Mission: Hands-On Learning

Advent 2Advent Episcopal leads the way in STEM-based schooling.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

At the end of May, Advent Episcopal School Headmaster Palmer Kennedy did something almost unheard of. He asked the faculty to come back for a special training activity just days after the school year had ended.

Kennedy knew it was a gamble—they’d barely had a chance to decompress and begin enjoying the summer break. But the school was launching a major new initiative, the STEM program (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which is designed to incorporate a new element of problem-solving, exploratory and student-led learning into the Advent’s curriculum. Kennedy was eager for the teachers to try it out for themselves, and he didn’t want to wait until fall to gauge their reaction.

So Kennedy was watching closely as the teachers formed small teams and went to work with straw rocket launchers—instruments that resemble basic protractors with barrels sticking out. He watched closely as the teachers tweaked and experimented with the launchers’ angle and weight settings until they were able to hit their target.

“The energy that I saw in this place that day was the kind of energy typically seen on the first day of school,” Kennedy says, “because they were excited about what our kids are going to be able to do.”

Their enthusiasm more than anything else convinced Kennedy that building and purchasing equipment for the STEM labs was well worth the not-inconsiderable investment it represented for this independent school, which was established in 1950 and serves pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Advent, which is located downtown but draws students from all over the region—45 different zip codes in total—has long enjoyed a strong academic reputation. So adding the STEM labs, Kennedy emphasizes, is not about improving scores or making up for any perceived weakness. It’s more a way to shake things up a little, with an eye on never letting the school settle into complacency or rest on its laurels.

“This is the next, best opportunity to help us, even as strong as we are, get a little bit stronger,” Kennedy explains. “That’s our motivation for adopting this as opposed to settling where we were.”

In the STEM labs, students will engage in team-centered projects that take academic concepts from the classroom and turn them into real-life, hands-on challenges. Jennifer Dunn, who teaches in the classroom but will also be actively involved in the labs along with another dedicated STEM teacher, explains that lessons are broken into “missions” that cover several subjects based on what students are studying at the time. Some will be involve robotics-like missions (though the school also has a separate robotics program), such as building vehicles out of Legos and programming them to perform specific functions. Another mission involves building bridges out of available materials that have to be able to support a certain number of coins. Even lessons from literature are incorporated: A mission designed for younger grades has kids building structures that reflect key concepts borrowed from English class.

Advent 1“They read a story, and then they have to build a Lego person and a Lego setting based on different parts of the story,” Dunn explains. “What did Cinderella look like before the fairy godmother came, and what would her setting be like? So one child builds Cinderella before the arrival of the fairy godmother, other depicts Cinderella during the fairy godmother stage, and then finally the happily-ever-after Cinderella.

“What gets them excited,” Dunn continues, “is they know that they are taking ownership of what they are about to do. And overall, the goal is to develop their critical-thinking skills which in turn will definitely set them up for any type of success later.”

Kennedy adds that while teamwork among students is nothing new, the STEM labs take it to a different level. “That’s a leap for most schools—giving up some control where the teacher becomes more of a coach rather than just a disseminator of information,” he says. “When you have a roomful of kids who are extremely bright, to not let them cut loose once in a while to be creative and imaginative, it limits them. Creating a new setting for that imagination and creativity to transpire is probably the most powerful component. It’s difficult to put your hand on, but it’s real.”

STEM is not a new concept but has only recently begun to gain ground in the lower grades (8th and below). In fact, Kennedy says that before now, the use of STEM-based tools and lessons was primarily at the university level. Advent, along with a small but growing number of independent pre-K through 8 schools—including the independent Highlands School in Mountain Brook—is on the cutting edge in this respect.

“For us, it seemed like a natural step to adopt this type of program, partly because of our urban setting with the adjacent University of Alabama at Birmingham being such a dynamic center for research,” Kennedy notes. “We also have a pretty progressive parent body, just by the nature of why they send their children to Advent.”

Meanwhile, though the STEM labs may be getting a lot of the attention at Advent for the moment—there was even a special STEM camp for parents in late summer, so they could try out a few missions themselves—Kennedy points to other changes he’s excited about for the 2015-16 school year. A major one is a remodeling project that put the libraries literally in the middle of the school. “We’ve put a quarter million dollars into innovation and integration this summer,” he notes. “Part of that is morphing the role of our library resources a little bit to make sure they aren’t fringe elements out there—they’re the center of our school. Through the STEM labs, the libraries and other investments in technology, parents have been extremely supportive. They believe it’s going to help this school and help their children, and I think they’re right—because our teachers are phenomenal, and we’re just giving them additional tools so even better things continue to happen.”

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