Junior Nate Leavy burns magnesium during a student-driven lab in the Advanced Topics in Applied Science class, which replaced AP Physics I this school year. (Photo by Miles Morrow)

Country Day acknowledged in top 2% for STEM nationally

On Nov. 8, Country Day ranked No. 680 out of the top 5,000 STEM high schools in the United States, according to Newsweek in a partnership with STEM.org

This puts SCDS in the top 2% of 37,000 high schools nationally, according to the school’s website. The only Sacramento-area high school ranked above Country Day is Mira Loma (No. 636). 

Recent STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) changes contributed to the recognition, according to head of school Lee Thomsen.

“Through our strategic plan, we set a vision to build a STEM program that would be the strongest in the area,” Thomsen said. “We’re trying to create an experience that’s more robust than something you could get elsewhere.” 

Director of technology Shelley Hinson said a strong STEM program attracts families to the school. 

“It’s an important thing to set us apart, especially in this area, where we have a lot of (tech) companies (like) Google, HP and Intel,” Hinson said. “A lot of the families have been pushing for more technology, and that’s why it’s in the strategic plan now.”

One of these changes is a computer science “pathway” being created throughout the three sections of the school, according to Thomsen. He said the first step in creating the pathway is improving the high school’s computer science program.

Hinson said the growing computer science course offerings since her arrival in 2018 have been beneficial. Along with AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A, there is a Robotics Club, Computer Club and Esports team. Hinson also created the SWAT (Students Who Assist Technology) team, a student-based technology help desk. 

An Advanced Topics in Computer Science class is also being added to the curriculum next year, following AP Computer Science A in the pathway.

“This is going to be more hands-on, project-based and a much higher level,” Hinson said. “We’re hopefully going to get them out in the (computer science) industry as part of this class, through either working or volunteering.”

Senior Anu Krishnan, who took AP Computer Science Principles and is currently taking AP Computer Science A, said the classes have exposed her to an unfamiliar field.

“I really had no background in (computer science), so it allowed me to try new things,” Krishnan said. “I’m learning something new every day, which you don’t get in all of your classes.” 

Hinson said the school’s female involvement in STEM also sets the program apart, attributing this phenomenon to the “open environment” Country Day offers.

“One of my AP classes is all female, which is kind of unheard of,” Hinson said. “(At other schools), I’ve seen girls be hesitant or afraid to get into programming. There’s a stigma that robotics and programming are guy things. But here, maybe because of a smaller student body, the girls have no problem stepping up. They don’t feel intimidated.” 

Krishnan, a member of Hinson’s all-female period, said her gender hasn’t presented a barrier in any STEM class.

“I’ve never been exposed to an environment where I’d be intimidated by taking a STEM class,” Krishnan said. 

Now that the high school program is largely in place, Hinson said the school is shifting its focus toward middle school computer science. 

In sixth grade, a Digital Citizenship class has been added during advisory, according to Hinson. Thomsen and computer science teacher Fred Jaravata teach students about cyber security and proper online technique.

“We were falling short on how we were teaching kids to use their technology (properly),” Hinson said.

Additionally, the school created a middle school computer lab this year for technology-based electives, including Game Design, Advanced Game Design, Makerspace and Robotics. It will also benefit lower schoolers, according to Hinson.

“We’d also like to offer a programming class to middle school students who really like computer science,” Hinson said.

The school has also increased ASE (after-school enrichment) programs to four days of technology, robotics, game design and coding for the lower and middle schools, Hinson said.

According to Hinson, lower school improvements are the last step. Starting in 2020, Hinson said Jaravata will teach technology to third, fourth and fifth graders once a week. 

She said the hope is to expand this program to all lower school classes.

“But that takes a lot more bodies, and we just don’t have the staff to do that at the moment,” Hinson said. 

The school plans to hire a new computer science teacher who could have more involvement with the middle and lower schools, according to Thomsen. That hopefully will be possible due to resources provided by the increasing school enrollment, he added.

Not all STEM changes are focused on computer science, according to Thomsen. The addition of high school science teacher Kellie Whited and sixth grade science teacher Kelly Bornmann as specialists in the lower school has also added to the school’s STEM field, Thomsen said. 

Whited, the high school science department chair, said she began the program when she saw how difficult running science activities was for her children’s lower school teachers.

“The teachers were so passionate about science, but science labs are expensive and take time to prepare,” Whited said. 

Whited said that when she began volunteering to run labs for many classes, Thomsen decided to make it an official part of her job and add Bornmann to the program. Bornmann handles pre-K through first grade, according to Whited, who works with second through fourth grade.

Whited said the program promotes science to young children in a critical period of learning.

“My goal is to open their eyes to science (so they can) see it as something fun and interesting, (rather than) scary,” Whited said.

Whited added that the program has allowed dissection labs to begin in third grade. The class starts with demonstrations of sheeps’ digestive system and bat dissections, then students dissect cow eyeballs.

“We’ve added this skill that you normally wouldn’t see until seventh or eighth grade,” Whited said. “And (students) feel so accomplished.”

The lower school science program is not the only one being improved, according to Whited. She said the high school’s growing laboratory research internship program in association with California State University, Sacramento also adds to the school’s STEM opportunities.

Whited said she and Sac State physiology professor Robin Altman, a former interim biology and chemistry teacher at Country Day, started the program to “open students’ eyes” to career options in science. 

The program began unintentionally, said Whited, when Sahej Claire, ’18, wanted research experience and agreed to work with Altman. 

“It was so beneficial for both Sahej and Altman that we expanded,” Whited said. “This last summer, we had eight students in four labs and research facilities. We have students doing microsurgery on leech ganglion, growing brain astrocytes and learning how to maintain a cell culture.” 

The mentoring program sets Country Day apart, according to Whited, and has provided “amazing” opportunities to students, who have even been listed as co-authors on research papers. 

It also sets students apart to colleges, Whited said. However, she said the biggest benefit is the hands-on experience.

“We made sure they were put in labs where they would be doing complicated techniques,” Whited said. 

She said it also gives students an appreciation for research and hopes for it to become part of the future model for accelerated students in biology.

Junior Athena Lin volunteered this summer under professor Michael Wright, studying how different neuron cells react to levels of electricity in leeches. She plans to work with him again next summer.

“It’s made me more interested in research,” Lin said. “My professor (was) like a mentor. He gave me tips for colleges.” 

Whited said other sections of the high school science program are also growing, such as chemistry teacher Victoria Conner’s Advanced Topics in Applied Science class, which was added this year to fill an engineering hole in the curriculum. 

Conner said the class involves more engineering and problem solving than AP Physics I, which it replaced.

“We do a lot of student-led inquiry activities,” Conner said. “I give them a direction to go in, but they have to figure out how to get there.”

Another benefit of Country Day’s science courses, according to Conner, is the small class sizes.

“We can do more labs because we have more materials at our disposal,” Conner said. “(Teachers) can be more directly involved with what students are doing.”

Krishnan said small science classes allow one-on-one help from teachers.

“If I don’t understand something in computer science,” Krishnan said, “(Hinson) will take the time to explain it to me or show me another way to do it that I’ll better understand.” 

Math teacher Chris Millsback said the largest benefit to the school’s math program is its course offerings, which include both standard and either AP or honors courses for all math classes. AP  Microeconomics also is offered, which Millsback said was a practical choice for an addition. 

“We do a lot with modeling and study real-world applications throughout our math curriculum,” Millsback said. “AP Microeconomics adds to that.” 

Krishnan said that, although microeconomics is a valuable class, it isn’t a math substitute for students who finish all other math classes early. 

Krishnan added that fewer class offerings is a negative aspect of STEM at a small school. Classes such as AP Psychology and AP Statistics, according to Krishnan, would add to the department. 

The school is trying to cover more STEM topics, particularly focused on climate change, according to Whited.

Conner agreed that it would benefit the program.

“We can definitely expand on the variety of classes we teach, such as an earth science or environmental science class, which we really don’t have in the high school level,” Conner said. 

—By Anna Frankel

Originally published in the Dec. 17 edition of the Octagon.