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Walking in the rainforest

Teacher at Queens all-girls’ school hopes to transfer her love for science
New York Teacher

Jonathan Fickies

Students at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Jamaica gather at the waterfall in their gallery walk.

Jonathan Fickies

Teacher Mayen Davis wears a special T-shirt to motivate her class to love science as much as she does.

Mayen Davis couldn’t bring her 6th-grade science class with her to the Costa Rican rainforest so she brought the rainforest to the Jamaica campus of the Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens.

Davis pulled together all the knowledge she had soaked up during her teacher fellowship in Costa Rica last summer along with her photos and artifacts from the trip. Then, together with her preteen scientists, she transformed the science room into a rainforest. A canopy of tree leaves and vines hang from the ceiling, and plants and animals climb the trunks of trees throughout the classroom.

Since rainforests, according to scientists, are home to two-thirds of all living animals and plant species, the class faced quite a challenge. “The girls made everything,” Davis said. “I told them my vision, and we went to work.”

Each student chose a plant or animal, conducted research to learn and write about it, drew a likeness of it and then found a home for it in their rainforest.

On a gallery walk through the forest, you might spot a poison-dart frog or a toucan or stand beside a waterfall.

Jonathan Fickies

Sixth-grade students prepare for future leadership roles.

These young scientists who are learning about biospheres and abiotic environments are also exploring what happens to the plants and creatures when rainforests are bulldozed or brushfires destroy habitat. They are applying what they are learning in class to ecological and environmental issues of today, since Davis’ goal for them is “to make real-world connections.”

Those connections are more tangible for the students thanks to Davis’ experience in the Earth Watch summer fellowship. With 10 other teachers, three from New York City schools, she tracked endangered mammals forced off the land due to forest clearing. She kept in touch with her students via email as she moved about in the forest. She also keeps in touch with fellowship colleagues, sharing teaching ideas and science experiments.

Davis admits that she hated science as a student — “until that one great teacher.” That’s the kind of science teacher she aspires to be.

Wearing her pink T-shirt with the slogan “This Girl Loves Science,” Davis aims “to keep it light.” She has other T-shirts that have science puns printed on them. There’s the one with the noble gases — gases actually found in group 18 of the periodic table of elements — which on her T-shirt are dressed up as Renaissance lords.

“Hopefully I can transfer my love of science to them,” she said. She would love to turn all 560 girls in the school into scientists. She thinks she may have a better chance to accomplish that in a school with only girls.

Jonathan Fickies

Young scientists check out habitat information in their science classroom that has been transformed into a rainforest.

“Typically, girls entering middle school fall behind in science and math,” Davis explained. “Here, there’s no one to hide behind, there’s less competition. Here we hope to make them all shine, to become leaders in their own right.”

The middle grades in the 6th–12th-grade school provide opportunities for lab work to prepare the girls for the greater challenges of high school science.

Davis, who knew many of the girls when she and they were at nearby PS 40, spoke of “the amazing change I see in them, in their self-confidence and academic success.”

Jonathan Fickies

A poison-dart frog and a toucan are part of the student-created wildlife.

The push to encourage the girls to excel at science is part of a broader effort by the school’s faculty to expand the girls’ sense of possibilities for their lives. At daily morning meetings, the girls focus on developing and using their voices, shattering glass ceilings and sharpening leadership skills.

Special education teacher Samantha Hlawatsch said she appreciates the opportunity as a woman to support developing the young women of the future. “Here we all share the same goals for the students both academically and emotionally so we really are the village that it takes to raise a child,” she said.

Founded in 2005, the Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens — one of the five all-girls’ schools in the city — draws much of its population from new immigrant families. In 2014, all of the school’s seniors were accepted at the colleges of their choice and received a total of $4 million in scholarships, according to the school.

The 6th-graders in Davis’ science class are on track to follow in their footsteps.