Hillel Academy wins national award for girls’ science education
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Hillel Academy wins national award for girls’ science education

College Board recognition follows Jewish day school's focus on STEAM.

Maya Davis, left and Shira Weisenfeld.  Photo courtesy of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh
Maya Davis, left and Shira Weisenfeld. Photo courtesy of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh

A focus on bolstering female representation in science netted Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh national recognition, as the Jewish day school was among recipients of the College Board AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award. The honor, which was announced last month, recognizes schools for closing the gender gap and engaging more female students in computer science coursework.

According to the College Board, of the 20,000 institutions offering AP (advanced placement) courses, Hillel Academy was one of 818 schools to “expand young women’s access to AP computer science courses.” The Squirrel Hill school also achieved more than a 50% female representation in its AP computer science course.

Schoolwide efforts to close the gender gap in science began years ago through curricular changes and targeted hires, explained Hillel Academy girls assistant principal Yikara Levari. By integrating science electives into the official curriculum and welcoming educator Becca Huff to the school, students have gotten richer exposure, she said.

Huff was hired prior to the 2018-’19 school year to advance female representation in science, said school principal Rabbi Sam Weinberg: “Recent evaluation indicated we needed to make a stronger commitment and provide our girl students opportunities to spark their interests and promote possible careers in computer science.”

Initially, Huff aided Hillel Academy educators in recognizing unconscious bias and helped promote robotics.

“My original position was simply to push science into the classrooms and provide professional support for teachers,” she said. “But what we thought was there was something lacking.”

Maya Davis, left and Shira Weisenfeld. Photo courtesy of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh

While working with the school’s administrators, Huff’s tasks increased. These days, apart from serving as Hillel Academy’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) director and teaching AP computer science, she oversees K-2 technology education and coordinates an after-school science club for seventh- and eighth-graders.

The efforts to improve STEAM education were bolstered by funds from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh, said Weinberg. In 2018, the organization granted Hillel Academy $5,000 for its girls’ computer science initiative.

The school purchased equipment for STEAM learning, such as robots and kits, and classroom learning promoted coding and robotics as mechanisms for solving, sequencing and collaboration skills. All of these efforts led to a noticeable increase in student interest in STEAM subjects — with obvious payoffs.

“I’ve had students who have struggled with more traditional types of learning, and computer science has been a skill that they’ve been able to pick up very quickly and feel very confident in,” said Levari.

In addition, Huff noted, reading a line of code challenges students differently than memorization does, she said. “It also gives kids, especially girls, a real-world skill.”

In 2019, the AP Computer Science Principles exam was administered to 72,187 students in thousands of post-secondary institutions, according to the College Board. The average score for test takers was 3.11 out of 5. Of Hillel Academy’s eight female students who took the test, the average score was 4 out of 5.

“What we’re doing exists in many larger public schools, but in smaller schools like ours, there aren’t always as many opportunities or experiences,” said Huff.

“The girls who go here are taking this to the next level,” noted Levari.

Weinberg praised the students’ “creativity, commitment and enthusiasm” in a statement, and said, “As educators and administrators, we believe a STEAM education plays a critical role in fostering a lifelong relationship with learning and setting our female students on a path to success in a 21st century workforce.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz @pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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