For Dr. Sharon Sikora, Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton’s (SHS) coordinator of science curriculum, learning, and teaching, and SHP chemistry teacher, there were no women role models in STEM as she pursued her studies, from elementary school to graduate school. “There were only two women in the chemistry department in graduate school,” she said. “Part of the reason I became involved in education and outreach was to make sure students could see a woman scientist and a woman chemist.”
On a recent afternoon in SHS third grade teacher Ellen Carroll’s classroom, who also teaches math to the entire grade, a rapt group of young students listen as Sikora points to photos of scientists on a slideshow—one young woman, a science writer for The New York Times; another young man, a computer scientist; one an alumna of SHS. “These are some of the young people I’ve taught who went on to become scientists,” she says.
Her presentation is the “pilot” of a new guest speaker initiative at the Lower School being tried out first in the third grade. The eventual goal is to bring experts—from accomplished educators who work on campus, to alumni, to outside organizations—into Lower School classrooms to provide diverse and inclusive role models for students.
“We want to show young girls and boys that STEM careers are a concrete possibility,” said Carroll. “It’s hard to be what you can’t see. So, keeping in mind that women aren’t equally represented in STEM, they might not have a female role model.”
Having the presentation in association with Women’s History Month “is also really perfect timing,” Sikora added.
The guest speaker idea is aligned with SHS’s overarching curricula, which is responsive to diversity and inclusion, and cognizant of using representative materials.
“We are always trying to do that in every realm, because stereotypes are present everywhere in the media we consume,” said Carroll. “So, we think, ‘what kind of implicit messaging is a student getting from this?’ For example, with art materials, the ‘flesh’ tone is limited, so we make sure to always provide ‘people markers’ in a wide range of skin tones. It’s always in our awareness, and that’s a part of my goal with our guest speaker—it’s not just about the girls being able to see this, but for the boys to see them as an equal partner.”
Sikora agreed with Carroll, saying she has been “tremendously honored” to “play that role and be that face, even for an afternoon.” Her presentation included three sessions with each third-grade class during their math work period on Monday, and an additional three sessions on Friday.
During the first session, Sikora and Carroll showed students how to use brightly colored ladder molecule building materials to create water molecules, and talked about how scientists use reading, writing, and imagination to succeed in STEM.
“One of my earliest mentors going into education taught me that when you first walk into a classroom, give them the opportunity to play with science materials before you try to work with them,” said Sikora. “That might be the premise for future guest speakers: have them engage the students in play, and then the work—because we know play supports learning.”
During the second session, Sikora talked about her doctorate research, in which she was the first to record how certain molecules in a protein within the human eye respond to light and dark. The students replicated her work by making the same ladder molecules and measuring the movement in response to light levels.
“This kind of activity in the classroom is so exciting,” said Sikora. “The hope is that this [pilot] will open the door for additional conversations and opportunities to bring experts to classrooms. I applaud Ellen that she’s moved on this and reached out to me; she has been thorough and careful crafting a lesson geared perfectly to this age group.”