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A STEM to Stern Commitment to Learn Shattering the stereotype that girls don't thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is nothing new at Branksome. Just ask Grade 7 student Samantha.
"Men have more of a reputation than women do in STEM, but there are so many women who have accomplished great things," she says. Samantha's perspective illustrates an essential part of the School's approach to learning.
At heart, an emphasis on STEM learning uses inquiry, real-world problem solving and interdisciplinary bridging to make meaningful connections between school, community and global contexts. A STEM-literate student is an innovator and critical thinker who understands the world and is armed to shape the future. Nurturing STEM-related careers For many decades, Branksome graduates have stepped confidently into STEM studies and careers. "In the past eight years, 23 per cent of our graduating students have gone into STEM-related disciplines at university," says Heather Friesen, Head of Academics. "The passion for invention, systems and design that begins here extends across the globe as our girls become leaders in their academic and professional fields."
Alexandra HEENEY'06 is one such leader. Ms Heeney received the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, which brings top science and technology students from around the world to the United States to pursue their education. Currently working on her doctorate in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, Ms Heeney is clear about the benefits of her Branksome education.
"Branksome certainly nurtured my passion for learning and provided me with an excellent environment and opportunities in which to explore my interests," she says. "I had a strong base to build on when I started to take more advanced courses in math, science, and engineering."
Ms Heeney is not alone. Alumnae often return to the school to share their experiences in STEM and encourage the girls to pursue their passion for inquiry. As a member of the Middle School Innovation Club, Samantha is following in their footsteps. "Technology is appealing to me. I like taking apart electronics. I took apart a 1993 hard drive and found some cool stuff in there. In the future, I might design better parts and do a rebuild."
A Branksome education is a natural fit for young innovators. Ms Friesen points out that the high expectations of the IB Program include extended exposure to STEM disciplines. "It's important to pause for a moment to remember that our IB Program means that every girl studies Math and Science through to Grade 12," she says. Highlights of STEM in the curriculum Coding is one example of the STEM learning happening in the Junior School. In Kindergarten, students apply their visual-spatial and logical sequencing skills to program a "Bee-bot." In Grades 3 to 4, the girls are using more sophisticated programs that apply concepts of distance and degree to control a "Pro-bot." Grade 5 and 6 students also use "scratch animation" to create blocks of code to move virtual characters or design their own simple video games.
Opportunities for STEM-related learning abound in the Senior School. For example, Grade 11 students work in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams for their Science Fair. Last year, the challenge was to design a green roof for the new Athletics and Wellness Centre—a task that required a mix of expertise in Biology, Chemistry and Engineering.
When it comes to program selection, senior students can choose from five science courses rather than the standard three. In addition to Chemistry, Physics and Biology, girls study Environmental Systems and Societies and Sports, Exercise and Health Science. "We want to make sure that there are access points for every kind of learner and every interest," says Ms Friesen. This commitment includes seven science labs that offer hands-on, experiential approaches to learning.
Field work and trips offer curricular enrichment. Exercise and Health Science and Biology students recently visited the University of Waterloo for a hands-on Kinesiology lab involving cadavers. Grade 11 Environmental students also went into the field to Lynde Shores Conservation Area to participate in bird banding with local professionals and to assess the impact of invasive species on the local ecosystem.
Learning beyond the classroom As always in a crisis, there are heartwarming stories of people coming together to assist others:
Full STE/A/M ahead! Recently, the concept of STEM learning has expanded to include an arts focus and has thus been transformed into STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. STEAM recognizes the important role that the arts play in innovation and future change. By merging these two broad approaches, students develop an advanced ability to solve problems.
- Innovation Club: Middle School students come together to build and program robots and dream up new software modules for popular games such as Minecraft. Members of the club recently designed and programmed a Lego robot for a competition at a local public school.
- "Girls Learning Code:" In a recent assembly, the "ladies" of Ladies Learning Code spoke to Middle School girls about working with technology to change the world through teamwork and creativity.
- Science Expo: Branksome recently hosted the Science Expo Information Night, which was attended by students from high schools across the city. Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Brad Bass spoke about his work on biofilters, and graduate students presented research from the MaRS Centre. A group of Branksome students is currently working with a University of Toronto professor to build a biofilter
- The Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge is an annual science competition that focuses on biotechnology and its applications in healthcare, agriculture and the environment. Three Branksome students are working on software tools to create a global map of human biological systems.
- Biotechnology Club: Thanks to a parent donation, this Senior School club has recently acquired a Thermal Cycler, making Branksome one of only three schools in Ontario with a machine that amplifies DNA segments. Students have amplified segments of their own DNA and will soon study the DNA in Dorito chips to identify the GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the popular snack food. "The girls marvel at the simplicity of DNA manipulation," says club faculty advisor Steve Casterton. "We are very lucky to have access to a machine typically found in university labs that creates so much wonder and excitement."
"Parts of the brain develop in the arts that cannot develop in other disciplines," says Ms Friesen. "Branksome emphasizes the whole girl, encouraging her to extend her thinking and learning about herself. The arts play a crucial role in that process."
Because arts-based programs offer unique opportunities to manipulate physical materials, use the body as a medium of expression, and engage the senses, they support unconventional and creative ways of thinking. STEAM takes learning and innovation to a whole new level.
Branksome's rich tradition in the arts—from vocal and instrumental music to theatre to visual arts to film – ensures that girls naturally make connections between STEM subjects and creative expression. Middle School students spend 25 per cent of each day in an arts course, and Senior School students have a wide array of courses and clubs to pursue all the way to graduation.
Immersed in the challenging and creative environment of a STEAM education, every Branksome girl finds her own way to her remarkable.