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March 15, 2023

AHA Scientists Impress at Columbia University’s STEAMnasium

Students from the Academy of the Holy Angels Middle School know that scientific ability is not gender-dependent. On March 8, the International Day of the Woman, over 40 middle school Angels demonstrated their scientific sides at Columbia University’s STEAMnasium, a celebration of scientific discovery and diversity.


AHA’s visitors were special guests of Dr. Jessica Riccio, a science professor at Columbia’s Teachers College. Dr. Riccio spent six weeks working with middle school Angels who are members of Women in Science and Engineering. WISE students began their after school studies with Dr. Riccio and middle school science teacher Linda Payonzeck by learning how to keep a scientific notebook, protect their work so they receive credit for their own ideas and discoveries, and trying astronaut/science teacher Christa McAuliffe’s lost lessons. McAuliffe, who perished in the 1986 Challenger accident before she could share her lesson plans, inspired Dr. Riccio to become a teacher.


“At the Academy of Holy Angels Middle School, we are richly blessed with opportunities to expand our learning experiences beyond the concrete walls of our classrooms,” said Traci Koval, dean of AHA Middle School. “In just our second year, we find ourselves welcoming guest instructors as well as venturing out into an expanded academic arena. This is just the beginning of many exciting things to come!”


As they prepared for the STEAMnasium, WISE participants explored a wide range of topics. During their day at Teachers College, they presented their research, which included information about female scientists, student-made inventions, explorations of scientific phenomena, and habitats used by wild and domestic animals. Students set up models and information stations, and discussed their findings with STEAMnasium visitors, providing details about their discoveries. Students who researched habitats covered information about domestic and wild animals that included capybaras, sloths, foxes, deer, owls, rabbits, and pet cats and dogs.


Angels Cristyn and Valentina raised awareness of the Artemis Project, a NASA mission that will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon. Women involved in this project include Sharon Cobb, Stephanie Wilson, Charlie B. Thompson, and Laura Polish.


One student tested changes in color when different liquids are combined. Another worked out a magnetic system that dispenses dog food. Other Angels researched COVID, how parachutes function, and glacial erratics present in the New York-New Jersey Metropolitan Area.

Some WISE presenters focused on being a voice for women scientists whose work was ignored or stolen by men. Eighth grader Allison shed light on Marie-Sophie Germain, the French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher whose work in the areas of number theory and elasticity made the construction of the Eiffel Tower possible. Allison noted that, while there are dozens of men’s names mentioned on the Parisian landmark, Germain is not acknowledged.


Several Angels highlighted female scientists who experienced the Matilda Effect, a bias against women’s contributions to the sciences. Some women’s discoveries have been lost, trivialized, or stolen. This phenomenon is named for Matilda Joslyn Gage, who wrote an essay about these incidents.


“Always give credit to those who have done the work,” Dr. Riccio told the Angels at the closing STEAMnasium assembly. She also announced that WISE will be an ongoing collaboration at AHA.


Over the weeks she spent at Holy Angels this year, Dr. Riccio systematically gave students more control of the class, while still providing guidance. One secret test involved instructions for an experiment that led the girls to add water to an antacid tablet and wait for it to effervesce. Nothing happened. When Riccio asked the students about their progress, the girls suggested that they needed to use more water. They were absolutely correct.


In a few weeks, the Angels went from absorbing lectures to actively performing experiments, posing questions, and conducting research on topics that interest them.


The Angels’ informative presentations were one stop on the multi-stage tour at Teachers College. STEAMnasium activities housed in the Smith Learning Theater included a chance to operate a robot and learn about drones. Visitors learned how indigenous peoples used the sun to mark time, interacted with an artificial intelligence chatbot, and took a Dinosaur Dream Expedition that featured augmented reality and virtual reality. Students also discovered how birds use materials from the environment to build nests, and had an opportunity to test their own engineering and construction skills.


Students who visited the STEAMnasium included everyone from AHA Middle School, not just those from WISE. Young guests were eligible to win prizes for visiting every station. Those in charge at each station provided visitors with stickers to add to their STEAMnasium passport.