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.
There was shaking and tilting in Ms. Stacy Hill’s science class. After learning about earthquakes, students tested their ability to construct a building sturdy enough to withstand the elements. Using tape, craft sticks, paper and cardboard, students had to erect a structure 30 cm tall with three floors of 10 cm each. The students were actually quite successful in their designs with some of them withstanding a 36 or even 42 degree tilt before falling.
“Can we try again just for fun?” Even after the students performed the initial tilt table and shake tests, they were inspired to continue making revisions. Students said they enjoyed the experience because of the opportunity to create their own design. What a great example of how learning is fun at Episcopal!
“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” —John James Audubon
Every April we pause to reflect upon our environment as part of the annual Earth Day commemoration. There are Earth Day celebrations and renewed efforts to recycle, reuse and restore in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. Here at Episcopal there are daily opportunities for students to learn more about the environment and their role in protecting our natural resources.
“Students love learning about the earth and how they can take care of it,” says fifth grade science teacher Eric DiMari. DiMari’s students recently embarked on a lesson on biomes that will require them to research and eventually educate fellow classmates on the biome of their choice. Earlier this year, DiMari’s students also studied Louisiana’s wetlands, the causes of wetland destruction and potential ways to save them.
In addition, third graders recently participated in a Mini Ecosystem Fair as part of their study of the Louisiana ecosystem. Experts from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Coastal Conservation Authority and LSU, along with Episcopal alumnus Rory McCracken '17 and Instigator Betsy Minton shared their environmental knowledge. The guest speakers brought soil and fur samples, fishing rods, photos and even live crawfish to provide students the opportunity to personally interact with nature.
“Why can’t we just send them water?” asked a sixth grade science student after learning about the water crisis in South Sudan.
Sixth graders are also learning about planet earth. Students in Stacy Hill’s science class recently completed an extensive study of earth’s most precious natural resource – water. Students learned about everything from condensation to conservation. They even had an opportunity to make their own water filters out of everyday objects. Hill says the lesson created an awareness among the students about the importance of access to clean water and a desire to help those who do not have that access.
“The coastal roots program is a great way to educate students of all ages regarding their own personal role in regards to the environment.” Betsy Minton, Instigator.
Each year, students in Lower and Upper School participate in the coastal roots program. Third graders plant the seeds of bald cypress and tupelo trees in cells on Episcopal’s campus. The seeds are then monitored and cared for by the Upper School environmental science students as they sprout and grow into seedlings. Once the seedlings are mature enough, students plant them in the Bonnet Carre Spillway to replenish vegetation in the region. This year was the first time the Lower School students had the opportunity to join their Upper School counterparts on the planting field trip. The fifth graders were excited to participate, and many even remembered planting the seeds as a third grader.
Why is it important for students to learn about their environment?
“The future generations are the future caretakers of the earth. The more educated they are about the planet, the more effective they will be,” answered DiMari.
Hill and Minton agree.
“Educating young people about the earth and environment gives students the opportunity to apply content knowledge to the world around them. It shows them how their class is relevant to the real world and hopefully guides them towards being environmentally aware citizens,” said Hill.
“Our Louisiana ecosystem is so fragile that it’s up to their generation to fix it. Hopefully learning more about the environment early on will inspire them to create innovations for change later on,” says Minton.
True to the Episcopal mission, the diocese has launched a Stewardship of Creation effort. Bishop Thompson has formed an environmental commission in an effort to bring awareness of the increasing challenges facing our natural environment and therefore the people of Southeast Louisiana. In a letter to the community, Joey Clavijo, Chair for The Bishop’s Environmental Commission, says the commission will lead discussions to draw upon individual gifts to bring about concrete actions to restore and sustain the environment. The group is asking members of the Episcopal community who are interested in participating to complete a survey expressing their interest. Click here to access the survey.
Every year, Earth Day is observed on April 22nd. At Episcopal, students are learning about their environment each day of the school year. We hope such focus and care inspires the next generation to preserve God’s creation.
Want to get more involved? Check out these helpful resources:
Calculate your household water usage - https://www.watercalculator.org/
The Red Stick Green Guide - https://www.brla.gov/DocumentCenter/View/2561
Baton Rouge Recycling Center - https://www.brla.gov/890/Recycling-Office
2018 Mayor’s Earth Day Challenge - https://www.brla.gov/1537/7590/Mayors-Water-Challenge
Teaching students to love and understand the natural world around them is an important part of becoming a global citizen. Having an appreciation of nature helps students gain empathy. They learn that the world is not their's for the taking but a precious gift that must be cared for and protected. In third grade our students spend several weeks every year learning about the diverse ecosystems that make up Louisiana’s environment, from the coastal plains in the north all the way down to the Mississippi river delta. They not only learn about the plants and animals but the importance of weather, climate, soil, and water and how each one affects all of the different ecosystems. They develop a deeper understanding of how every aspect of the environment is interrelated and that a change in just one part can impact the entire system.
We wove the theme of conservation throughout the entire unit. Students learned about fire suppression, invasive species, deforestation, pollution, and endangered species. It is easier to think about conserving places you have seen in person. Many of our students have experiences with forests and swamps but few of them have been to a marsh or fished in the gulf. We know that in- person experiences and hands-on learning "stick" the best. Since we couldn't bring the kids to the shore, we brought the shore to the kids. I set up an in house field trip by bringing a variety of guest experts to Episcopal to give the kids a taste of the gulf coast. With help from an Episcopal family and LSU I was able to set up six stations for them to visit and explore.
Finally Dr. Chris Greene shared some live crawfish with the students from the LSU Aquaculture Research Station. Students got to hold crawfish, find out about how they are adapted to live in the water and mud, and identify males and females by the size and shape of their swimmerets.
The event was a huge success thanks to our community partners' enthusiastic participation. The students learned so much and were extremely disappointed when the event was over. If you have a career or passion that you would love to share with our students please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @betsy_minton on Twitter.
Elizabeth "Betsy" Minton is the Science, Math and Creativity Instigator at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge. She enriches instruction by generating interdisciplinary curriculum, spearheading hands-on, project-based learning and supporting faculty in the application of STEM education standards. In addition, she coaches the middle school robotics team and facilitates the middle school MakerSpace. She has over a decade of elementary classroom experience in general and special education with graduate coursework in literacy, special education, and technology integration. She holds a Bachelor of Science from Bates College and was a 2002 Teach for America Corps Member.