E=mc2 participant Febronia Mansour, center, poses for a photo with program coordinators Bernard Bott and Melissa Gergen following the symposium session on Thursday, June 8 / Photo courtesy of the Guilderland Central School District
GUILDERLAND — Curiosity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Communication: Those are the five lenses through which students enrolled in the nascent independent study program at Guilderland Central High School shape and evaluate their own work.
“Information literacy is paramount,” said Bernard Bott, a librarian at Guilderland Central High School, explaining what inspired he and fellow librarian Melissa Gergen to establish the program, called E=mc2 (Exploring with Mindful Creativity and Curiosity), which is now offered as an elective to high school students in grades 10 through 12.
One day earlier, on Thursday, June 8, the 12 students who signed up for the second year of the program had just presented their final projects in a TED Talk-style symposium at the high school. They spoke on a range of self-selected topics, from music to neuroscience to caffeine and the educational system.
“When we talk about higher level thinking, we’re talking about evaluation and analysis and synthesis, creating something new from something that you’ve learned,” said Bott. ”Given how much information is at our fingertips at any given moment, it is really important to understand where that information comes from, what that information says, who is saying it and what you’re going to do with it.”
To that end, students enrolled in the class are expected to select a topic of interest to them and begin researching that topic on their own over the summer. As their research progresses throughout the school year, they develop a focus and identify a question they will endeavor to answer. Ultimately, those students will formulate an idea they that will endeavor (can we use a synonym here? I’d prefer not to use the same word twice within the same sentence) to share at the end-of-the-year symposium.
“As coordinators, we work with them, holding checkpoint meetings during the year,” said Bott, explaining that the course has no physical or temporal classroom. “They create and grade their own assignments through the lens of those five Cs. They can use their study hall or free time to accomplish course objectives and we essentially become partners with the students throughout their education.”
Since they came up with the idea to start a research class several years ago, Bott and Gergen have done a considerable amount of their own research on the importance of curiosity and creativity in schools, which they said has fueled their desire to create change in Guilderland. They have made that information available on the E=mc2 website, along with the students’ research projects and progress.
Over the summer, each student in the program is expected to select a topic about which they are inherently curious, with the goal of identifying a question they will spend the following nine months answering. Their journey is charted on the E=mc2 website created by Bott and Gergen. In addition to a series of in-person meetings with the program coordinators, students are expected to submit their research findings, as well as journal entries and other assignments, several of which they design themselves.
“Really what it comes down to,” said Bott, “is what do you want to learn? And how do you want to learn it? And, then, how do you show that you’ve learned it?”
“Even though we each study something different, it’s like we’ve built this community of thinkers,” said Febronia Mansour, a GCHS junior who has been enrolled in both years E=mc2 has been offered. “We were always learning from each other and, personally, that was my favorite part of it.” Mansour said that she was able to apply concepts she learned from others’ research to her work with neurobiology.
At the outset of the course, each student is paired with a research partner with whom they share and critique work. “But, as the year went on,” said Mansour, “there were some collaborations that were just a natural fit that sort of evolved.”
“What we find is that every discipline comes into the fold,” said Bott. “No matter what you want to learn.”
“This course is different that any other course we take in school,” said Mansour. “It was a struggle in the beginning to guide my own learning. I would have to decide for myself where I would take my research next and I couldn’t rely on that teacher-student dynamic.”
Not that she didn’t benefit from the guidance of Bott and Gergen. When she set out to pursue her research in neurobiology, Mansour originally wanted to explore potential relationships between Alzheimer’s and Autism-spectrum disorders, but found that she did not have the foundational understanding of the way the human brain is supposed to work.
“If there’s something you want to learn, you should pursue it,” she said. “But you shouldn’t pursue it in a way that makes you become disillusioned with the topic.” It was in conversations with her research coordinators, she said, that she realized she needed to refocus her research in such a way that she didn’t feel overwhelmed by its scope.
Noting that the lack of a typical classroom structure can be daunting at first, Mansour said of her research, “It becomes a part of you, because you’re not thinking about this subject at a certain time every day or every other day, you’re constantly thinking about it and thinking about what questions you can ask, and you have the ability to expand upon something that you’re curious about in a way that is creative.”
“This year,” said Bott, “we had a student make an album out of playing music to math and physics equations. So, taking relativity and making that into sound.”
“Leading up to the symposium, we had to learn how to be comfortable with public speaking and being out there talking about something that we’ve been working on and showcasing our work,” said Mansour. “We write journals throughout the year and that helps us learn how to communicate our thinking and be better writers and more fluent in communicating what’s in our heads.
“I think a lot of people were able to gain something from that,” she added.
Bott called the symposium “the culmination” of the last nine months of work.
“When we talk about higher level thinking, we’re talking about evaluation and analysis and synthesis, creating something new from something that you’ve learned,” he said. “There are some high expectations here. We’re expecting them to take something that is not tangible and make it tangible to their audience.”
According to Bott, they’re hoping to document the year-long process next year. “It will follow their journey so that it’s a little bit more catalogued,” he said. “This was our second year, so it’s really still in its infancy.”
Thirteen students are signed up for next year and Bott said they’re willing to take more. “But we start pretty much right away. The symposium was yesterday and we’re already building the website for next year.” Five students, including Mansour, will be returning to the program, which will be composed primarily of seniors, either to continue their research or undertake a new topic.
Bott said that he would eventually like to offer the course to freshmen and, ultimately, to middle school students as well. “This is something that we really love,” he said. “The administration is really supportive, the community has given us really strong feedback and it’s just showcasing that student-centered learning is paramount.”
“This community of thinkers that we have isn’t something that really goes away,” said Mansour. “I think that connection that we have is really valuable… everyone is teaching everyone else about something that they love and that’s really my favorite part of this course.
“No matter how hard school can get, no matter how difficult and arduous the other classes are, we know that we always have this course to, not fall back on in terms of academic achievement or grades, but in terms of being able to express yourself and be doing something that you love.”