At Highland School – a PK-12 independent school in Warrenton, Virginia – the sudden pivot to distance learning in March was virtually seamless. Highland’s faculty leaders and students credit the school’s longtime commitment to innovative teachers. The latter provides students age-appropriate technology tools, individualized opportunities to use them, and – most important – a STEM curriculum that invites every student to gain confidence in the academic subjects from which technology is developed.

Highland’s success at distance learning was no surprise to those who lead the school’s exceptional STEM curriculum. They have long known that for students to be successful in ANY field in today’s tech-heavy culture, comfort with STEM subjects is critical.

“In the STEM fields, it all comes down to confidence. When our students leave us, the single most important thing is that they are not afraid to take a college math class. We want them to have the competence and confidence to succeed at the next level.” So says Dave Robertson, Mathematics Department Chair at Highland.

Highland Science Department Chair Elizabeth Kennedy agreed. “If you show students you believe in them and are confident in them, they can and will do the work.”

Roughly half of every graduating class at Highland School will have taken an AP Science class, and more than 30% will have completed an AP Math course. Highland’s Robotics Team competes in the internationally-renowned FIRST organization. And the school’s prestigious Engineering Certificate is available to those who desire the challenge of college-level project work during their high school years.

Supporting all this is a robust STEM curriculum in the Lower and Middle Schools that uses Project Approach to build synergy among all subjects, tying together liberal arts education with STEM learning. Topping it off are opportunities to join FIRST Lego League teams at every grade level.

Math Department Chair Roberston clarifies Highland’s STEM education isn’t all about the AP classes and advanced robotics work. “We want to challenge all students at a level that is inspiring but not defeating. We want to meet you at your skill level and build from there. So, the ability to offer a diverse array of classes is key.” For that reason, the math department offers both AP Statistics and high school-level stats. The science department is scaffolded to offer college-prep bio, honors bio, and AP Bio, while also offering electives including Marine Bio and Human Bio. Similar multi-level offerings exist in Chemistry and Physics.

Addison Norden, ‘18, of Warrenton, reflected on this approach. “I loved my ‘difficult’ classes, like AP Calc, AP Physics, and AP Bio, but my favorite classes were my electives.” When pressed to identify her favorite, she chose Human Bio. “It was applicable to what I wanted to do in life, and it was so clear why what we were learning was important. While I was in high school, I was running rescue with [the local fire department]. It helped me a lot with being a better EMT and eventually getting through paramedic school. Now, I’ve been promoted to EMS Sergeant of my department while majoring in biochemistry at the University of Mary Washington. In the evenings, I run rescue, and during the day, I get to assist a professor with research on the temporal analysis of apoptosis in Jurkat T Lymphocytes.”

For Science Chair Kennedy, STEM is all about teaching students to think. “We’re moving from a content-based approach to a skills-based approach. So, a lot of our lecture or presentation is designed to support a lab experiment that students might do. The labs are the meat of the class, and, ideally, they should be student-designed inquiries. You know, I could tell students what the acceleration due to gravity is, but I would rather they discover it for themselves. Two students might take radically different approaches to the same conclusion, and that’s what real scientists do.”

Thomas Boudreax, ‘15, of Fairfax echoed Kennedy’s sentiment. Boudreaux majored in Computational Physics at High Point University, with a concentration in Stellar Astrophysics. He published multiple papers, presented at international conferences, and spent time working at both the Harvard Center for Astrophysics and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. “The most important takeaway from [Highland’s STEM program], in my mind,” Boudreaux said, “is not the material; rather, it is the sense that the set of things that we understand is so much smaller than the set of things we do not. And, it is the wonder and excitement that comes along with this realization.” He said, “Maybe it’s obvious, but going into college with this attitude already ingrained allowed me to jump into active research. Even now, if research is going slowly or I am frustrated, I think about the wonder of science and where the frontiers are, and it brings me out of my funk.”

Robertson sees a similar idea in Highland’s approach to mathematics. “Math is all about logic and problem-solving. I want to give you a problem, limit your tools to a manageable place, and then see how you get from A to B. Our students should be flexible in their approach to a problem. I want to know why students are doing something a particular way, and I want to know that their way is mathematically valid. Still, within those constraints, students should be able to use a variety of approaches.”

“I loved mathematics at Highland,” said Ann Collins, ‘15, of Fairfax. “I took everything I could, all the way through AP Stats and AP Calc BC. I especially loved working with derivatives and integrals, finding new ways to create deeper relationships between functions.” Collins went on to describe how this flexible approach to problem-solving has helped her beyond Highland. “I majored in Mechanical Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. As part of my degree, I completed multiple design projects and challenges, culminating in the NASA RASC-AL Moon to Mars Challenge for my senior capstone. We designed, built, and operated a system that drilled through layers of overburden down to an ice bed, while simultaneously gathering data regarding a layer’s thickness and hardness using a load cell. Then, we had to place an extractor with a heated tip into the shaft, melting the ice and extracting water that could become potable or chemically altered into rocket fuel. You can imagine how often we had to iterate!”

Building on Collins’ comments about group-work, Roberston and Kennedy discussed how much STEM-related work is done in teams. As Kennedy put it, “you can’t just generate and gather data. You have to interpret it. You have to interpret it in a social setting, with colleagues and teammates, and other interested parties. This whole time, you have to be ready for the data to mean something else.”

Matthew Heller, ‘20, of Warrenton, agreed. “Ever since I was young, I have always been interested in electronics. My dad would give me his old circuits and let me play with them. Now, I’ve worked my way up to AP Computer Science I, and I can work in Web Languages (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), as well as JAVA, Python, C-Sharp, Bash, and Aldrino. I know people have this image of the ‘loner’ gamer or programmer, but we are always working in teams to get things done.”

Perhaps no part of Highland’s program so embraces teamwork as the robotics program. According to Robotics mentor (yes, they are called mentors, not coaches), Elisabeth Carver, the culture of FRC (First Robotics Competition), is that it is, “a varsity sport for the mind. Students are given a task or a game, and then they have to design and build a robot from the ground up to complete the task or play the game.”

The actual competition itself involves collaboration, Carver said. “Students work in alliances with other teams. They have to be able to communicate their robots’ strengths and weaknesses–and themselves–before the match even starts. Then, that teamwork is further tested once the match begins.” But, Carver notes, students are asked to collaborate well before match-day. “On any robot, you have a shooting system, an intake system, a conveyor system, and a climbing system. Mini-teams design each aspect and then come together to interface in a defined perimeter. This whole time, there is a programming team working on vision systems or swerve drives, and once the robot is built, the programmers have to upload their code. Then, everyone comes together to troubleshoot.”

Jamie Dyer, ‘15, of Warrenton and Nick Iasso, ‘15 of St. Louis, Virginia, both now software engineers in Arlington, reflected on their time in the robotics program. “Robotics gave me the opportunity to explore programming, to begin solving larger problems, and to work within a team,” Dyer said. “These all helped prepare me immensely for college, where I majored in Computer Science and in Mathematics, as well as my current job.”

Iasso concurred: “Robotics was fantastic. We learned about teamwork and engineering design, honed programming skills, explored electrical and mechanical engineering, and practiced indispensable hard and soft skills important in my college career and beyond. Because of robotics, I’m more comfortable taking on and breaking down projects that appear overwhelming and uncomfortable at first. My STEM education taught me how to approach difficult tasks and how to push the limits of what I am comfortable with in order to learn and improve continually.”

Highland is deeply committed to promoting the importance and success of women in STEM fields. “If you don’t see yourself in a pursuit, it’s hard to imagine yourself doing it,” Kennedy said. “Everyone should feel like the STEM fields are a place they belong to. We want to give everyone an invitation to the party, but we’re aware that different people might need a different kind of invitation or perhaps a greater push to attend. Everyone has a barrier when it comes to STEM. You get around that barrier by individualizing to the student.”

This is why Highland always sends a team to Foxcroft School’s all-girls K2M STEM Summit. Highland has won the summit twice, receiving the highest overall score in 2019. Bridget Conlon, ‘21, of Round Hill, a member of last year’s winning team, said, “I get frustrated with the fact that women are underrepresented, but I have a lot of really great examples. My mom is in the STEM field, and I have been lucky to have Highland teachers as examples.” When asked if she hopes to be an example one day, Conlon replied, “Absolutely! It’s so satisfying to figure out hard things; math and science are really fun. One day, I hope to be an oceanic engineer or an oceanographer, but we need to represent historical women in STEM more clearly.”

Highland School recognized early on that a comprehensive educational experience in the 21st Century must include a STEM curriculum that is accessible and substantive for every student – from those fascinated by robots to those who prefer to analyze classic literature or engage in a Harkness debate about European history.

While team projects and lab work – the meat of many STEM courses – has been, at some schools, an insurmountable challenge during distance learning, Highland’s faculty has succeeded in not only facilitating such work but using it in creative ways to sustain the interpersonal connections children. Teens need while locked away from their friends and peers.

For all these reasons, Highland School’s faculty, students, and parents were prepared for the worldwide crisis of March 2020, and are ready to tackle whatever challenges and opportunities await education in the coming months and years.

Highland School’s mission is to prepare students to thrive, lead, and serve in a diverse and dynamic world. They develop essential skills and character by challenging them with a demanding academic and co-curricular program. Contact Donna Tomlinson, dtomlinson@highlandschool.org, for more information.