By Wanda Hopkins McClure,
In Expeditionary Learning schools, students learn by conducting “learning expeditions” rather than by sitting in a classroom being taught one subject at a time. Expeditionary Learning works on developing the character–as well as the intellect–of students.
Expeditionary Learning changes not only how students learn but also a school’s culture. Expeditionary Learning affects standards, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and school organization. Teachers, parents, staff, and students work together to create a school culture of collaboration, respect, and high expectations.
Amana’s mission is to prepare students for high academic achievement beyond what they think is possible so that they become active contributors to building a better world. This hands-on learning process allows students to think critically and deeply by combining project-based learning with place-based education. Place-based education emphasizes connection and appreciation of the natural world, and service to others.
Amana Academy is fortunate to be located adjacent to Wills Park, an 85-acre urban park space with two miles of walking trails, ball fields, an outdoor classroom and equestrian center. It has two playground areas, one of which Amana’s 700 students use for recess everyday. We also use the park space for physical education and to teach environmental science.
The Expeditionary Learning model continually asks students to identify problems in their own community that they might potentially solve. Our teachers guided a discussion about our park space. As the discussion deepened, students came to the awareness that the playground they use daily is not user-friendly for handicapped children. It has wood chips, which are difficult for wheelchairs to navigate, the swings are intended for able-bodied students only, and the climbing equipment doesn’t take disability into account. Teachers used the discussion to talk about empathy and got students thinking critically about how playgrounds are designed.
The Expedition: With this awareness, an expedition was born! Amana students would reimagine their playground. It enabled our fourth grade students, who are studying simple machines, to apply technology to the problem. They looked at physics, technology, and design, to engineer potential solutions. They struggled with these guiding questions: How do forces impact society? How can we use our knowledge of simple machines to serve our community?
The Research: Students began their expedition by exploring the playground through the lens of an architect, using a critical eye toward design, assessing the ease of use of the equipment itself. They analyzed the entrance to the playground itself and worked individually and in groups to imagine what it is like for students who have physical challenges to use the space. The exploration continued as students worked through case studies that allowed them to explore physics and force. They created and prototyped simple machines to measure speed, distance, and force. Research continued with field work at LegoLand Discovery Center where students created models using Legos.
The Partnership and The Product: Students interacted with an architect and mechanical engineer who gave them input on the process of design and engineering, including the use of blueprints and 3-D models. Students used Google Sketchup to create their own blueprints which were then used to build 3-D models of their re-imagined playgrounds.
Students deepened their understanding of what would be needed to bring their project to life. They used math to calculate cost effectiveness, budget breakdowns, scale-factors, safety, and use of eco-materials. Working collaboratively, students created their ideas of what an accessible playground could look like. This project also integrated connections to the new Common Core standards in English language arts as students wrote persuasive proposals for changes to the existing playground based on their research. Students presented their final products to their parents and community at Showcase, Amana Academy’s mid-year celebration of student work.
Using Expeditionary STEM, Amana students are poised to become problem solvers and change-makers. Teachers are already planning next year’s expedition which will include a partnership with the Alpharetta City Parks Department. Amana students will create and write a collaborative grant proposal that might transform our playground and produce real-life change to our community.
Wanda Hopkins McClure is Elementary Grades Principal at Amana Academy, a Fulton County charter school.
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