Bring in the World: STEM at St. Andrew's
Bring in the World: STEM at St. Andrew's
Liz Torrey

Earlier this summer, we sat down with six members of the Class of 2017 to discuss their experiences in science, math, and computer science classes during their four years at St. Andrew's.

Before you came to St. Andrew's, were you engaged in your science or math classes? Would you say you identified as a "science/math person", whatever that means?

Kathryn Paton '17: I didn't. I still don't particularly think of myself as a science and math student. But I do love doing science and math here. I never really felt engaged in a science or math class before St. Andrew's. Those classes focused on memorization, they were really repetitive and slowly paced, and there weren't opportunities for people who were getting material quickly to do more with it.

Hannah Beams '17: Before I came here I was sort of neutral about math and science. I knew that I could do them, and they made sense, but it was nothing I really found inspiring. I don't know what it was over the past four years, but since freshman year, being around here with teachers like [biology and chemistry teacher] Dr. O'Connor—the conversations that I've had with her—I could see myself going into medical research. At the moment, I'm planning on majoring in biochemistry in college.

Tiger Luo '17: I like math and science in general, but it's not specifically math or science that I'm interested in—it's the style of thinking, which is what we call problem solving here at St. Andrew's. Problem solving can be found in any type of subject—math, computer science, physics, even a history research paper is a problem-solving process. I love problem solving—I like the experience of facing challenges, thinking through them and finding a solution. Usually you have to have some creative inspiration to solve some of the really hard problems. I find that really rewarding, and math is just a way for me to do that. The thing St. Andrew's has helped me with a lot are my communication skills. I'm from China, I'm a math and science student, and my English presentation skills were not the top. But at St. Andrew's, because all the classes feature discussion, I had to talk a lot. So last summer I was teaching at a computer science camp and I found the communication and discussion skills I had learned at St. Andrew's were really helpful for me when I had to explain all the concepts to the students. I really think communication skills are essential for moderns scientists.

Let's talk about that—about St. Andrew's problem-solving focus in its science and math courses. Did you find that you responded well to that way of learning?

Hannah: In our freshman year, we were all placed into these problem-solving math places where instead of having a textbook, we were given a packet of problems. The problems weren't like "solve this equation"—they're worded in a way that relates to the real world and you can see how you might use it practically, beyond St. Andrew's, in your everyday life. It was challenging because we weren't give theorems or equations to use; we had to solve them ourselves. So we were pretty much teaching ourselves and getting a better understanding by just working through it with frustration and white boards to get the answers.

Harrison Foley '17: For those first three weeks, it was kind of rough. But once I warmed up to it, I really liked it. It took me three weeks to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, if that makes sense.

John Paris '17: It's challenging while you're doing it. But because of that approach—where you're learning everything by yourself or collaboratively, but either way it's not being spoon-fed to you—it kind of gives you a confidence in math that you can take with you anywhere. I know that when I go to a math competition or take standardized test that maybe I haven't prepared enough for, I feel very comfortable—far more comfortable than I should, because I know that I can figure this out on the spot. I'm not just reciting formulas. I didn't memorize everything. No matter what they throw at me—I mean, I may not be able to figure it out, but the chances are that I'm going to be able to think creatively and figure something out to get the answer.

Harrison: A lot of IPSGA, for me, wasn't even math. You had to figure out how to set up the problem. Alex the Geologist is a classic one—it shows up in every packet. That problem is all about optimizing how quickly Alex can get from point to another give circumstances about restricted speed in certain areas. The real struggle with that problem, for me at least, was how to set it up, how to express it on the whiteboard. That is more than just math. That's kind of "life-thinking."

John: The algebra of the Alex the Geologist problem is easy. Anyone could have done it. But knowing how to set it up is really the hard part.

Hannah: It really prepared you well for future math classes, obviously, but also higher science classes, and in some way, it all translates to everything you're doing with English and history and languages. Just having that ability to think in a creative way, outside the box, if you're stumped.

John: You really need to have that kind of interdisciplinary approach to math and science because—when [author and tech policy expert] Alec Ross was here in January, he talked about how the world isn't going to be fixed by people doing really technical things. It's going to be people with technical skills but also humanities-based ideas. You can learn any technical skill through an EdEx course or any online educational system. The real value of an in-person education, St. Andrew's education, is the way that you learn, and the interdisciplinary aspects of that.

Isabelle Tuveson '17: My little brother is a freshman, and he's kind of going through the same thing. He finds all the math classes really challenging. But the teachers and their willingness to reply to your questions and help you with any of the problems, and how they encourage you to ask questions in class, definitely helps a lot.

How would you say your teachers have impacted your science and math scholarship?

Hannah: I think the most rewarding part of these classes is having the teacher be so engaged and passionate about the subjects and what they're teaching us and what we're doing with experiments. [Chemistry teacher] Mr. Kemer, for example—he's always so excited, in the most goofy and wholehearted way. He's buzzing around the classroom and he's saying he spent 30 hours in the lab over the weekend doing something just so that we could have an experiment for class that day that may or may not work. He's putting so much time into it just so that we can have a good class and a good learning environment.

Tiger: St. Andrew's is a really supportive place. I have really appreciated all of my science teachers—especially Mr. Hammond. He's not my advisor, but he treats me like I am his advisee. I had him for AS [Advanced Study] Physics and ATT [Advanced Topics Tutorial] Physics.

John: The teachers are so great because they all could be doing something phenomenal outside of teaching if they wanted to. They're all so accomplished outside the classroom. They haven't just read our physics textbook and know how to preach it to us. They know much more than that and can really foster discussion. If you get them talking about something, they can just go and it'll be the most interesting conversation you've had in your life.

Isabelle: Dr. O'Connor is my AS Bio teacher, and she was an opthamologist. She's so unbelievably talented and intelligent. She can understand and talk about any subject in biology. Learning from her about a subject that she's really passionate about, and that she went to school for, and that she has been working on her whole life, has been just so fascinating. Instead of reading stuff out of the textbook, Dr. O'Connor is talking about different medical fields, and bringing in case studies, and even pointing out different aspects of the real world that you wouldn't really think about too much in terms of their association with biology. I feel like the teachers do a really great job at integrating situations from the outside world into our classes. They make class not just learning all this stuff from the textbook—we figure out how to use what we're learning in the real world.

Kathryn: They're so knowledgeable in their fields beyond teaching, but they're also really committed to teaching us the material. For me, in AS Physics, one of the most empowering experiences I had this year was the extent to which Mr. Burk really cared about my progress as a student. He's so open and communicative that I felt like I could have really honest conversations with him, and work productively and efficiently to improve myself as a student, because of his willingness to engage in such a deep way.

If you had to pick one science or math class or experience—a lesson or lab or even something as small as a particular problem in a packet—that stands out to you as revelatory or memorable or just really enjoyable, what would it be?

Tiger: I think the Multivariable Calculus class I took sophomore year with Dr. Johnson is one of the most impressive classes that I've ever taken. He's just such a cool teacher. It's not very common for a math class to be based on discussion, but Dr. Johnson succeeded in doing that. He would just present us with some materials, and usually he wouldn't directly teach us what to do. Instead, he kind of let us lead the discussion, and we'd see if we could arrive at some conclusions. I totally enjoyed that experience.

John: I would say Econ with Mr. Finch would be my favorite. We'll get into these conversations as a class about things like healthcare, or the Great Recession, or consumer theories, and he brings very rational examples and approaches that just make sense, and make you question the assumptions and decisions you've made. Now, there will be instances where, not as a math student but as a consumer, I'll ask myself, "Why did I buy that?" You can use these economic models to see why you bought something, or why you didn't buy something, or why you did and you shouldn't have

Kathryn: Mr. Finch is such a dynamic teacher. He brings really fun, unparalleled energy to the class that I think is really invigorating and inspiring. I love the way we have these discussions in relation to our work with an MIT EdEx course, in relation to watching a documentary about the Great Recession, in relation to Economist articles and Planet Money podcasts. He brings in a lot of different media and technologies to really help us get a sense of economics outside of the classroom. That's been really rewarding for me.

Harrison: If I had to point to a specific great moment, it would also be in Mr. Finch's Econ class, when we talked about diminishing marginal utility. He brought in a bunch of Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts, and had us eat one and then rate it out of 50. Without telling us what was going on, he had just keep eating and rating, eating and rating. My marginal utility started at 50, then went to 49, then 37, and then I just started making up declining numbers because I didn't want to get too full. That's because if you have too much of something, its utility to you is going to decline, and I thought that was a really cool way of showing that. We used that to discuss how you can conduct experiments that measure how people value their time in dollars, and how we subconsciously make decisions out of that valuation.

Hannah: I'd say AS Physics with Mr. Hammond. For me, that's been one of the most challenging classes because physics isn't something that comes naturally to me—unlike chemistry, which for me does make more sense. I'm not sure why that it is, but I really struggled in the beginning of the year. Mr. Hammond and I had a lot of long email chains where we tried to figure out the gaps in my thinking and why it wasn't making sense. We were working on coding and models, and it started to come together for me. Physics turned out to be this thing that I could discover more and more about just by engaging myself with the class and Mr. Hammond and the textbook and everything that we were doing.

Kathryn: I loved the coding and the computational modeling too—we did a lot of that with Mr. Burk in AS Physics. That was just a really fun and challenging class for me. I loved the collaborative problem solving and the interdisciplinary aspects of it.

If you had to change one thing about your math or science experience at St. Andrew's, what would it be?

Harrison: I mean, we've definitely talked about the fact that our Physics class this year was in an English classroom. I wish that we had gotten into the lab more. But there's isn't enough space in Amos Hall.

John: Well, with AS Physics, you don't really need to be in the lab as much because it's all theoretical and equations-based.

Harrison: That's true. In sophomore year Physics, you'd be in the lab very often doing different things.

John: It was funny, though, because in AS Physics, we were looking at climate change—

Kathryn: We were looking at the physics of climate change, and specifically global warming and radiation and how that works.

John: —but then we looked at the energy-efficiency of the building where our classroom was. We were in Amos Hall and we were examining the doors, the windows, the energy flow in and out of the windows. This was in the winter. And we discovered that all the little leaks and stuff throughout the whole building add up to having an entire wall open. Air was just streaming in and out. It's really cold in there in winter.

Isabelle: Half the building is cold and half the building is really hot. The chemistry room is so cold but the math classrooms are so hot.

Hannah: I feel like St. Andrew's could have more of a gender balance in math and science. You see Dr. O'Connor and [math teacher] Mrs. Lazar and [math teacher] Ms. Heath, but being able to picture yourself a scientist, as a mathematician, is sometimes hard if you don't see people of your own gender or your own ethnicity in your future field. Isabelle and Kathryn and I want to see ourselves [teaching] the science courses, the math courses. I don't think anyone's promoting a gender bias here at St. Andrew's. But we did a class on gender in physics, and what we saw is that if you're an assistant professor or a full professor or even just doing research with a PhD, the number of women in those positions decreases pretty dramatically once you leave the high school [teaching] level. I guess it's just sort of accepted within the sciences that women aren't always full present.

Kathryn: I was walking out AS Physics class earlier this year and some girls from sophomore Physics were coming in, and one of them asked me, "Wait, are you in AS Physics?" And I said, "Yeah." And they said, "Oh, that's really hard." Now, it's a challenging courses, but with the really great support systems and mentorship, it's something that's really manageable. But it was obvious that this girl and her friend saw it as something that was intimidating or something that couldn't be approached. That's not the way I grew up looking at math and science, but it was how a lot of my female friends around me viewed math and science.

Isabelle: In AS Chemistry, there are only three girls in the class.

Harrison: Yeah, there's five people in our Computer Science class and Kathryn's the only girl.

Tell me more about St. Andrew's computer science classes—have many of you taken them?

Harrison: I loved Computer Science 3. We worked with Javascript and Unity, and that was a good way to practice problem solving skills in computer science while having some fun. Our final project was to make a computer game on our own.

John: I took one computer science class, and I spent a lot of time in the MakerSpace. I basically blocked out every Thursday afternoon this year as my MakerSpace time. It allowed me to be pretty creative—I designed whatever I wanted, like golf tees, or this funny car. For the problems I've looked at in engineering, the solutions aren't highly technical. A lot of times they're creative or entrepreneurial. The MakerSpace kind of fosters that sort of spirit because it's just a place with tools that allows you to just build.

Tiger: I took Computer Science 2 and Computer Science 3. Those classes were pretty different than what I've done [in computer science] on my own. On my own, I worked on algorithms, which are pretty mathematical and based on problem-solving, whereas the computer science classes here are more about designing projects. That's a really different part of the field, and I'm glad the School provides this kind of class, because it's something I can now continue to learn on my own. In Computer Science 2, we did this really cool project with the dance program, where we coded a background for the dancers to perform with. They used it Arts Weekend my sophomore year. Another thing St. Andrew's has helped me with are my communication skills. I'm from China, I'm a math and science student, and my English presentation skills were not the top.

Do you guys plan to pursue science or math fields in college, or in your careers?

Isabelle: When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I don't know if that's exactly where I want to go now, but I definitely see myself pursuing biology, chemistry, or environmental science in college.

Kathryn: I'm really excited about being able to interdisciplinary work in college, especially in the social sciences. I think it'd be really cool to do, for example, neuroscience with psychology, or computer science and biology. I've become more interested in the intersection between the hard sciences and the humanities... I have difficulty picking subjects I love.

Harrison: I've thought, since the fourth grade, that I wanted to be an engineer. I was introduced to basic electrical engineering when I was in middle school, and I started computer programming here. A lot of colleges have departments shared between electrical and computer engineering, but right now I think I want to try my hand at majoring in computer engineering.

John: I was pretty dead set, as a kid, on aeronautical engineering. I just really wanted to fly. It was ultra-specific and maybe a little unrealistic in terms of what I was thinking I could accomplish—it was all flying cars and Star Wars. But I'm still into that. My senior tutorial with Mr. Finch is called "Industries of the Future," and I'm focusing on train and air travel in the future. I'm researching maglev trains, hyperloop, ground transport, and smart subways. So I think that's what I want to do when I'm older—either mechanical or aeronautical engineering, something along that route.

Tiger: I think I want to do artificial intelligence in college. I'm not the type of person who would want to do just pure math. The reason I want to research artificial intelligence is—have you heard of the theory of singularity? The theory of singularity claims that human technology develops exponentially, and a singularity will occur when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. I don't know if human beings are all that fundamentally different from machines. It's a really complicated question, but if we are not fundamentally different, if human beings are just biochemical algorithms—if that is the case, the role AI is going to play is going to be central to the fate of humanity. So I'd like to be involved in that. It's the meaning of my life, I think.
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