ASU workshop empowers young women to consider the sciences


May 18, 2015

What’s your idea of a scientist?

For most of the 18 young women in an ASU high school workshop, it was a man in a lab coat – at least at the start of the workshop. high school girls writing in classroom Download Full Image

The professors running the workshop – a six-week program to help girls imagine themselves in a science profession – had the students draw a scientist at the start of the program to shake up their thinking and reveal subconscious stereotypes.

Directed by ASU English faculty members Jessica Early and Christina Saidy, the Girls Writing Science project hosts ethnically and linguistically diverse girls in grades 9-12 to examine the roles of women in the sciences, provide female role models and improve the students' science writing.

Each participant at the workshop, held at ASU Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, interviewed a female scientist from ASU or the community and wrote a story.

“There’s research that shows women stay away from the sciences because they don’t know any women in the sciences or have any role models,” said Saidy, who along with Eary is co-director of the Central Arizona Writing Project.

“Our goal is to encourage these young women to start thinking, ‘I can do this.’ ”

Ashley Zyriah Castro, a 15-year-old sophomore at ASU Prep, said she has already run into gender bias from classmates about her exploring a career in chemical engineering.

"They don't see that it's possible and are quick to judge, but I've never been hurt or discouraged by it," Castro said. "Science gives a deeper understanding and meaning about life in general. It's interesting to find there's more out there than just what we see."

For 14-year-old Ashley Verdin Sesmas, a freshman at ASU Prep, imagining herself in an important role is not a problem. She wants to become a neurologist.

“My uncle got into a car crash and had some problems after that, so I want to help him,” Sesmas said. “I want to figure out why a person reacts a certain way to this environment … I want to see the reactions.”

For sophomore Miranda Vargas, 16, the idea of being a cardiac surgeon is enticing. She says has her heart set on medical school in a few years.

“The first time I got interested in science was back in middle school when we dissected a baby shark,” Vargas said. “From that point on, I really wanted to cut things open and see what’s inside.”

The two-year, $60,000 project is funded by the National Writing Project/National Science Foundation-funded Intersections Project, through the ASU Department of English’s Central Writing Project. More workshops are planned at other local high schools.

Early said opening up the classroom doors and giving students access to people they normally wouldn’t have met can be a life-changing event.

“Research shows that success is often a case of who has access to sponsors and mentors,” Early said. “If you’re an honors or AP student, the world is your oyster. We want to go into classrooms and show that all students should have access to this curriculum and to important people.”

The curriculum included discussions on exploring science careers, a gallery walk to read excerpts from autobiographies and biographies of women in science, daily stories and TED Talks on women scientists, writing interview protocol with female scientists and writing emails to connect with women in science in a professional setting. The girls wrote profiles on female scientists to share with each other, with students who did not participate in the workshop, with their teachers and with their families.  

At the end of the workshop on May 20, all 18 students will participate in a celebration and receive program completion certificates. The professors also plan to have students again draw their idea of a scientist. Early and Saidy are hoping the exercise will have a much different outcome – lots of female faces.

Reporter , ASU Now

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98 percent of ASU Prep's first class of seniors graduating


May 18, 2015

Sharon Osorno is ready to graduate from ASU Preparatory Academy on May 28.  When she started four years ago, she wasn’t sure she would be prepared for the tough academic curriculum. 

“I was worried about coming to school here,” Osorno said, “but I’m glad I did.” Download Full Image

Osorno joins 130 of her peers, 98 percent of ASU Prep’s class of 2015, as a part of the high school’s first graduating class of seniors. Their success is the culmination of four years of work by students, families, teachers, administrators and Arizona State University to build a rigorous high school program at two schools.

The class of 2015 reflects a stunning turnaround for the once-struggling community school in downtown Phoenix and sustained growth and achievement at ASU Prep Polytechnic since the university took over both campuses in 2010. 

The downtown Phoenix campus had a history of high student and teacher turnover and low academic results. The Phoenix Elementary School District agreed to partner with ASU to rebuild the school’s academic programs for K-12 students.

ASU combined operations at the school in downtown Phoenix with its existing school at the Polytechnic campus to create the ASU Preparatory Academy, a free public charter school that serves students in grades K-12. 

Deborah Gonzalez, the chief academic officer at both schools, has been with ASU Prep since the beginning and helped guide the transition for both campuses.  

“We saw this as an opportunity to build a school that empowers students to contribute locally and compete globally,” Gonzalez said.

Rigorous curriculum

Gonzalez’s first challenge was developing a curriculum for two schools that serve widely different student populations.  Seventy-six percent of students from the Phoenix campus qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, while the Polytechnic campus served a more affluent neighborhood. 

Gonzalez worked with teachers, site administrators and parents to implement a unique curriculum at both schools that focuses on academic preparation, community connection and global awareness for students in high school and beyond.

“We know that ZIP code does not determine whether a student can be successful in school, but it often determines the type of program a student receives,” Gonzalez said. “By choosing a rigorous curriculum and treating every student as though they are an elite honors student, we have shown that all students can achieve in a college preparatory environment.”

ASU Prep’s curriculum is modeled after the internationally acclaimed Cambridge curriculum.  Teachers at ASU Prep are all experts in the subjects they teach; 70 percent hold or are completing advanced degrees. In addition, juniors and seniors are eligible to take ASU courses for college credit. 

All students have the opportunity to participate in an annual capstone project, where students take knowledge learned in the classroom and use it to benefit the community.

Jeni McClue, a chemistry teacher at ASU Prep, oversees a capstone where high school seniors tutor and mentor elementary students.  She sees firsthand the impact ASU Prep students have on the surrounding area. 

“Because the project requires students to identify a need in the community, the capstone helps students feel close to the community,” McClue said.  “They are provided an opportunity to take leadership and make a difference.”

The commitment to ASU Prep extends beyond to parents as well.  Many parents play an active role in personalizing the curriculum for their children, offering feedback to teachers and administrators. 

And parents are required to give 30 hours of service to the school.  They volunteer in classrooms and support extracurricular events.  

Making a difference

Olga Martinez, a parent who voluntarily teaches Spanish to teachers, believes ASU Prep is helping her children. 

“I chose this school because of its small classes and opportunities,” Martinez said.  “The parents, teachers and children really work together as a team.”

The unified rigorous curriculum is paying off for students.  The National Charter School Association recognized ASU Prep as one of the best schools based on academic achievement.  On the statewide AIMS test, ASU Prep students at both campuses beat the statewide average for gains in math scores and gains in reading scores.

The focus on college readiness contributed to a high college acceptance rate.  The class of 2015 will send 76 percent of students to a four-year university; 72 percent of students were accepted to Arizona State University itself.  Students in the class of 2015 earned more than $2 million in scholarship money.

For Osorno, ASU Prep helped prepare her to excel in college.  She will be the first in her family to attend college when she attends Arizona State University to study biochemistry in the fall – an accomplishment she attributes to her teachers at ASU Prep.

“I didn’t think I’d be good at chemistry,” Osorno said, “but the way Mrs. McClue taught helped me understand; she helped build my confidence to succeed.”

Written by Firoz Jameel

Penny Walker

Senior Editor, Media Relations and Strategic Communications

480-965-9689