There is a unique course offered to students in grades five through eight at Oak Hill Academy called “Explorations.” Over the last thirty years this program has been refined to help students analyze and use technology to solve real life issues as well as to gain deep understanding of issues.
The Oak Hill students work in teams to dissect a problem and to use critical thinking to develop a tentative solution. Design thinking is used to really understand the problem and to empathize with the people who are struggling with the task of recovering from an unwanted occurrence.
Fifth grade Explorations kicked off the school year exploring the human brain and the concept of having a growth mindset using a program developed by Khan Academy. By watching videos and reading articles, students learned that our brains are made up of connections between neurons, dendrites, axions, and synapses, and that these connections are actually strengthened in situations when we can learn new things. They also learned that mistakes are learning experiences that strengthen the connections and networks in our brains, and have committed to listening to our growth mindset voice over our inner fixed mindset voice. When reading aloud the picture book What Do You Do With a Problem?, they discovered that inside every problem is a shining opportunity to learn, grow, and stretch their thinking. Throughout all of this, students answered questions to reflect on their own learning journeys; drew pictures to show the connections between neurons, dendrites, axons, and synapses; and crafted their own strategies, learning plans, and goals to put their growth mindset into practice.
Remembering what they learned about growth mindset will come in handy as students prepare for their next exploration alongside the Global Problem Solvers team. Students will follow a team of teenagers from around the world as they seek to solve a global problem—in this case, learning about Malawi and the local effects of the global water crisis—and apply everything learned about growth mindset to explore potential solutions and delve deeper into project-based learning this school year.
In Sixth grade Explorations, students started the school year continuing the Global Problem Solvers curriculum. This time, the Global Problem Solvers were in Florida after a major hurricane caused much destruction. The Global Problem Solvers, as well as our students, needed to find a way to help the community get back on its feet; especially to find a way to clear roads quickly and reopen schools and businesses. The students learned about solar panels providing electricity and Wi-Fi to makeshift classrooms and businesses. They found creative spaces to hold school or conduct business in empty shipping containers that brought food and supplies to the area. The students also took some time to individually research historical hurricanes such as Katrina., Sandy, Irma, and others. They were in awe of the destruction that these storms can cause; the loss of lives, homes, and so much more. They were also surprised to learn that it can take years for a community to build itself back up after such destruction. Their takeaway was that while we can’t stop hurricanes from happening, there needs to be better plans in place to assist communities affected by these storms right away.
In seventh grade, each class starts off with a 5-minute Ted Ed video clip with a follow up discussion. Students really enjoy this, and the clip gets them thinking. The first project was self-selected, and it was about curiosity. What are you curious about? Sample projects were: Can brain surgery be performed without equipment? Will the oceans ever run out of fish? Why can’t humans breathe underwater? How does music affect animal behavior? Why do honeybees like hexagons? How do we know what color dinosaurs were?
Students are presently working on answering Essential questions: How could we ensure and sustain enough food, water, and clothing for every living person on Earth? What can artworks tell us about a culture or society? What are examples of animals adapting to their environment? How can we know what really happened in the past?
The eighth grade Explorations course has been redesigned for a more immersive learning experience for our students. Classes are challenged to keep exploring, to keep questioning, and to discover new ways of thinking. Through a Project-Based-Learning approach, students have designed their presentations around driving topic questions. These self-selected projects have included how deaf football players play football, how cyberbullying affects teens, how South Asians are underrepresented in media, how cameras turn real-time events into digital photos, and how poetry can promote world peace. Students amazed themselves and their classmates with their deep-dive topic explorations.
Oak Hill students are also asked: What are things that you wonder about the world? What ideas or phenomena are you curious about? If we really get to thinking, we start to notice all the questions we have about the world we live in. During Explorations class, students are encouraged to be curious – wonder, ask questions, make connections, brainstorm, to keep an open mind – and to apply these curiosities to learn more about our ever-changing world. Many inventions and discoveries that have been made stemmed from a small wonder. Using students’ natural curiosities, they have the opportunity to delve into topics that interest him or her – the more interest and curiosity students have, the more room for them to grow as learners. Explorations provides students with skills in research, application, and presentation as they discover and share what truly sparks interest in their own lives.
This Project Based Learning at the school uses the writing, reading, listening, and speaking skills that are emphasized in other parts of the school’s curriculum. Students work in a collaborative atmosphere as they develop their critical thinking and cr3eativity skills. These are the attributes needed as we successfully move deeper into the 21st Century.