she initially became interested in CS when her older sister, Caroline Nielsen '12, took a CS class. Sophia became hooked and talked to her teachers, such as Mr. Smith, who helped her find ways to further her CS education.

Sophia likes CS because it gives her the opportunity to solve problems in multiple ways. She plans to attend Harvey Mudd College or the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering for a bachelor's in CS with a minor or a double-major in psychology.

Senior Anna Shott is one of Mr. Smith's recent CS recruits. She's in his Advanced Topics CS class, along with Sophia. Anna plans to take a gap year to work and travel, then attend the University of Southern California (USC) in 2017. There, she plans to pursue a math or CS major. If she picks math, she'll at least pursue a CS minor.

"Computer programming is really interesting, how it translates into so many different aspects of our world right now," Anna said. "It's kind of at the forefront of science and math."

Like Cindy and Sophia, Anna enjoys the problem-solving aspects of CS, and has a family member—her older brother Blake Shott '13—who helped to inspire her by telling her how much he enjoyed his CS classes at USC.

Anna has also enjoyed the style of STEM teaching at Rowland Hall. She said the school has done "everything" for her interest in STEM.

"I essentially learned all I know here," Anna said, crediting her past teachers Bill Tatomer, Missy Tschabrun, and Brian Birchler for their effective teaching styles.

CS, she added, is "all about working with other people to solve problems," for instance, to "figure out how your app is or isn't working."

"Collaborative fields are more stereotypically in the arts, and I think it's really interesting how Rowland Hall incorporates them into the maths," Anna said. "I really enjoy it."

Based on Mr. Smith's experience, there is a difference in teaching STEM subjects to girls. "Girls tend to want to develop ideas, create, and learn based on a desire to solve problems in our world, to make the world a better place," he said.

He's also worked hard to make his own classroom into a welcoming, gender-neutral space. "I have art magazines, plants, and a collaborative atmosphere where problems are solved with peers," Mr. Smith said.

Cultivating the Best STEM Program

Mr. Smith has a few ideas about how Rowland Hall can attain the best STEM program in the region. He wants to see a CS course required for all high school students; more and further developed field science opportunities; and a reframing of science education to encourage use of the scientific method rather than rote memorization. He wants more opportunities for collaboration and project-based, hands-on learning in science, engineering, Make Club, and CS. "I think we have a duty to teach kids to use their intellect to solve problems in groups," he said. "I also think this will attract more female students."

Mr. Smith also wants more female scientists, doctors, coders, and other STEAM professionals to speak, visit, mentor, and engage in discussions about teaching STEAM. "Our girls need mentors to show them that indeed they can be successful, make a difference and compete at the highest levels in all STEAM fields," Mr. Smith said.

Anna thinks that sort of effort would be "awesome," and adds that peer leadership could be equally, if not more, valuable: "If you can get a really passionate female student who loves the topic and kind of recruits other kids into the program, I think that'd be really beneficial."

On Tuesday, May 17, Rowland Hall will present a screening of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap followed by a panel discussion in the Larimer Center. The documentary "exposes the dearth of American female and minority software engineers and explores the reasons for this gender gap."

Mr. Smith said he's excited for the screening. "It is a powerful message and one that I hope will continue to push the conversation forward and encourage other teachers, parents, and students to make changes to give opportunities for more girls to believe they to could be successful."

Over the past four years, Rowland Hall has been examining and refining the ways we teach science, largely in service of the Strategic Plan's second goal: provide the Intermountain West's most outstanding math and science program. While division-specific and developmentally appropriate, these curricular changes all have one thing in common: students are spending more time in class—and hopefully outside class too—engaging in the behaviors of science.
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