The learning issue: Get smart!

Photo: Jackson Smith Photo: Jackson Smith

“Humanity does things that have never been done before just by sitting around and thinking about it.” That’s educator Matt Shields on the lesson he tries to teach students in Charlottesville High School’s BACON (Best All-around Club of Nerds). The group meets weekly to imagine and create—they program virtual robots and build physical machines. They explore, they experiment. It’s just one of a handful of science-related extracurriculars offered in the district’s high schools, each designed to give students a hands-on experience they might not otherwise have in standard classes alone.

Every January, any eighth-grader registered at an area middle school can apply to enroll in these extracurricular programs and the opportunities they afford are numerous, from internships with physical therapists to investigations of spy movie technology. In this issue, we’re taking a look at these and other programs and what they offer—both in and out of the classroom.

By Samantha Baars, Erika Howsare, Laura Ingles and Lisa Martin

With programs for girls in kindergarten through 12th grade, Tech Girls is smashing stereotypes. Photo: Kim Wilkens
With programs for girls in kindergarten through 12th grade, Tech Girls is smashing stereotypes. Photo: Kim Wilkens

Digital daughters

Tech-Girls aims to bridge the computer science gender gap

Kim Wilkens was always good at math. As a young student at Texas Lutheran University in the mid-1980s, she planned to pursue a degree and a career in a math-related field, but the perfect storm of an intro to computer science class and a sexist comment from one of her math professors led her to the world of technology. After switching majors, she’s spent her three-decade-long career teaching computer science and advocating for girls to find their place in the male-dominated world of technology. Even as a teacher at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, she wants to do more—which is precisely why she founded Tech-Girls.

“I wanted to try to do something on the grassroots level,” Wilkens says. “The overall goal is to get girls comfortable and confident not only using but creating technology.”

Girls in particular tend to lose interest in technology by the time they reach middle school, Wilkens says. According to a 2015 report by the gender equality nonprofit American Association of University Women, only 26 percent of computing jobs in the U.S. in 2013 were held by women—down from 35 percent in 1990.

“A lot of that has to do with stereotypes, and feeling that being involved in computer science or technology is not for them but for a nerd,” Wilkens says. “What we try to do is connect the girls with others, connect them with mentors, give them people to look up to, things like that, so they can see there are others like themselves.”

Tech-Girls offers programming for girls as young as kindergartners all the way through 12th grade. For elementary students, Girls’ Geek Day events provide hands-on learning in schools, where each participant can choose three of 10 activities available. Last year more than 425 girls participated in the seven events around Charlottesville and Albemarle County—in 2015, about 250 girls attended. And now that the event has been around for a couple years, Wilkens says girls who are currently in middle school are coming back as volunteers to lead activities and be role models for the younger girls. Middle school girls also have the opportunity to collaborate with UVA’s service organization, Girls Excited About Math and Science, for after-school programming, and Wilkens says she wants to beef up the programming for that age group.

The five-day Bio-Med Tech-Girls program gives high schoolers the opportunity to meet with students and faculty from the UVA Department of Biomedical Engineering. The program includes behind-the-scenes lab tours, guest speakers, a design challenge and a pitch presentation to the community, and participants get to see things like a 3-D bio-printer up close. Last year 13 students from eight different high schools attended, and the program has grown from three days to five.

Wilkens wants girls to know that technology and computer science is about more than just coding. Wearable technology like LED lights and accelerometers sewn into clothing, light-up stuffed animals and game controllers made out of fabric are just a handful of the projects that her students have worked on.

“Getting the girls in the door is the hardest thing,” Wilkens says. “Once they can get past those stereotypical barriers and they see what a wide variety of things they can do with technology, then we have their interest.” LI

Photo: Amy Jackson
Photo: Amy Jackson

Like minded

MESA students thrive on friendly competition

A number that especially interests Tony Wayne, director of the Math, Engineering and Science Academy (MESA) at Albemarle High School, is one-third. That’s the percentage of students in the program who plan to pursue something other than engineering after high school—English, biology, math, philosophy. Why enroll in MESA, then? “They tell me it’s the best part of their day,” says Wayne with a smile. “They enjoy the classes, the speakers, their groups, the problems. Most of all they like having a cohort.”

Nora Dale, a MESA junior, agrees. “I really like the opportunity to work with people whose interests are similar to my own, as well as the interactive projects. Right now we’re working on a forensics unit, and my group is investigating whether spy movie technology is plausible.”

Now in its eighth year, MESA was the first specialized academy launched for county residents and currently hosts 262 students. Admission to the academy is competitive—this year there were 165 applicants for 72 freshman spots. Most of those admitted were straight-A students, many already taking geometry in eighth grade, but Wayne says the faculty particularly looks for evidence of drive. “We want students who can find an answer independently, then bring it back to the group and work collaboratively,” he says.

That “collaborative independence” leads to learning from, and relying on, each other. The students love in-class competitions where teams brainstorm solutions to complex problems, but they all root for success. “Everyone is so supportive, cheering each other on,” says Wayne. “If your idea doesn’t work, the whole class goes, ‘Awww!’”

Fun and games aside, the pace is brisk. To be ready to tackle calculus-based engineering problems by their junior year, students take Algebra II, trigonometry and math analysis compressed into two classes, and physics, earth science and chemistry within two courses of science. Beyond being “good at” these subjects, MESA kids revel in them.

Upperclassmen follow a college-level engineering curriculum, which focuses heavily on application: Find a problem and solve it. Senior Doug Kulow says the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. “I’m looking forward to the senior project, when we get to choose something that interests us and manifest it in the real world.” The projects are diverse, from computer applications to machines with moving parts, often employing one of the seven 3D printers on site to create physical reality from pure imagination.

No matter what the future brings, Kulow says the experience has been amazing. “I learned a lot of skills that will help me with the rest of my life outside of engineering.” LM

The recently built ESA building includes a tech-integrated classroom. Photo: Ansel Olson
The recently built ESA building includes a tech-integrated classroom. Photo: Ansel Olson

A study in green

ESA students not afraid to get their hands dirty

The Environmental Studies Academy (ESA) building at Western Albemarle High School houses a 1,200-square-foot greenhouse, and there’s always something growing. Even in winter, there are trays of seedlings for spring crops, a sprawling tomato plant set in a bed of gravel and supported by hydroponics and dozens of herbs in pots. A tech-integrated classroom plus additional lab space make the building a perfect gathering place for the growing ranks of the academy, now at 105 students in its third year of operation and expected to top 150 next year when the program is full.

Junior Ty Huneycutt, who joined the program at its inception, is interested in environmental law and values having a background in the sciences. “It’s just nice to be informed,” he says, “and to know what the environmentally friendly decisions are. We’ve had a lot of great extracurricular trips, too, like [working with fourth-graders at] Naturally Nelson and helping out at the International Rescue Committee gardens. It’s amazing how science can help with connecting to the community.”

Director Adam Mulcahy says the emphasis is on environmental “studies,” not just science. This means offering innovative courses such as a first-year geography class that blends both human and physical geography topics.

“We want kids to learn how the environment shapes the people, and how people have historically shaped their environment,” he explains. Students take as many as eight different science classes including ecology, horticulture, geology and two specially developed environmental biology and chemistry classes. Next year a new environmental art elective will use biological structures as the medium for artistic expression, another step toward integrating arts and humanities into the program.

Mulcahy marvels at the generous community support. When a local landowner offered to donate a starter bee hive and training from a professional beekeeper, the academy was abuzz with ideas. “We can grow a pollinator meadow to support it, and we’d weigh how much honey is being produced by mass,” he says. “We’d have a camera inside so students could monitor activity, and maybe put it online for other schools to see. It’s all part of getting kids exposure to stuff outside the standard curriculum.”

Junior James Keese chose ESA because he’s interested in both the effects of humans on the world’s climate and the diversity of ecosystems. He likes the hands-on, interactive projects and his interests have expanded with each class. After high school, he says, “I may study marine biology, or possibly astronomy. I’m still exploring.” And for that, Keese is in just the right place. LM

Photo: Jackson Smith
Photo: Jackson Smith

Bring it, BACON

CHS’ nerd club brings power to the people

A techno Michael Jackson remix pours out of the speakers in the Charlottesville High School Sigma Lab as students involved in the Best All-around Club Of Nerds gather for their weekly meeting.

Between 80 and 100 students of all grade levels team up every Thursday after school to imagine and invent under the direction of engineering teacher and head honcho Matt Shields.

“We really do let the kids run the show,” Shields says about the student-centered organization that attracts kids of all backgrounds to participate in about a dozen different programs. Three of the post popular are the Zero Robotics, First Tech Challenge and Science Olympiad teams.

Year after year, the Zero Robotics team—which competes in international coding matches that involve programming virtual robots to do a series of tasks more efficiently than their opponents—fights its way to the finals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where team members remotely watch their code run on the International Space Station. And yes, you read that correctly.

The First Tech Challenge is similar, except the competition consists of running the students’ invented code on physical robots. And the Science Olympiad team members compete in a series of STEM-based events, Olympics-style, against kids from other schools across the nation. These could range from anything between engineering events, where competitors have to build something, or strictly knowledge-based events, where a quiz could be administered.

“Baked into the DNA of BACON is just this weird confidence. They know just enough that they can do just about anything,” Shields says, adding that his goal is to send a message to students that says, “Humanity does things that have never been done before just by sitting around and thinking about it.”

Megan Bird, a senior and co-president of the club, is on the Science Olympiad team, which has actually hosted its competition at CHS for the past few years. So here, while students are competitors, they’re also in charge of running the show. But she says that’s part of the fun for herself and her peers who are passionate about their extracurricular activity.

“We do things that they don’t always touch on in school,” she adds. “I find that in BACON, people are really exciting about what they’re doing.” SB

The new addition to Charlottesville Catholic School provides a learning facility for STREAM students. Photo: Stephen Barling
The new addition to Charlottesville Catholic School provides a learning facility for STREAM students. Photo: Stephen Barling


Charlottesville Catholic School expands the possibilities

Time was, when students at Charlottesville Catholic School wanted to do a science experiment, they’d have to contend with the elements.

“Students would be heating minerals over an open flame,” recalls Principal Michael Riley. “They’d use a Petri dish with an alcohol flame. They’d be doing it outside”—because there wasn’t a properly ventilated spot indoors—“and the slightest breeze would blow it out.”

With the winds of education shifting toward what Riley calls “inquiry-based, hands-on learning,” CCS wanted to equip students to excel in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects, and it was clear that the school needed a dedicated facility to do so. Safety was a priority when the school began working on a STEM addition with Train Architects, the firm that has designed each phase of the school since it was founded in the late ’90s.

As planning progressed, STEM turned to STEAM (A is for arts) and then to STREAM, as the new facility would also support R for religion. How? By keeping students’ presentations and performances out of the school chapel. “We weren’t having a sacred space in our chapel,” says Riley. With the addition featuring a dedicated public-speaking room on its lower level, the chapel could be used for religious activities only.

Essentially a long bar extending at a right angle from the rear of the existing school—which serves 330 students in grades kindergarten through eight—the addition sits on a slope that necessitated two stories. The upper floor contains two STEM classrooms connected by a central core, housing much-needed storage space and a fume hood for ventilation.

The classrooms, meanwhile, are modeled on typical high school chemistry classrooms, divided into lecture and experiment areas. Kids can listen to their teachers explain a concept, then move over to small-group workstations to look through a microscope and see science for themselves.

Architect Kirk Train says his firm’s aesthetic task was to make the addition conversant with, but clearly differentiated from, the older portions of the school. “Kids will understand that this is special, this is different,” says Train.

Subtle cues signal a shift when students pass into the STREAM wing. The window pattern gradually “breaks down,” Train says, as one moves further into the addition, as does the pattern of brick and concrete block on the addition’s exterior. “We kept a simple vocabulary and rhythm,” says Train.

The floor, too, changes from linoleum to concrete, an economical and green option.

Two new stairwells ease student traffic to and from the lower-floor lunchroom, and their railings are crayon-red to signal a place of movement. Warm brown walls and cherry ceiling panels delineate the “lobby” within the addition, where an elevator, stairwell and hallways come together.

The new performance space—located next door to a sound-dampened music classroom—features a low stage under a sloped ceiling, a clear sign to students that when they’re standing there, it’s time to speak up, something that might have been counterintuitive in the chapel. “If they have a part that’s loud or funny,” says Train, “they can do it and not feel restrained.” EH

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