Working with disease-modeling software and a UCSF lab associate, girls experimented with variables like transmission rates and incubation times to re-create the path of disease — represented on students' laptop screens by shifting green, red and blue icons — in an imaginary village.
The disease-modeling unit is part of a sweeping revamp of the high school science curriculum at Castilleja, which this fall replaced its Advanced Placement science program with home-grown "advanced topics" in chemistry, biology and physics.
The changes also required a rebuilding of the school's first-year science courses, with an eye toward engaging girls in what it's like to be a real scientist.
"We're trying to get students to do more science as opposed to listening to me talk about science," said Science Department Chair Jeanne Appelget, who managed the creation of the new courses over the course of the past year.
"It's not science to get you into college — it's science to love science and consider pursuing it and going on to become a scientist," Castilleja Head of School Nanci Kauffman has said of the new curriculum.
Appelget sought ideas in the 2010 report "Why So Few?" published by the American Association of University Women, which pinpointed specific barriers to women in science and engineering.
She also looked to the National Research Council's Framework for K-12 Science Education Standards, developed by a scientific task force led by Stanford University physicist Helen Quinn, which urged schools across the country to move toward less memorization and deeper engagement.
"The framework affected what we were doing, and how we looked at our essential questions," Appelget said. "One of those was, 'How do students use models in science and engineering?'
"I wanted to use more modeling in my curriculum."
Appelget teamed up with UCSF's Nick Sippl-Swezey to use the disease-tracking software Nova to create an accessible, hands-on unit in research.
"Nova is a tool that's visually intuitive and accessible at the high school level," Sippl-Swezey said. "What is unique is that it's extensible to the level of professional academic research."
His efforts were funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health Office for Science Education.
The software allowed the girls to play with parameters and witness imaginary epidemics as they were happening, but Sippl-Swezey reminded them it's impossible to build all the complexity of the real world into a model.
"It's good to build in some skepticism and criticism of modeling," he said. "The 2008 financial crisis was built on faulty asset-pricing models ... so having young students criticize models makes me excited."
Kauffman said computer modeling is a financially sustainable way to bring real-life science into classrooms across the country, not just the wealthy ones.
"Hopefully, what we are incubating at Castilleja will benefit science education more broadly," she said.
"Inspiring the scientists of the future ... will only happen when scientists are willing to bring science to life in our classrooms and when teachers are willing to invite scientists into the classroom as partners."