The Wildwood Difference: A Bunch of Hot Air?

The day that I sit in on one of Levi Simons’s 12th grade physics classes, watching the lesson that he’s invited me to see, I begin thinking to myself: umm…this is pretty traditional high school stuff—a lecture and discussion on Avogadro’s Law. Sure, physics students need to know this essential physical law about the density of gases at various temperatures and pressures.

Levi Simons lectures to his 12th grade physics class

But…this is Wildwood. Like other upper school courses Levi’s class is project-based and the curriculum is both college preparatory and progressive, emphasizing critical inquiry and problem solving.  So why are the students sitting at tables, taking notes as Levi writes equations and examples on the whiteboard?

In a traditional college prep classroom, this lecture would fit into a predictable pattern: students memorize lecture content, maybe apply that content in a lab with a pre-ordained outcome, and then take test on the content. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

But just as I’m really starting to wonder…the Wildwood difference reveals itself. The lecture soon evolves into a conversation that prods students into asking questions; it’s clear that Levi invited me today not merely to sit through a lecture but rather to join his students on their first day of eight weeks of learning, investigation, planning, and design; work that will culminate in a project requiring students to synthesize everything by designing, prototyping, and testing their own hot air balloons. (There’s a video at the bottom of this post of an example from last year)

“High school science classrooms can reflect the actual work that researchers, engineers, and designers engage in,” Levi tells me later. “That work definitely involves acquiring knowledge but it also requires skills development to apply that knowledge.  Oh, and trial and error—lots of trial and error!”

Avogadro’s Law

Levi plans his courses to make room for all of this. Daily lessons provide a kind of scaffolding to ensure that every student gets the framework—all of the skills and knowledge they’ll need as they work their way up to completing the project. Today’s lecture is the first in a series introducing four key gas laws students will need to master before attempting their project. Levi designs each lab and homework assignment to allow students to apply their knowledge of the gas laws, experimentally and theoretically.

There’s much more than meets the eye in today’s lesson

Once students have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills, they’re ready to create.  “First the students propose a design based on what they’ve learned. Then, they’ll build a prototype,” Levi explains. “That prototype probably won’t work, but that’s good.  They need to analyze what went wrong and redesign and re-prototype.” That’s where the real learning takes place, and the Wildwood difference shows.

Back in class, the discussion prompted by the lecture on Avogadro’s Law is already provoking students to think with an eye toward its application. Levi presents a necessary assumption upon which the law is based: that gas molecules will bounce back off of other with the same amount of energy with which they collide—a concept known in physics as perfect elasticity. Immediately, students begin to challenge the assumption, knowing that perfect conditions never exist. One 12th grader, Luke Z. asks, “Wouldn’t that mean that there’s no energy loss and you could build a perpetual motion machine?  That doesn’t seem possible.”

“Exactly,” says Levi. “Of course some energy will be lost and perfect conditions never exist. Assumptions are necessary starting points in scientific inquiry.” “So, they’re like the foundation of a house,” Luke posits, to which Levi adds, “Yes, houses built up with experimental evidence.”

The imagination is launched.

For the final project, it’s not essential that students’ hot air balloons actually work.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but students’ assessments don’t even hinge on whether the balloons take flight. As Levi points out, that’s because “scientific and design breakthroughs are built on mountains of failure. For example, when we use an iPhone, we don’t think of the hundreds of designs and prototypes that ultimately failed to reach market.  But without knowing what didn’t work, Apple couldn’t have perfected the ones that did.

That is the philosophy that guides this project, too.

It’s really Wildwood. Real learning, not a lot of hot air.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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