Science Spotlight: Tech Requirement

Despite living in a digital age, the core curriculum of private liberal arts institutions often lacks a distinctive technology requirement.          

However, in recent years, higher education institutions such as Barnard College are gaining national attention due to their technology requirements aiming to educate students to become technologically competent, regardless of the career they choose to pursue.

When asked if the upper school should implement a technology requirement as part of its core curriculum, faculty members and students highlighted the benefits and applications of taking computational and logical thinking courses such as Computer Science and Game Theory, but concluded that the choice be left up to the students themselves.

Sean Hickey, a computer science teacher and technology specialist, says, “ I  think understanding technology from a social and political standpoint is something that I hope becomes an essential part of a liberal arts education.”

Whereas Hickey opposes the idea of requiring every student to learn a programming language, he hopes to help students understand the capabilities of computers and coding and the implications they have on our lives.

Furthermore, Tristan Saldanha ‘17, who argues the critical role computers play in national security and economic improvement, expressed his interest in courses that take an interdisciplinary approach to technological advancements in the context of human history.

Saldanha details, “Most people don’t know that World War II was won not by soldiers or bombs, but by Alan Turing creating the first computer and using it to crack codes, letting allies eavesdrop on enemy communications. People have no idea how much technology has defined the path of historical events, and a class that showcases this would be fascinating.”

In addition, Cindy Quinn ‘17, who will be attending Savannah College of Arts and Design in the fall, discovered that her passions lay at the intersection of mathematics and the fine arts.

Interested in pursuing video game development, Quinn’s latest art project utilizes a programming language called “processing,” in which she constructed lines in motion that change whenever a user clicks the screen.

When thinking about technology from a learning and a teaching standpoint, implementing a technology requirement concerns David Boxer, the Director of Information Support Services, who expresses, “What I’d worry is we [educators] would focus on designing the experience for the technology.”

Although Boxer acknowledges the  logical  reasoning benefits of  computer science courses, he doesn’t think those skills should be limited to “technology.” Boxer adds, “There are different ways to skin a cat.”

Boxer added that anytime there’s a requirement on anything, we as humans aren’t intrinsically motivated. He concluded that it would be helpful to students if the faculty shared what they thought to be critical skills based on their experience in the collegiate and professional realms.

The next thing that will happen in education?

After wasting another month watching Grey’s Anatomy, it’s officially time to worry about the summer reading assignment and textbook purchases for the upcoming school year. The prices of the MBS direct bookstore are noticeably expensive for both used and new textbooks. According to College Board, an average undergraduate student in college needs to budget around $1,200 for textbooks each year. This means that Community College students spend 40% of their tuition and Four-year Public University students spend 13% of their tuition on textbooks. It is blatantly true that the expensive cost is also a burden for High School students and parents who need to purchase hardcover textbooks.

Rebekah Johnson, a physics teacher, says “ Textbooks are often not affordable. When I was in college, my textbooks set me back significantly. I was able to buy [them], but some people weren’t. They had to make a decision : am I going to buy the textbook or not.” Ultimately, it is crucial to find an affordable alternative to traditional textbooks.

In the past few years, many four-year public universities launched their own campus programs to make textbooks accessible for all students. They claim that an Open Textbook Movement has by far been the most effective solution. An Open textbook is a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, and made available in a wide range of print and digital formats to be used by students, teachers, and members of the public with no additional cost. David Ernst, the creator of Open Textbook library at the University of Minnesota, says “The movement is about awareness. Expensive textbook costs are a burden, and open source textbook can be very beneficial.”

In addition, Open Textbooks grant more flexibility to teachers. For instance, teachers take the advantage of adding new material, changing terminology, or removing unnecessary chapters. Johnson says “You can customize [Open Textbooks] to how you want your course to look. There’s different ways to teach, so one textbook doesn’t always fit everyone’s course.” Jen Vance says, “What I appreciate is that Open Textbooks link the right sections to my unit so that students have access to the information without having the whole big book.”

While the benefits of using Open Textbooks are clear, an Open Textbook author’s goal may be to provide free, global access to their materials to support educational equality. According to Student PIRGs (Student Public Interest Research Groups) , Open Textbooks in place of traditional textbooks save students 80% on average. Therefore, it is crucial for High Schools to take interest in the Open Textbook Movement.

Crushshon, Vance, and Johnson, have used and are currently using an Open Textbook for their courses. The three faculty members have found Open Textbook to be helpful. However, they also acknowledged the challenges they faced over the course of using Open Textbooks.

Surprisingly, teachers claimed that credibility has been an issue, and this can be problematic because credibility alters the quality of a book, and sometimes Open Textbooks don’t come up to the quality like the publisher’s textbooks. Vance comments, “You need to review online text as you would for hardcover books to check it they are up-to-date.” Crushshon points out that an Open Textbook can be biased just like textbooks from large manufacturers. He adds, “Textbooks have a perspective. Sometimes, the perspective is political, and that can be a problem. You have to make sure that you recognize the perspectives that are presented that are not provided in full picture.”

Freshmen who are taking Introductory Biology shared their experiences using an Open Textbook. Overall, they agreed that Open Textbooks are convenient, relieving, and creative. Isabel Friedell 19’ mentions “ Open Textbooks take the weight off my shoulders. literally. I don’t need to carry it around. It’s a lot easier to remember because I always bring my laptop everywhere.”  In addition, Friedell adds “The animations in the Open Textbook are interesting because they are interactive.” Some talked about how Open Textbooks can support conservancy. Frida Liston 19’ says “Open Textbooks are environmentally friendly.”

On the other hand, Freshmen talked about the drawbacks that they experienced from using an Open Textbook.  Sophia Warren 19’ and  Blake Weyerhaeuser 19’ both point out how there can be some difficulty in reading an online text and annotating it. Despite these flaws, students and teachers still seem to be in favor of the new form of textbook. Vance says “ Open Textbooks provides a more vetted way to say “yes” this information is accurate. [Open Textbooks] condense in what you need, and students benefit instead of going to Wikipedia.”

Finally, the three faculty advisors suggested some actions that they or the other Blake faculty members can take to deal with the Open Textbook movement. Johnson suggests that “[Teachers] should share our experiences. Ask who are using it successfully and having time to pursue it together so that students can have a uniform experience all throughout four years.” Crushshon suggests that “ [faculties] have to be aware of the options out there. If we don’t know about it, we’re not going to use it, so I guess the faculty’s responsibility is to be more aware and see what the options are and not do what we’ve always done which is using standard textbooks.”

Prevalence of mental illness

You wake up in the morning after getting five hours of sleep and you meet your reflection in the mirror.  Skin breakouts appear from lack of sleep, and the argument with your parents is fresh on your mind.

Whether you are a lifer or a new student at Blake, everyone goes through these phases as a High School student. Compounding both these physical and emotional stresses can be overwhelming for many teenagers.

According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, four million children and adolescents in the U.S. suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, school and with peers.

Joe Ruggiero, Director of the Upper School,  attributes these statistics to “the pressure and stress placed on individuals as they get older such as grades, college, and figuring out who you are.”

Jen Vance, Dean of the Class of 2019, says the “pressure on groups of students and feeling like they have to live up to certain standards can contribute to mental illnesses.” Although these pressures are different for everyone, there is a common feeling of stress between most students.

Research has proven that stress can dispose teenagers’ brain to mental illness. Akira Sawa, the director of the Schizophrenia Center at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, showed that mice diagnosed with mental illnesses release a stress hormone called cortisol. According to Everyday Health, cortisol affects levels of dopamine, and changes in dopamine levels are seen in various mental disorders including anxiety and depression.

Most importantly, a teenagers’ brain may be more sensitive to cortisol and may feel cortisol effects more quickly because the prefrontal cortex in the brain is less developed in adolescents, which is a part of the brain that’s responsible for shutting down the stress response. Consequently, adolescents can experience stress for longer periods of time.

Professionals claim stress as the basis of many mental disorders, and Amy Juang ’16 and Nick Crosby ’18 agrees. Crosby and Juang talked about their stressors in the community at the school. Juang says “Being at a school like Blake, I feel like everyone’s smart, especially in some of my harder classes. Sometimes I just need to get over self-doubt and the intimidation.”

Crosby says preparing for the future stresses him out the most. Crosby says, “It’s not the grades that have the impact on how successful my life would be, but it could really influence the path that I’ll take through life.” A majority of the stress at the school is amounted to the weight that we place on the decisions that we make everyday. We are told that these decisions will affect us for the rest of our lives.

In the past few years, many teachers and clubs like Challenge Success worked hard to create homework free weekends and provide chocolate milk during lunch to alleviate the stress and anxiety that High school generates. In addition, the athletic program at Blake has helped student athletes utilize sports as an outlet for decreasing stress.

Nevertheless, many teachers and students say that there’s more work to be done because they see students are too stressed out. Teachers and students talked about how the policies aren’t always a cure for particular issues. Caroline O’Connell ’16 says “I think Blake does a good job of trying, but not all teachers are on board.”

Ultimately, systemic issues are making it harder to get rid of the pressure for grades and college. These types of pressure are more ingrained as part of our culture, so the chocolate milk and homework free weekend aren’t doing much to the lessen actual stress. Instead, they’re just icing on the cake. The culture at our school is a factor in these ingrained stresses. We, as a community, but a great deal of importance on academic “success.” These pressures amount to a general culture of stress.

Ruggiero says, “Part of [this stress] is what Blake controls, but also it is more societal. Blake teachers would love to find the alternative that will limit the pressure,” Ruggiero says. “But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that pressures aren’t going to go away.”

Teenagers are hesitant about prioritizing wellness because we think it’s betraying our ambitions, so we remind ourselves that High School is a time of agony for anyone. As Audre Lorde once said “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation that is an act of political warfare,” self-care is love in action. At the school, often saying “no” to high-stress situations is a source of guilt.

Standing ovations reflect culture of our crowd

I remember the first day I visited Blake. Shawn Reid guided my parents and me to a mid-sized auditorium named the Juliet Nelson Auditorium. As we entered the door, Reid reminded my parents that every senior gives a speech in front of the student body as a graduation requirement. Although I was only fourteen, my heart started to pound insanely by the word “speech.” Two years later, my heart still pounds whenever I recall that memory. What does it take to allow myself to be vulnerable in front of the entire student body?

On October 29,  Eve Liu ’16 gave her senior speech on beauty standards. Jim Mahoney notes that Liu’s speech “delved into a deeply personal topic with the hopes to enlarge understanding for those struggling with a similar struggle.” Her message was extremely powerful and courageous. Consequently, students spoke highly of Liu’s courage. Nevertheless, the student body remained seated. Serena Swanson ’17 says, “I didn’t understand why people didn’t stand up for Eve’s speech when [students] actually said that it was their favorite speech.”

However, some students thought that Liu was trying to get attention through her speech, although that wasn’t her intention. These mixed feelings on a senior speech have provoked negative thoughts among certain students.

Last year, Blake students faced some serious bashing on senior speeches on Yik Yak, a social media app that allows people to post anonymously. Mahoney says, “It takes courage, focus, and tremendous preparation to stand before an entire school and share your perspective; it takes none of those attributes to launch barbs at a speech or speaker, especially when done anonymously online.” While many students with vastly different opinions may enjoy talking about the speeches online, this incident has made seniors feel more vulnerable to present their speeches.

Although online bashing has decreased since last year, students continue to witness the bashing of speeches, no matter the topic. Emily Johnsrud ’17 said people do it to make them feel better about themselves. However, it is worth asking ourselves if bashing on one’s truth is morally a right thing to do.

Senior speeches can discuss controversial issues that may cause some backlash, but students still admit that these opinions should be valued in our community. Seniors get nervous to present their speech because they too fear judgement. Therefore, standing ovations can help the speaker feel more supported if it’s a tough topic to share.

The psychology of  audiences who remain on their seats often comes from a self-conscious mindset. These emotions are rooted from social forces such as peer pressure, fear of judgement, and other factors. As a part of Blake’s culture, many students feel more comfortable when they’re supporting their “lifer peers” because they’ve known that person for a long time, and it’s hard to stand up for someone who they don’t know on a personal level. However, if we want to make everyone  feel like they are being recognized, we should step out from our comfort zone.

Caroline O’Connell ’16 wishes that people would actually stand up more for the senior speeches. Mahoney hopes that students who feel compelled to stand to recognize a speaker feel comfortable to stand, even if they aren’t joined by the entire room. In the end, teachers and students don’t want their peers to walk off stage feeling like they haven’t touched or reached their audience because there wasn’t response from the audience.

The beauty of string instruments

TASC is a time for some students to settle into practice rooms, hidden away from the obvious eye all around school. Passing the Art department, musicians like April Wang ’16 can be heard playing the piano in a practice room. In fact, there are many musicians like Wang at Blake who have the knowledge of the musicality behind instruments such as the piano, but not about the science behind the music.

Vibration plays a significant role in creating sound for all string instruments. Inside the piano, there are around 230 strings, all with different lengths that correspond to 88 separate pitches, where there are at least three strings for one pitch. The strings vibrate when a pianist strikes a note, and it creates sound waves that can produce a frequency creating sound. The frequency can vary with different pitches and volume.

Physics teacher Steve Kaback explains this phenomenon, “pitch is a result of a vibrating object doing so at different frequencies.” Frequency is a description of the number of vibrations the sound source creates per second, and the medium of the frequencies of a sound wave represents the pitch. Therefore, the higher the frequency will produce a higher tone.

The height of a sound wave – the amplitude – adjusts the volume of a note. The greater the amplitude is, the louder the sound; whereas a smaller amplitude will produce a quieter sound. In addition, when vibration occurs in the sound wave, it produces natural frequency, which enables the atoms to jiggle to create resonance. Most importantly, the natural frequency amplifies resonance on the string and even the piano board so that the instrument can produce a louder sound.

New physics teacher Rebekah Johnson, sums up the correlation among frequency, pitch, and volume. Johnson says, “the density of the string dictates the wavelength, and length of the string dictates the frequency, so by varying the lengths and density of the strings, you can make the wave travel through that air differently. That’s what will dictate the different pitch you hear.”

However, music goes beyond the physical realm. Musicians expressed how piano has helped them both mentally and physically. John Mullan ’16 says, “ [piano] has the uncanny ability to relax me and to relieve stress.” On the other hand, Michael Feldkamp ’18 says, “it strengthens fingers, increases coordination, and helps with memory.” Surprisingly, most pianists said that they enjoy playing the piano in a wide range of genres including classical music to contemporary pop songs.

Whether you’re a kid who learned the piano from your parents’ pressure or someone who simply enjoys listening to the piano, you might have wondered what it’s exactly creating the sound. Through the mechanics behind string instruments, bear musicians and their peers appreciate the glorious harmony piano creates everyday.

Peer sex educators serve as valuable resources

Coach Carr from the movie Mean Girls once said, “don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!” Sex has remained a taboo subject for many.

     While students at the school have more sex education than most at most educational institutions, there are still unknowns that many feel uncomfortable asking adults about. Brianna Pomonis ’16, a teen advisor for MyHealth, says “students Google little questions such as ‘Am I going to bleed out the first time I have sex?’”

     These Googled questions aren’t limited to sexual intercourse; they range from maintaining healthy relationships to creating positive self-image. Although there are superb online resources such as KidsHealth or Go Ask Alice, there are also many misleading ones, which can cause concerns and anxiety. So, what are some credible resources that are intimate and confidential? You can ask   sexperts Pomonis or Ruby McCallum ‘17 for guidance.

Ruby McCallum '17, above, is an active member on Planned Parenthood's Teen Council. Read more about the group here.
Ruby McCallum ’17, above, is an active member on Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council. Read more about the group here.

     McCallum has worked for the Planned Parenthood Teen Council since her sophomore year. She improves her knowledge about sex education and presents that information in local classrooms.

     McCallum says conversation with women in her life, who have felt a lot of shame and embarrassment about their sexuality, inspired her to become a member of the Teen Council. McCallum says this shame is “something that I feel too.” However, being a part of the Teen Council makes McCallum happy, because she can educate herself and others about the topic without shame or stigma.

     When asked how students can have constructive conversations about sex, McCallum said, “just be open and understand that what you’re going through, others are too. You’re not alone, and it’s okay.”

     A similar local organization is MyHealth. The clinic provides both sex education and general health care, ranging from mental health services to reproductive care.

Brianna Pomonis '16, above, participates in MyHealth Clinic's Youth Advisory Board. Read more about the organization here.
Brianna Pomonis ’16, above, participates in MyHealth Clinic’s Youth Advisory Board. Read more about the organization here.

     Pomonis attended Catholic school prior to Blake, where, she says, “sex was very hush-hush.” In contrast to this culture of silence, Pomonis works to help the student body learn how to have safe sex; when they need help, Pomonis thinks that it is her responsibility, as a teen advisor, to inform curious and confused students alike.

     Beyond peer educators, there are a multitude of organizations available for support outside of the school. McCallum talked about organizations such as FamilyTree or MN Health Partners that can serve as additional resources. Pomonis mentioned Teens Alone, which provides various services to youth.

     “I think it’s important for people to know the facts and know that they have options,” Pomonis concludes.