Friday, May 22, 2015

The Campus as Our Classroom

For Vianney Griffins, whether students or teachers, an increasing trend among learning experiences here is to make the campus our classroom. This is an important step -- it signifies a growing comfort with learning anywhere and everywhere.  And in typical Vianney style, we learn as a family.

Notable examples include QR code scavenger hunts, storming the Bastille on the football bleachers, life-size board games in the commons, navigating an obstacle course (entirely in Spanish) in the Activity Center, and analyzing minor explosions on the lawn outside the Chemistry classroom (sometimes in the hallway).  And the list could go on.  This week we highlight one example: how a campus-wide classroom deepened Bill Alexander's AP Biology students' appreciation of genetics and the research process.

The Set-up:

Bill's AP Biology students investigate the intricacies of genetics each year.  And each year, Bill's students learn that our sense of like and dislike in terms of tasting foods is, at least in part, hard wired.  Students taste paper imbued with three different harmless chemicals.  Some can taste the chemical, some can't.  One of the three chemicals tastes different to different people.

The class results are fairly neat and reflect the patterns outlined in Bill's instructions (pictured below).

But that's not real science.

Taking it outside the walls:

Real science is messy, involves multiple and larger samples.  What better way to experience the messiness of sampling than to actually do it?

How it worked:

  • 6 teams:
    Bill divided his class into six teams.  The class rehearsed the steps to delivering the tests themselves and then spread out to offices and classrooms that had volunteered to be a part of the experiment.

  • Collaborating through a Google Spreadsheet:
    Students tallied results and entered them into a Google Spreadsheet file.  The entire class was working in the same workbook file, but each group had its own worksheet.  The full-class averages were collected in real time as students input their data.  Bill was able to observe the work of disparate teams as they moved from room to room.
    A copy of the spreadsheet is available here.

  • Immediate results reviewed in the classroom:
    Because students were entering data as they worked, the results were immediately available once they returned to class.  Each team created a graph, posted it to a summary page on the same document, stood back, and were shocked at what they saw.

  • Research is messy
    Students saw that their results varied, sometimes vastly, from the ideal.  This departure sparked complaints about how the students they tested "didn't pay attention to directions" or "didn't know the difference between sour and bitter."  Bill used these complaints as a springboard for a discussion about the messy research process, the importance of uniform conditions and standards during the data-gathering process, and the difficulty of getting humans to follow directions.

  • Working as teams and leaders

    The process required students to work collaboratively.  Team spokesmen naturally emerged, directing whole classrooms of participants.  These teams were trusted with movement around campus, and kept accountable through the Google spreadsheet as they did so.

  • Window into a discipline
    Ultimately, the whole-campus learning exercise was an experiential window into careers where the content of AP Biology is applied each day, complexity included.

As students learn outside our classrooms, whether in person or online, they make connections that allow them to apply that learning to disciplines outside our classrooms.  Science isn't something that just lives by the lab table.  Spanish doesn't happen only in the room brightly colored with flags and vocabulary on the wall.  Social studies isn't reduced to old documents in glass cases.  

In "the real world," disciplines, ideas, and skills intertwine.  Taking students out of their typical "learning space" helps them connect the dots.