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Inspiring tomorrow's innovators

Inspiring tomorrow's innovators
Inspiring tomorrow's innovators

From TI calculators to AI exploration, Harpeth Hall’s STEM evolution continues, charting the future of education and preparing girls for groundbreaking discoveries and careers

This article appears in the Winter 2023-24 issue of Hallways, Harpeth Hall's bi-annual publication. Look for Hallways in your mailboxes soon!

Harpeth Hall math teacher Tad Wert still recalls seeing the first TI-81 graphing calculator in 1990. With its blue plastic case and 41 rectangular plastic keys, the handheld electronic device could complete a large number of arithmetic, trigonometric, statistical, and algebraic functions.

“I immediately knew this technological tool would revolutionize how math was taught,” said Mr. Wert, who began his teaching tenure in 1987.

He also knew that Harpeth Hall, with its focus on leading-edge education for girls, would encourage pursuit of this new technology. In the weeks that followed, Mr. Wert and his colleagues attended workshops to learn how to use the calculator. Not long after, Harpeth Hall became one of the first schools in Tennessee to require all students to have the graphing device, laying the foundation for ongoing advancement in STEM.

From the introduction of the graphing calculator to pioneering a one-to-one laptop program to the current exploration of large language models, Harpeth Hall's commitment to innovation in teaching and learning has expanded possibilities for students and alumnae decade after decade.

The tradition harkens back almost a century ago when Ward-Belmont alumna Dr. Mildred Stahlman ’40 transformed the field of medicine and earned international recognition for her life-saving neonatal work with high-risk newborns at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Following in her footsteps have been Harpeth Hall alumnae from every generation:

  • Bennett Manning Brady ’61, a mathematician and physicist who led teams that set the safety standard guidelines for nuclear power plants nationally and internationally
  • Lisa Morrissey LaVange ’71, a Ph.D. in biostatistics who has played an important role in studying interventions for diseases including HIV/AIDS and COVID-19
  • Gina Klein Jorasch ’81, a leader in the social entrepreneurship world who founded or served as an executive of global, high-tech innovation companies such as Hewlett Packard, Silicon Graphics, and Verisign
  • Dr. Rachel Glick Robison ’97, an immunologist who focuses on therapies for peanut-allergic children and leads the new pediatric Oral Immunotherapy Clinic at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt
  • Kathleen Goetz ’05, a nuclear physicist working for Oak Ridge National Laboratory who recently received a patent for her development of a fast-spectrum, self-powered neutron detector for the Versatile Test Reactor project
  • Sabin Nettles ’09, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University studying the gene regulatory mechanisms underlying cancer cell proliferation and investigating the use of a new class of chemotherapeutics to kill cancer cells

Harpeth Hall physics teacher and alumna Hannah Bond ’82 has experienced the evolution of STEM at Harpeth Hall. She remembers when students took biology and chemistry on campus but traveled to MBA for physics. Even then, the drive for scientific and mathematic exploration was an unstoppable force. Ms. Bond fondly recalls her experience with AP Biology at Harpeth Hall, where experiments with fruit flies illuminated genetic principles.

Inspired by the opportunities to be a woman trailblazer in the STEM fields, Ms. Bond pursued biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which also sparked her interest in engineering. She worked for 19 years as a spacecraft systems engineer at Lockheed Martin and GE Aircraft Engines, and today, she teaches physics at Harpeth Hall.

Myriad advanced courses, including AP Computer Science, AP Statistics, and AP Calculus, push girls to think critically. Students pursue special interests with classes in anatomy, web design and visual coding, physiology, and environment science. Premier programs and clubs such as the Honors STEM Research program at Vanderbilt University, I’m a Girl in Engineering (IMAGINE), a newly created math club, and STEM Summer Institute offer unmatched opportunities for girls.

As Harpeth Hall leads in innovation to best prepare girls for the future they will enter, Mr. Wert continues to explore the newest technology in his classroom. “The final lesson in my Intro to Computer Science course is an introduction to ChatGPT,” he said. “I don't think humans will be doing much actual coding in the very near future. Instead, we need to train our students to write useful prompts for AI tools, which will then write the code. The most valuable employees in an organization will be those who are able to utilize AI tools efficiently.”

With innovation moving at the speed of light, leading-edge education will remain at the forefront as Harpeth Hall aspires to build a new,
state-of-the-art STEM building. By setting the pace in STEM, Harpeth Hall society through the transformative power of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Diversity in the STEM workforce leads to a broader range of perspectives, ideas, and problem-solving approaches, fostering a culture of creativity and excellence.

“Using their inquisitive and innovative spirits,” Head of School Jess Hill said, “our girls will undoubtedly lead the way to more groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

And, in turn, Harpeth Hall girls will chart the future for us all.

Harpeth Hall alumnae pave the way for aspiring engineers as young women IMAGINE their futures

A contractor, a project engineer, a civil analyst, and a security software engineer sit in the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab and talk STEM. In addition to being ambitious and talented, these young professionals have two things in common: They are Harpeth Hall alumnae, and they are all women boldly forging careers in engineering.

Returning to their alma mater in November, Julia Allen ’15, Adele Grohovsky ’18, Mary Johnson ’18, and Lauren Lee ’18 engaged with current students keen on exploring engineering careers. They talked about hydraulics, structural design, and software integration and offered insights into an industry where, as recently as four years ago, women constituted only 15% of the global engineering workforce. The panelists advocated for pursuing real-world opportunities through programs like Winterim and the STEM Vanderbilt Research initiative, emphasizing the fusion of creativity and critical thinking instilled at Harpeth Hall.

“There is so much knowledge in the spaces around you,” said Ms.Grohovsky, a project engineer at global construction company Skanska. “But you will never know it’s there until you start asking questions and experiencing it.”

The alumnae panel, hosted by Harpeth Hall Center for STEM Education for Girls and IMAGINE (I’m a Girl in Engineering), provided a platform for students to start asking those questions.

Reflecting on their own educational journey, the alumnae fondly recalled the Harpeth Hall teachers and classes that brought engineering concepts to life. The regatta where they captained hand-constructed cardboard boats. The sludge project where they analyzed the properties of sawdust, flour, and other concoctions. The submarine project where they used recycled materials such as plastic jugs and aluminum cans to design models that would both sink and float.

Ms. Lee, now a software engineer at Lockheed Martin Space, emphasized the significance of experimentation. “It’s something I wish I did even more of when I was in school — just mess around and try to make apps and other things, even if they never saw the light of day,” she said. “That hands-on learning, and trying it yourself, is so important.”

Furthering Harpeth Hall’s commitment to interactive learning, IMAGINE is an engineering club that fosters the exploration of coding,
architecture, and mathematics. The club promotes academic growth and nurtures leadership skills, empowering young women to confront future challenges with confidence. Last summer, eight IMAGINE students achieved recognition at the National TSA conference, earning top positions in Tennessee and qualifying for the Best-in-Nation event.

Ms. Grohovsky underscored that Harpeth Hall's emphasis on cultivating big ideas does not go unnoticed. She recounted her college experience when she took her first engineering seminar class at the University of South Carolina alongside 150 male classmates. In the “sea of men,” Ms. Grohovsky’s professor saw her HH sweatshirt and called out to her. “I know Harpeth Hall has a good STEM education,” he said. “Oh,” she responded, “are you from Tennessee?” “No,” the professor said, “I’m from New Hampshire.” Having her Harpeth Hall affiliation draw recognition from a professor beyond the boundaries of her home state reinforced the value of her education.

Her classmates and colleagues agreed.

“Harpeth Hall definitely prepares you for the outside world,” said Ms. Johnson, a civil analyst at the national design firm Kimley-Horn. “You have gained this confidence here, and as long as you hold onto that and remember, ‘I’ve seen this equation before, I know how to talk to people, I’m not afraid to ask questions,’ then you will always know ‘I’ve got this.’”

Math Club
Harpeth Hall’s new upper school math club encourages collaboration as students think creatively about complicated problems

Harpeth Hall junior Lily Bowen has always been captivated by the challenges presented in math contests. When she came to Harpeth Hall in the 9th grade, she discovered a community of like-minded students who shared her enthusiasm for numerical problem-solving.

Motivated by that passion, Lily started a new math club at Harpeth Hall this academic year, creating an environment where ideas flow freely and computational problem-solving becomes a collaborative endeavor.

The club’s meetings are dedicated to solving and discussing complicated problems, with a particular emphasis on preparation for upcoming competitions. These math competitions extend beyond regular classroom content, challenging students to develop a comprehensive and versatile skill set.

One competition that holds special significance for the math club members is the American Mathematics Competition (AMC). Lily, the club president, highlighted the unique nature of the AMC, setting it apart from traditional math tests. “The AMC . . . tests your ability to recognize and use what you've been taught in an unexpected way. The questions require just as much creativity as mathematical ability, if not more.”

The questions also “get pretty tricky,” Lily said. Given the intricate and challenging nature of the AMC questions, Lily emphasized the value of collaboration within the math club. It is helpful for club members to bounce ideas off each other and see various solutions to a
problem. Rather than learning new material, the girls concentrate on identifying familiar concepts or formulas in what might look like an unwieldy question. As the club's sponsor, AP Calculus teacher Polly Linden supports the girls in expanding their mathematical approach.

“I think what I love most about the club is getting to see all the different approaches to the questions — it stretches my thinking a lot,” Lily said.

The effectiveness of the math club's teamwork and enthusiasm is evident in the competition results. In the current school year, eight students participated in the AMC — Lily Bowen, Reagan Nisbet, Hanna Jung, Cora Meyer, Charlotte Mikos, Zoe Eveland, Allyson Mao, and Piper Thompson.

Students who take the AMC and score in the top 5% qualify for the AIME (American Invitational Mathematics Examination) — a three-hour, 15-problem exam taken by the top high school mathematicians in the country. Lily was among those students who qualified for the AIME and successfully took the exam in February.

Lily reflected on the significance of an all-girls high school having a math club dedicated to preparing for the AMC with an AIME qualifier. “Only about 30% of AMC and AIME test-takers are girls,” she said, “and I am grateful to Harpeth Hall and the math department for supporting our club in being a part of that.”

Beyond the immediate success in competitions, the skills developed through contest participation have broader applications in academic and professional settings, preparing students for future endeavors. The contests also connect students with a global
community of mathematicians, broadening their perspectives and introducing the girls to peers who share their enthusiasm for creative problem-solving.

“I love using what I've learned in new ways,” Lily said, “and helping others do the same.”

Vanderbilt Honors STEM Research
The Honors STEM Research program at Vanderbilt allows Harpeth Hall students the chance to decode the future through the language of science

In the realm of scientific exploration, junior Ashley Maliakal is unraveling the intricacies of the human brain, starting with an unlikely companion — mice. Each week, in the research labs at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Ashley meticulously codes videos to gather data on mice behavior. She observes and notes key actions such as rearing, climbing, digging, and grooming. The patterns in these behaviors can unveil insights into conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in humans.

Ashley's journey into the frontier of neuroscience is facilitated by Harpeth Hall’s Honors STEM Research program, an initiative that
introduces students to cutting-edge research alongside leading scientists and professors at Vanderbilt University. Stacy Klein-Gardner, now an adjunct biomedical engineering professor, initiated this partnership in 2013-2014. Since then, students participating in the program have excelled at competitions like the Middle Tennessee Science and Engineering Fair, elevating the program's appeal.

Today, the Honors STEM Research program is a highly sought-after opportunity where students immerse themselves in real-world problems, conduct experiments, and expand the boundaries of their understanding — a hallmark of a Harpeth Hall education.

“The opportunity to participate in research in neurodevelopmental disorders in the Fiona Harrison Lab at Vanderbilt has been life-changing,” Ashley said. “The professional lab environment, mentorship, and wet lab techniques have thoroughly prepared me for a future in research.”

While Ashley deciphers the behavioral nuances of mice, her peers are equally immersed in diverse projects. From studying ion filtration systems for wastewater purification to researching software detecting DNA mutations, students are contributing to scientific advancements. 

This year, Ashley, classmate Anna Bowman Fletcher, and senior Julia Miller are actively working at Vanderbilt labs. Four other

students, juniors Lily Bowen, Lily Anne Thompson, Lily Wang, and senior Madeline Bell, are completing computer programming projects.

STEM education at Harpeth Hall ensures that students learn to understand current scientific challenges and chart the course for groundbreaking discoveries that will shape the future. The most important element is ensuring the students understand the science behind their projects.

“This program has taught me what to do when you feel completely lost,” said Julia, who spends her days in the lab making molecule membranes to test water filtration and reading scientific papers to understand the concepts behind her studies further. “Going into my lab, I had no idea what was going on for a while, but I learned to ask questions and gather as much knowledge as possible. Now,
I feel much more comfortable with the material despite not having the years of education on the subject like my mentor.”

The program has also informed the college searches of Julia and her classmates by giving them real-world experience in university research programs. The chance to participate in the Honors STEM Research program is one of the reasons Lily Bowen decided to come to Harpeth Hall in 9th grade. This year, the junior is using her own codes and pre-existing analytic tools to see which software performs best in specific regions of the genome.

“Learning how to handle a big and largely independent project successfully through the Honors STEM Research program will certainly pay dividends for me in the future,” Lily said. “I've also become much more resourceful through this project and have experienced
what it's like to be a part of a university computational lab. Overall, I think having done this project will give me confidence as I tackle future academic and scientific endeavors.”

In 1985, the Harpeth Hall STEM curriculum included 19 classes. In the early decades, if our girls wanted to take physics, they had to travel down the road to the all-boys Montgomery Bell Academy. In 2023, the STEM curriculum has grown to 33 classes. There are 11 dedicated STEM classrooms in the current Massey Center for Mathematics and Science. Harpeth Hall envisions a new Center for STEM Studies as an incubator for ground-breaking scientists and mathematicians.


STEM Summer Institute
Middle and high school girls collaborate through STEM Summer Institute to create innovative farming tools and tackle real-world challenges in Middle Tennessee

By MC Claverie ’20

On the first day of summer camp, Naiya Patel ’30 built a watering can. By the end of camp, she and a group of new friends from across Middle Tennessee constructed much more as they worked together to engineer solutions for small-scale farmers. That is what Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institute (SSI) is all about.

Established at Harpeth Hall in 2012, the two-week camp brings together middle and high school girls from throughout the region to address real-world challenges by creating, building, and testing their prototypes. Each summer, girls focus on a
different topic to solve. In past years, projects have included creating hand-washing stations for communities in need, designing birthing beds for women at the Lwala Community in Lwala, Kenya, and studying flooding in Middle Tennessee.

Since the program’s founding, over 330 girls from more than 50 different schools have participated, serving its mission of developing girls and young women into the STEM leaders of tomorrow. This past summer, those future STEM leaders focused on designing products to aid small-scale farmers.

Bekah Hassell, Harpeth Hall science teacher and middle school science department chair, said the topic was inspired by more significant problems in the global food system. SSI leaders tasked campers with engineering solutions to address inefficiencies in day-to-day farm operations. The girls’ goal was to utilize technology to reduce the time a particular crop takes to produce and facilitate crop production.

SSI is divided into two groups based on age — middle and high school. In the middle school science classrooms, the younger group

worked to invent new farming tool prototypes, displaying creativity and innovation in their designs. With unique names such as the “crop-chop-and-go,” the “stabber seeder,” and the “weed destroyer,” each design was crafted to address challenges small-scale farmers face. Naiya said that her favorite parts of SSI were exploring engineering by solving real-world problems and working with other campers toward a common goal. “I’ve learned to listen to people, good people skills, and building skills,” she said.

Across Souby Lawn in the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab, the high school group similarly designed farming gadgets. Camp field trips to The
Nashville Food Project’s community garden and West Glow Farm inspired many of the girls as they saw first-hand the common challenges faced on the farms.

“Compared to larger farming companies and corporations, small-scale farms tend to be more regenerative by working with nature and using less fossil fuels because they do not usually have tractors or large harvesting machines,” Mrs. Hassell said. “Food from small-scale farms is usually sold directly to consumers through community-supported agriculture and farmer’s markets, which reduces the distance food must be transported before it gets to someone’s table.”

Some prototype devices the high school girls designed were modified versions of equipment already used by small-scale farms. One group created an improved version of a green bubbler — a machine used to wash greens — by adding a basket and drainage valve. Inspired by vegetable misters at the grocery store, another group built a portable mister attached to a hose that could be used to keep greens and vegetables fresh at farmer’s markets.

By the end of camp, the girls had a greater understanding of what it takes to thoroughly understand an issue and how to address it using their design thinking skills. One can only imagine what they will build next.