Compassionate, curious, subject matter experts. Teachers are often described this way. Educators in the year 2020 can also be described as adaptable, flexible, creative and determined. Most parents who spent time at home with their children during the spring’s quarantine would agree that teaching can be difficult. This year, more than ever, teachers are being challenged to engage students in creative and appropriate ways. They are rising to the challenge and finding ways to do just that through collaboration and innovative thinking.
How do you teach science six feet apart?
Middle School science teacher Stacy Hill loves teaching science, especially the hands-on experiences that her sixth graders enjoy, such as archaeological digs or constructing model buildings to withstand earthquakes. To make science come to life this school year, Hill teamed up with Roman history expert Steve Latuso and tapped into technology to create a lesson on volcanoes that wowed students.
Sixth graders are naturally intrigued by volcanoes. These disasters seem far away and more exciting than the summer hurricanes that are common closer to home. Students were eager to learn about the causes of volcanoes, the types that exist and the impact that volcanoes have on the planet. They were also excited to learn about historically significant eruptions such as that of Mount Vesuvius which buried Pompeii in 25 meters of ash in 79 A.D. To build upon student enthusiasm, Hill collaborated with Latuso who previously taught Middle School Latin in addition to his role in the Episcopal IT department. While Hill discussed the ash and its impacts, Latuso focused on the details of daily life in ancient Rome. “The kids felt like they had a guest speaker,” says Hill. “He’s an expert in something I’m not.” The collaboration provided the students the best of both worlds as they learned science and history in the same class period.
Would you stay or would you go?
To create a complementary hands-on experience, Hill and Latuso turned to technology. Using Google Earth, the duo took students on a tour of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. Discussions quickly turned to the realities of living near an active volcano and whether the students would stay or go in the event of an eruption. For the lesson, students had to stay and devise a way to reduce the impact. In years past, constructing a volcano and an eruption reduction system would have been done in groups using modeling clay and props. In 2020, students brought their ideas to life using Minecraft: Education Edition. This tech twist was a hit. “I’m blown away,” says Hill. “I was completely amazed at the level of engagement.” Hill says students assisted each other and imagined the impacts to homes, people and even pets near their virtual volcanoes. Students who may not otherwise speak up in class had the opportunity to share their building talents with classmates, providing them a meaningful opportunity to shine. “It’s meeting them where they are,” says Hill. “It puts the engagement at another level.”
Latuso used Minecraft: Education Edition in a similar way last school year when he challenged Middle School Latin students to construct a Roman bath using the virtual blocks. “Student engagement was off the charts,” he says. He was pleased to see a similar reaction this year. “It’s not surprising, but it is inspiring,” he says. “It’s an inclusive way where everybody could experience it. Students worked individually and collaboratively simultaneously. I think it’s cool that we are a school that can do this.”
There is more excitement in store for students. Before the Christmas holiday, the volcano enthusiasts will participate in an archaeological project in the QUEST Center in Foster Hall. Center Coordinator Dr. Elizabeth Lewis teamed up with Hill to organize an exciting experience that is sure to send students home with visions of the ancient past dancing in their heads.
Episcopal sixth graders blasted into summer with a year-end project that was out of this world. Students studied the phases and surface characteristics of the moon. After learning more about our cosmic neighbor, they then learned what it takes to get there.
Science teacher Stacy Hill tapped into the latest technology to bring the Apollo missions to the students’ own living rooms. “Students used the Smithsonian Moonshot app to collect information about missions and to view the Saturn V in Augmented Reality,” says Hill. “They also used Augmented Reality to try to land a Lunar Lander on the moon to help them understand the need for the various parts of the lander.” Hill says students used items available right at home to build their creations. The resulting builds were an exciting addition to Distance Learning.
Episcopal Middle School students are not strangers to exciting, hands-on science experiences. Check out previous blog posts highlighting the engaging lessons provided by Middle School faculty. To learn more about the Episcopal Middle School experience, visit the division’s webpage here.
Here is a look at Lower School fun in the great outdoors. Happy spring break!
Good Luck in PreK-4
PreK-4 students tried their luck at finding four leaf clovers in the garden. Others made a wish on a dandelion.
It's a Zoo Out There!
Kindergarten students and their families enjoyed a beautiful spring day at the Baton Rouge Zoo.
First graders took a nature walk to nearby Forest Park. The young explorers identified animals that live in the park and wrote down their observations upon their return to school.
The Cycle Begins Again
Third graders teamed up with Upper School environmental science students to plant cypress seeds for the LSU Coastal Roots project. Next school year, the budding trees will be taken to a wetland area for planting.
The program description on LSU’s website reads, “Wanted: GIRLS who are problem solvers, explorers and hidden gem seekers.” Episcopal Lower School students Lila Awad, Lilianna Latour and Julia Whitney answered the call. The trio recently spent a day at the LSU Museum of Natural Science with girls from across the area and some of LSU’s leading women scientists. From the smiles on their faces as they discuss the experience, it is apparent that the day made an impression on these future scientists.
The two fourth graders and one fifth grader love science. In fact, they are already hoping to have successful science careers of their own. Lila dreams of being a science teacher, Lilianna plans to be a neurologist and Julia wants to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. After spending a day among female mathematicians, zoologists and biochemists, the girls are inspired to make their dreams come true. “I got to see how women scientists make a difference,” says Lilianna. She says it was a great opportunity because it made participants see how important science is to exploring the world.
In the meantime, the students simply had fun with science during this special day. Lila reported that her favorite part of the visit was seeing the “biggest frog.” Talk of the giant amphibian sparked a conversation among the students about the organs and skeleton of the frog. The students’ eyes and faces light up as they talk about touching the taxidermy sloth and river otter. In addition to the animals, there was also the rocket launch. This was Lilianna’s favorite part of the day, especially when her rocket traveled 35 ½ feet.
The students unanimously report that they would participate in the museum day again if given the chance. The 32 museum day participants were chosen based on an essay application in which they had to write about the question they would like to answer as a scientist or mathematician. Julia hopes everyone will apply next application period. All three agree that writing an essay was certainly worth having the experience.
The science teachers also hope that more students will be inspired to apply next year. “This is a great opportunity for girls to get hands-on science experience outside of the classroom,” says fourth grade teacher Ros Won. “In our fourth grade classes we explore topics such as electricity and landforms, but when students can participate in science programs off-campus, they can see how the things we learn at Episcopal can be applied in the real world.”
Fifth grade teacher Nicole Engstrom sees experiences like this as an extension of the classroom. “One of our roles as teachers is to give space and encourage our students to take risks, explore, reflect and find their passion(s),” she says. “The best way to do that is by exposing our students to as many opportunities as possible without limits- breaking stereotypes. It's our job to empower all students to find what best fits them.”
Both teachers appreciate the resources available through LSU and the opportunities the university offers to a range of students. They are also looking forward to using the new QUEST Center next year to offer hands-on experiences for students right here on Episcopal’s campus.
Whether it is a day at the museum or an in-depth project-based learning experience, Episcopal students are exploring their world in preparation for their futures. Students are encouraged to think beyond the ordinary and strive for their goals whatever they may be. Their futures certainly are bright!
Was there a moment or experience that inspired your current career choice? Share your story below in the comments section.
On a gray January day, brightly colored flags cheerily blow in the wind near the Bonnet Carrè Spillway. These markers are soon replaced with 250 persimmon trees planted by Episcopal Lower and Upper School students. Considering that the planting takes place near the spillway and off the beaten path, the environment is bustling. Overhead, airplanes deliver travelers to and from New Orleans. On the highway, truckers blow their horns and wave to the young planters. Rusty, with the Army Corps of Engineers, points out a bald eagle perched on a powerline. Despite the winter cold, the sights and sounds of life are all around. The enthusiasm of the Episcopal students, who are all bundled up in hats and boots, only adds to the occasion.
Before planting begins, Dr. Pam Blanchard with the LSU Coastal Roots program offers instructions. She shows students how to efficiently plant each tree by doing the “dibble wiggle.” The wiggle involves firmly placing the dibble in the ground and shifting it back and forth to create a hole. Once the trees are placed inside, the dibble is used again to fill the hole and a ribbon is tied to the tree as a marker. The dibble wiggle generates lively discussion among the students as they demonstrate the move. It’s not long before the trees are all planted, and the students are ready for more.
Every winter, Episcopal students participate in this planting field trip as part of the school’s partnership with the Coastal Roots program. This week, AP Environmental Science students were joined by fifth graders who were excited to be involved. Both groups have been studying ecosystems, biomes and the importance of wetlands. The students were divided into groups, with the older students guiding the younger students through the planting process. The Upper School students were remarkable in their interactions with the fifth graders. In return for their patience and expertise, they were rewarded with the admiration of their younger counterparts.
According to the Coastal Roots website, the program encourages students “to learn about and become environmental stewards of their natural resources by establishing native plant nurseries at their schools.” These trees are then planted in a coastal habitat restoration project. Fifty schools from across the state participate in the program. Dr. Pam says over the past 20 years, approximately 175,000 trees have been planted by 25,000 students. LSU provides partner schools with the seeds and even the soil to begin the growing process. In a few weeks, the AP students will start the cycle again when they work with third graders to sow the next crop of trees to be planted in 2021.
The army corps’ Rusty says the project is especially meaningful because years from now as students travel through the area, they will remember that they contributed and helped restore the wetlands. The program makes them an active participant in coastal restoration. In an interesting note, he says the trees are planted near the spillway to absorb the tremendous amount of fertilizer that travels downstream. The goal is to reduce the amount of fertilizer that reaches Lake Pontchartrain and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
After the planting is complete and the little trees are ready to become a part of their new environment, students take a break. Even with all of the new sights and sounds, many of them report that their favorite part of the experience was getting to work with students from the other division. The Upper School students shared stories of working with the younger students and the younger students simply thought their group leader was the best. The project certainly had an academic component, but it also highlighted the benefit of a school that serves students of all ages. Students learn from each other and mentor each other in a way that makes a lasting impression.
The Coastal Roots experience is a way for students to leave a lasting, positive impression on their environment. Long after they graduate, the trees planted this week will serve as a reminder of their shared day in the wetlands.
When Newsweek released its list of the Top 500 STEM High Schools in America last week, one school in the Baton Rouge region was in the top 500 – Episcopal School of Baton Rouge. The school was ranked the number one STEM high school in Baton Rouge. Episcopal also ranks seventh in the state of Louisiana and 448th nationally.
Many people know Episcopal for its rigorous academic offerings, its abundant arts programs, the opportunities provided to compete as part of a sports team or the range of character development and service learning activities. Now the school has earned national recognition for its science, technology, engineering and math offerings. For Episcopal Dean of Academics Dr. Sara Fenske, earning a spot in the top 500 is a testament to the school’s whole child philosophy of education.
STEM Starts Early
Dr. Fenske says Episcopal’s STEM efforts begin well before students enter Upper School. “Our Lower and Middle School efforts feed into what happens in Upper School,” she says. She points to successful programs such as Girls Who Code, Fab Shop and Maker Space. Even the littlest Knights have the opportunity for STEM learning as they work with technology such as Bee Bots, Bloxels and Root robots. “These programs help to make STEM more accessible to students,” says Dr. Fenske. She says the Lower and Middle School offerings make STEM learning fun and attract more students to the field. Hopefully, such experiences will inspire students to continue pursuing their interest in STEM throughout their educational journey.
Personalized Learning Encourages Exploration
Dr. Fenske says Episcopal’s personalized approach to learning also creates a STEM-friendly learning environment. “Students who are ready can accelerate in math and science in Middle School to ensure that they are challenged appropriately,” she says. At the same time, other students who are not yet ready to accelerate in Middle School have a range of challenging courses from which to choose. This allows all students the opportunity to explore a variety of STEM topics and see success in those courses. They then have opportunities to take college-level courses such as AP Calculus BC, AP Physics, AP Environmental Science, and AP Computer Science, as well as a selection of post-AP courses.
There is a balance to providing a variety of courses which appeal to a broad audience of students. When you get this balance right, students are able to excel in numerous areas because of the encouragement and support they receive. This explains why at Episcopal a student can perform with the Upper School select choir, be a member of the swim team and take advanced math and science courses all in the same school year.
ESTAAR and More
“Any mention of Episcopal and STEM must include a mention of the ESTAAR program,” says Dr. Fenske. “We are placing high school students into university labs to do independent research. It doesn’t get more authentically STEM than that.” ESTAAR or Episcopal Students Take Action in Advanced Research began during the 2012/2013 school year. Interested students are partnered with a university professor and have the opportunity for hands-on lab work. Dr. Fenske says ESTAAR students are not necessarily the “math and science” type. They are students who self-select the course because of a love of STEM. In addition to ESTAAR, Episcopal also offers students extracurricular STEM opportunities such as Mu Alpha Theta in Upper School and Math Counts in Middle School. (Last weekend, the Middle School team took third place in the high school tournament! Read more from James Moroney here.) Both competitive math programs attract a range of students from cheerleaders and soloists to athletes and actors. The Episcopal Fab Shop also provides hands-on STEM learning experiences which appeal to a range of students.
Episcopal continues to find ways to support STEM learning. In 2018, school leaders celebrated the opening of the 27,000 square foot Academic Commons, a building that now serves as the hub for Upper School math and science. Work is now underway on the 14,700 square foot Quest Center which will serve as a center for experiential-based learning and exploration for Lower and Middle School students.
The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows nearly 8.6 million STEM jobs, with computer occupations accounting for nearly 45 percent. According to Newsweek, “The STEM skills that only specialists have today will be expected of virtually everyone in the American workforce tomorrow.” It’s good to know that Episcopal is on the forefront of preparing tomorrow’s leaders for these fields of the future, while at the same time providing an array of creative, athletic and spiritual opportunities.
To read more about Episcopal STEM opportunities, click on the links below.
Not Just for Engineers: Four Real World Skills Coding Cultivates
From Bots to Binary Messages: A Look at Computer Science at Episcopal
Budding Scientists: Science Education in Early Childhood
Raising Tomorrow’s Critical Thinkers Today
Why Can’t We Just Send Them Water? Science Lesson Elicits Thoughtful Response
In a corner classroom of the Academic Commons, students are learning lessons taken straight from the headlines. Recently, a group of juniors and seniors analyzed fabric fibers found at a makeshift crime scene to determine who committed the crime. Students entered a hall roped off by crime scene tape and collected fibers from within a “chalk” outline. They were then tasked with looking at the fibers with a dissecting microscope or a digital camera to identify the type of fiber present. Prior to studying fibers, students spent several class periods learning the details of fingerprinting. They used inks and brushes that you might expect to find in a crime lab. There were balloons taped up in the lab areas with dusty print marks appearing faintly on them. Both lessons were engaging and hands-on.
This is Upper School Forensic Science
In speaking with Upper School science department chair Sarah Pulliam, it’s easy to feel her enthusiasm for the class. “Episcopal is a school that is open to letting people teach their expertise and provide students with a variety of exciting learning opportunities,” she says. Forensic science is back by popular demand this year because students expressed interest in additional science electives. Pulliam says with many students using eighth grade physical science for Upper School credit, a large number of students are not required to take additional science courses once they reach their senior year. This opens up the possibility for students to take science courses simply because they are curious. With popular television shows depicting forensic science, Pulliam says this new course definitely has a “cool factor” and attracted more students than expected to enroll.
Pen and Paper Provide Insights into Personality
“Look at how you cross your t’s and dot your i’s,” said Pulliam in a recent class discussion. Students were learning the intricacies of handwriting analysis and how handwriting can be used in a criminal case. Pulliam showed students a news story regarding the ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case. The students’ interest was sparked with one student even asking if the class could solve the case. After a discussion on what to look for when analyzing writing, students practiced analyzing their own handwriting as well as their classmates’ handwriting. To add excitement to the exercise, Pulliam had one student write a fake ransom note in which he tried to mask his writing traits. Students later had to try and guess who wrote it.
Senior Alexander Harlan says he enrolled in the course because criminal justice has always been a field of interest for him and he hopes the course will shed light on whether it’s an appropriate career choice. Already, he says he’s learned a lot. “There’s a lot more to investigating than I knew of,” he says.
Over the course of the semester, students will put their investigation skills to the test. They will study decomposition, bullet signatures, blood splatter and DNA analysis. The group will also take a trip to the state police crime lab where they will have the opportunity to see the science in action. For students who are particularly passionate about the field or who need additional science credits, the spring semester should prove to be equally as engaging. Beginning next semester, Upper School teacher Jennifer Purnell will teach a biotechnology course. With an increased interest among students in this topic, it should be a popular second act to forensics.
One of the strengths of the Episcopal experience is the opportunity for students to experience personalized learning. Students learn at their own pace and based on their own interests, while parents remain confident in the academic rigor of the course content. Teachers enjoy the opportunity to provide engaging lessons based on student feedback and requests. Forensic science in Upper School provides more evidence of what makes the Episcopal experience so special.
ESTAAR (Episcopal Students Take Action in Advanced Research) is a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) independent research program geared toward a select group of students with the drive to perform high-level research in a STEM field. In addition to required coursework, students in this two year program develop their own research projects under the mentorship of professors at local research institutes (for more information, see this previous blog about ESTAAR).
Three seniors successfully completed this rigorous program this year, earning each of them a Distinction award (see this previous blog to learn more about the Episcopal Distinctions program). In addition to the awards given, Episcopal would like to recognize their work and dedication, as well as their supervising professors, who supported these students in their scientific journey:
Seven new ESTAAR students have been accepted into the program for the 2019-2020 school year. We would like to thank Dr. Diaz, Dr. McPeak, and Dr. Pojman, along with all the other research professors who have participated and are participating in the ESTAAR program.
*“LSU AgCenter Gets $1M for Research on Wetlands Roseau Cane.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 10 Mar. 2019, www.apnews.com/1396d1021e3d4e2ba4d0e647bd2773a2.
Dr. Sara Fenske
Dr. Sara Fenske pursued a career in education because of her love of science and desire to share that passion with others. Knowing the impact a great education can have, Sara chose to focus on teaching and curriculum design, with a focus on continuous improvement. Dr. Fenske joined Episcopal as a member of the science faculty and the Academic Programs Special Projects Manager. In 2018 she transitioned into the role of Dean of Academics. In this new position, Dr. Fenske works collaboratively with the Head of School, division heads, department chairs and faculty members to ensure Episcopal’s continued strong and relevant academic performance. Prior to joining Episcopal, she was the Science Department Chair and taught at Linden Hall in Pennsylvania. She has a Bachelor of Science in cell and molecular biology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a PhD in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Why is the sky blue? What makes the wind blow? Where does the rain come from? Any parent of young children is familiar with the daily onslaught of “the 5 W’s.” Researchers, led by child psychologist Dr. Sam Wass, surveyed 1,500 parents and concluded that children ask an average of 73 questions each day – almost four questions every waking hour. The analysis also revealed children’s inquisitive nature peaks at the age of four years old for both boys and girls.
Additional studies show that most children have formed an opinion (either positive or negative) about science by the time they reach the age of seven. Early childhood educators have a tremendous impact and influence on a child’s potential to seek out a career in science or engineering later in life. It is imperative for teachers to harness children’s innate sense of curiosity in their early years of formal education in order to foster a lifelong love of science.
Starting in their first years at Episcopal, students are provided rich and meaningful opportunities that encourage discovery through play to manipulate, explore, make predictions, ask questions, and use creativity to solve simple problems. Recently, the PreK-4 class was tasked with finding the best material to protect Humpty Dumpty when he fell off the wall. Classes joined forces to make predictions about how various materials would stand up in a fall, ranging from cotton to bubble wrap. Students then tested their hypotheses with an egg drop experiment. The children recorded their responses and shared the results with their families in their Seesaw journal.
Each year, students build on prior knowledge to expand their learning. Our youngest PreK-3 Knights explored their five senses by cooking a Thanksgiving feast. Over in Frazer Hall, PreK-4 investigated the sense of sight by mixing colors and exploring prisms and rainbows to learn about colors and light. Across the hall in Kindergarten, classes spent several weeks learning about each of the five senses. They did a taste test with Chef Pat, smelled various spices and studied the inner workings of the ear, bringing in guest experts to talk about sound and how our ears interpret vibrations.
Coding provides another avenue for Episcopal’s young learners to train their brains for the future. In the early childhood program, students begin to use Beebot and Ozobot. The children program simple commands to navigate the robot to its desired location. This year Beebot has navigated neighborhoods during PreK’s study of communities and helped Kindergarten learn about the number line in math. Ozobot “delivered” Christmas presents to different friends as the children programmed his path.
In addition to these formal science experiences, students are also given ample free time to explore and process what they have learned. Whether it is sticking their hands into a slimy pumpkin at Halloween, balancing blocks to build a tall tower through trial and error, observing their shadows on a sunny day, or discovering a butterfly chrysalis in the garden, these organic and natural experiences provide the foundation for children to become critical thinkers and problem solvers.
With the appropriate guidance, this natural curiosity and need to make sense of the world lay the groundwork for the skills that students will need to succeed throughout their years at Episcopal and beyond. With careers in Science and Technology continually on the rise, our youngest learners are gaining the competence, readiness, and confidence to be the future scientists and computer programmers of the world.
Julie Mendes, a 2001 graduate of Episcopal, returned to teach Pre-K4 at her alma mater in 2012. She received both her undergraduate degree and MEd in elementary education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. After teaching second grade in a Dual Language program in Texas public schools for three years, Julie moved abroad to teach first grade at a bilingual school in Gracias, Lempira Honduras. Julie enjoys teaching alongside some of her former teachers and seeing what life is like on the other side of the desk.
43 – Number of full bins of recyclable materials collected
2,000 – Number of gallons in 43 bins
4 – Number of weeks in which the recycling push was underway
9 – Number of Episcopal seniors in Emily Beckwith’s Environmental Science class volunteering to lead recycling efforts
1 – Teacher who challenged her students to establish a recycling program in Upper School
Students in Emily Beckwith’s Environmental Science class are doing their part for the environment. While classroom lessons focus on the importance of a healthy ecosystem, outside of the classroom students are taking action to protect those systems. Nine students from the class volunteered to create recycling bins for every classroom in the Academic Commons and Perkins Hall. While the students were initially focusing on these two buildings with one weekly pick up, the project quickly expanded.
Recently, the students organized a four-week, campus-wide recycling effort as part of the City-Parish Department of Environmental Services school recycling challenge. Students collected recyclable materials from every building and every department on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. In just those short four weeks, the Episcopal community collected 43 bins or 2,000 gallons of recyclable materials.
“My whole goal in environmental science is to get them thinking about the world outside and their footprint. For example, is their footprint large and can they shrink it?” says Beckwith. After only one semester, the project has gained traction with more and more items placed in the bins each week. For Episcopal senior Lauren Reed the recycling experience has made a lasting impression.
Reed, a self-professed animal lover, says the importance of the project truly hit home when Mrs. Beckwith had the class watch a documentary on water and the bottling process. “I realized the bottles impact wildlife and oceans,” says Reed. Before volunteering for the recycling project, Reed says she had a basic awareness of the recycling process, but the entire experience has helped her understand why recycling is important. Now she hopes the project inspires her classmates to do their part as well.
Beckwith hopes the recycling efforts will continue to grow throughout the year. She says the project is a great opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience with a classroom topic. As an added bonus, the student organizers are earning community service hours for their participation.
Protecting the environment and caring for the natural world are common themes in an Episcopal education. Students learn about everything from water conservation to landforms and erosion. The school’s new Quest for Peace Program highlights the importance of the environment in relation to human existence on planet earth. The new recycling effort is a meaningful way for students to have a positive impact on the topics they study in class.