Especially as plans unfold for the school’s new Science & Innovation Center, where there will be classrooms and labs for gender-separate academics, as well intentionally designed spaces for combined activities that will help all students grow—emotionally, socially and intellectually.
Wuertz, who leads the Boys Division and teaches music, understands gender differences and similarities better than most. She has been teaching for 30 years: in schools both single-gender and co-educational, public and private, and religious and secular. She’s also the parent to Ian ’15 and Sadie ’18.
“A boy playing the violin and a girl playing a violin—there’s nothing different about how they approach the music, from a technical or mechanical perspective,” said Wuertz. “That’s why, in 2014, the boys’ and girls’ orchestras were combined, as was the concert band program. These types of ensembles are stronger with the students together.”
But, Wuertz acknowledged, there often are key differences in the classroom, especially around competition and collaboration. “If I have a short little contest, the boys will bite,” she said. “They’ll play. And that will increase their engagement. In an all-girls class, I’d rather use collaboration to increase buy-in.”
At Regis Jesuit, Wuertz taught just boys until fall 2014, when the Steele Center opened and became the first “declared shared space” on campus. Now, boys and girls socialize together on the green, in the café and in performing arts spaces—though most classes are held separately.
With the future Science & Innovation Center (SIC), Wuertz and her counterpart in the Girls Division, Tim Bauer ’88, along with many teachers across both divisions are keen to improve even further on the blend of separate and combined activities that she calls “the best of both worlds.”
“We need large, flexible spaces, where we can move tables and chairs around and facilitate dialogue,” she said. “For example, in a theology or history class, boys and girls often are studying the same texts, only separately. We want everyone to learn from each other, so it will be great to be able to bring them together sometimes, to explore their different perspectives and interactions with the material.”
Dustin Dvorak, chair of Regis Jesuit’s unified science department serving both boys and girls, says the key to breaking down stereotypes is the one-on-one relationships he has with his students. “And yet, regardless of gender, they all need access to inspiration.”
The new SIC will improve STEM facilities for all students—but especially the girls. “The curiosity students develop in high school is a big driver for continuing on,” said Dvorak. “So, if our girls miss out on the full experience to see concepts in action—through physical demonstrations, chemical reactions, live experiments—it’s possible they may lose interest.” Currently, nine sections of science classes for girls (vs. two for boys) are taught in non-science classrooms.
The SIC will have pods of specialized science classrooms. For example, the four for chemistry will have fume hoods, chemical storage space, and access to gas, sinks and safety equipment. Biology rooms will have grow lights, places for tanks, and refrigerators to store what students will be dissecting. For robotics and engineering classes and co-curricular activities, there will be a new fabrication space with a woodshop, metal shop, jewelry-making tools, a 3-D printer and powerful computers with the software needed to design and build absolutely anything.
“Dedicated facilities and equipment will really expand our repertoire of what we can do,” Dvorak said. “And because every science class for boys and girls will be taught in the building, every freshman, sophomore and junior student will be there every other day at a minimum.”
Having equitable space for boys and girls will make a big difference in breaking down stereotypes, which is important to Dvorak and Wuertz, and to all students and teachers at Regis Jesuit.
Wuertz said: “In our unique model at RJ, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to capitalize on the benefits of single-gender education, as well as to bring the students together for co-educational experiences with intentionality and purpose. Caring for and loving our students starts with setting up a classroom environment where all students can feel safe and included.”