Who Sees Value in Full STEAM Ahead
By Mitch Silver
There’s been a lot of talk about — and emphasis on — the importance of STEM in today’s high school curriculum. The mastery of STEM, an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, is being looked to nationally as way to keep America at the forefront of innovation in the years to come.
For decades, though, most math and science departments might as well have had a sign on their doors reading, “Girls Need Not Apply.” Cathie Bischoff, a biologist and longtime head of the Science Department at Rye Country Day School, is leading an effort to change all that.
Bischoff and Rye Country Day have added an A (for Arts) to STEM. “Music, dance, and the visual arts shouldn’t be over there while science and math are over here. If the sound of wind instruments can teach our students about wave mechanics, let’s do it.” She added, “The world no longer exists in silos. Interdisciplinary understanding is vital for today’s students to be successful in the 21st century.
Another passion of Bischoff’s is promoting diversity in the STEAM fields in terms of race, gender, and socio-economics. “Having majored in science and taken computer science classes back in late 80s and 90s, I know all too well why it is so hard for female students to pursue science, given the attitudes of some people. I remember one teacher in college asking if I was only pursuing an MRS. degree.”
She continued, “While we are starting to see changes in biomedical science, we have a long way toward equity in the science and engineering fields as a whole. I have worked with our Women in Science Club to create a program for middle school girls. Our lower school STEM Fest has its focus on changing young girls attitudes about science.
“Role models are key to encouraging students. ‘Hidden Figures’ was one of my favorite books. I saw the movie three times, including taking my own 11-year-old daughters on opening weekend. The story of these brilliant women whose work has been vital to rocket science and NASA is so inspirational to many young students…girls of color in particular.”
Bischoff grew up a country girl in Saugerties, New York. “My childhood gave me a deep appreciation for nature and the environment. On my own, I would study frogs by collecting, counting, and observing their development from egg to adults. Then, in college, I studied both animal behavior — the breeding behavior in Eastern Kingbirds — and the genetics of trout. And now I want to bring that curiosity about the way the world works to my students. William Butler Yeats wrote, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ It is that fire that I find in teaching so satisfying as I try to help ignite it for my students.”
As a department chair, Bischoff looks for a passion for the subject matter and dynamic teaching in the classroom from the members of the Science Department. “When I see that spark in a teacher, I try to nurture its spread by way of new ideas and excitement to other members of the school and department organically.”
One of her greatest joys is when former students come back and tell her they are pursuing a career in science.
“Working at a private school like Rye Country Day has allowed me to teach a range of ages. And I get to have my older students work with and teach younger kids within classes and during special events such as our STEM Fest.”
She paused, and then added, “Now that I think of it, we should call it our STEAM Fest.”