Cloning jellyfish and whitewater kayaking
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
CARBONDALE ” “This isn’t funny anymore,” shouted a summer biology student, in his 8 a.m. class on the Colorado Rocky Mountain School campus in Carbondale.
The other rising sophomores looked up from their computers”to find the boy laughing. Apparently, he was finding some uncomfortable similarities between his own DNA and that of Otzi the Iceman, a Bronze Age man found near the border of Austria and Italy.
This summer, the Aspen Science Center’s High School2 (HS2) has entered its second year, doubled its size, and is arguably distinguishing itself as one of the more unique programs available for so-called “disadvantaged” youth.
Rather than simply ensuring the students have the academic skills to excel in school, the program engages them with active learning both inside and outside the classroom.
In biology, for example, the students recently studied genetically modified organisms (GMOs). First, they looked for the presence of Roundup Ready, a herbicide often spliced into plant genes, in their favorite food. Next, they created their own GMO, phosphorescent bacteria, by crossing e. coli bacteria with a phosphorescent jellyfish.
Next week, they’ll mate albino zebrafish and regular zebrafish to see if they can predict the offspring.
“To experience something is a much more deeply felt and deeply understood embodiment or internalization of the real science,” argued Kevin Ward, Aspen Science Center executive director. “It’s absolutely the best practice. Statistically, it’s emerged as by far the best way to teach science.”
And the students say that not only are the HS2 classes interesting, they make their home-school classes seem really easy.
The HS2 program is modeled on Math and Science2 (MS2), a 31-year old program at Phillips Academy Andover. According to Ward, the highly successful MS2 program, which turns away countless students every semester, had never expanded to another campus.
An advocate for propagating best practices, Ward decided to talk Andover into a clone.
Like MS2, the HS2 program targets high-achieving African-American, Latino, Native American, and other underrepresented students from low-income backgrounds. And like MS2, the HS2 program provides the students with a full scholarship for three consecutive summers, with the goal of getting them into an Ivy League college.
But unlike MS2, HS2 is infused with what might be called a Western ethic of action over theory.
In addition to learning largely through a problem-based learning model, the students also spend most of their afternoons in activities geared to expose them to something they’ve never done before, according to dean of students Jennifer Ogilby.
Active classes like glass-blowing, blacksmithing, ceramics, kayaking and rock climbing give the students the opportunity to learn something from scratch, and in some cases, overcome fears around trying something new.
Prior to a recent white-water rafting trip, the students were so nervous that nearly all of them came up with a reason they couldn’t go, Ogilby said. To connive them into trying the new sport, she gave the students a secondary option she knew they wouldn’t like: trail work.
The students all showed up.
“They loved it so much, they want to do it again,” she said, laughing and explaining that she’d set up a trip for the coming weekend.
And this year’s returning students were so excited to become better kayakers that Ogilby had to add an advanced kayaking course for them.
It’s hands-down the favorite sport of many of the second-year students, they say.
“You get the perspective from the river,” mused Gustavo Alvarez, of Dallas. Then he grinned. “Plus, it’s extreme.”
Trenija Davis, also of Dallas, agreed. “Even the things you don’t want to do are fun in kayaking,” she explained.
Ward did such a good job of selling the CRMS program to the Andover administration that for the last two years, Andover has brought its own students and teachers to the CRMS campus for a math and science program geared at rising sophomores who need an extra boost.
The two programs run simultaneously, though the students have separate classes.
Ward said last year the students were a little too “tribal” about staying with those from their group, so this year the program has made a deliberate attempt to mix the two groups at meals and activities.
Ogilby says she even tries to make sure the arts and sports activities have a half-and-half mix.
The students are still more comfortable in their own groups, but they’re starting to reach out, Ward said. He was convinced that some of the students had cross-tribe crushes.
The fact that all the students are studying math and science levels the playing field, Ward said.
Then he thought about what he’d said and remembered that just the other day he’d come across an HS2 student explaining a difficult scientific concept to an Andover student.
“Actually, it tilts it in our direction,” he clarified. The entire campus becomes a “paradigm where knowledge is power,” rather than wealth or status, he argued.
The HS2 students say they’re learning on all fronts: inside and outside the classroom. Just being in Carbondale is different.
“Everyone has a bike and a dog,” explained Tyana Riley, of Memphis.
Nearby students chime in, explaining that everyone is healthy, fit and “actually recycles.”
Kory Yates, also of Memphis, said that the experience has given him more confidence, and Davis noted the importance of learning to live away from home.
Ward is just excited that the program itself isn’t just a theory, but an active living thing having an impact on real students.
“You know, everybody is talking about all this infrastructural, holistic, macro, buy-in stuff for education,” he said. “This is the rubber hitting the road….I go to bed knowing it’s real,” he said.
So far, the HS2 program, which costs just under $200,000 a year, has been funded almost entirely through the generosity of Andover alumni Gar and Mollie Lasater, Ward said.
But recently, Ward”who wants to convince other community members to sponsor the students”was expounding on the merits of the program to Rob Pew, at the Woody Creek Tavern.
Pew allowed that it sounded like a good program.
“So you’ll take a student?,” Ward said.
“No,” Pew apparently said. “I’ll take a whole class for three years.”
If Ward’s hypotheses are proven out, the investment could be worth it.
“These [students],” he has said, “are the Barack Obamas of tomorrow.”
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