By. Liz Minks, Co-Director of the Science and Math Institute (Tacoma, Washington)
We believe all students have the right to high quality educational experiences that develop their unique needs and passions. This is our vision here at the Science and Math Institute (SAMI) in Tacoma, Washington. Along with our partners in Elements of Education and the Next Move Internship program, we are dedicated to fulfilling this vision, which in some respects is not very revolutionary. It makes sense to develop students’ passions. But what if I told you high-quality educational experiences could take place on a forested trail or at a zoo exhibit, hospital, architecture firm, or fabrication lab? What if I told you that we do not need to build more schools with dedicated classrooms, but instead need to find ways to share community spaces with community members who can help us teach our children. The questions, problems, and possibilities that will prepare our students for the 21st century are in our communities right now. The expertise to teach our students leadership, creativity, compassion, empathy, and importance of community are all around us.
There is no clean formula to forging community partnerships, but at SAMI we have found that the best way to keep moving forward is to adhere to our four pillars: community, empathy, thinking, and balance. We explicitly teach our students these values and they teach them to each other. Through classroom instruction, projects, and internships in our community, students learn how to be interdependent, in addition to gaining skills that are required for 21st century work.
Place-based learning occurs in a number of ways at SAMI throughout the year. Students take classes like Outdoor Education, which starts at a small shed in the forest. They learn priority standards about health, stewardship, and plant identification to understand invasive species found within a 702-acre park’s trail system. Outdoor Education is a PE credit taught by one of our science teachers who spent over 20 summers with her family as a park ranger at Yosemite National Park. As part of their course work, students pick up and weigh litter found on the trails. It is a stewardship project to practice our pillars but also a chance to analyze a problem in our city, thus furthering their connection to the park and the community.
During the summer, our schools reach out to high poverty elementary school students to offer free summer camps that occur at SAMI’s site, which includes settings such as the beach, the forest, and a zoo. Our high school students share their passions with the younger students. Our teachers work through the summer to provide our city with exploratory opportunities for third through fifth graders who need the most support.
SAMI also sponsors an internship program that places students in businesses around our community. One prime example is our student Luis. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family as a six year old, but when he was thirteen, his parents were sent back to Mexico. Relying on himself to pursue his dream of going to college, Luis earned an internship with an architecture firm and helped design a joint use space, the Environmental Learning Center at the Pt. Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, set to open this fall. The more Luis worked on this project, the more he realized his passion for architecture. Unfortunately, Luis was living in the shadows without the documentation to get into college. Administrative staff and the project’s architecture firm rallied to support Luis, resulting in scholarships and documentation. Luis is currently a college sophomore studying architecture at one of our state universities.
This example illustrates that we cannot teach our students in a single building that looks nothing like the world we live in. Without relevant learning opportunities, ones where students can take risks, try, make mistakes, and try again – how can learning be rigorous? And how can we take risks or ask our students to take risks sitting in rows of desks listening to a lecture? How can a quiz or a test be the ultimate measure of success? Could designing a building for the community to use for the next 100 years be a better measure?
Place-based learning is not possible without an intentional support structure in our schools. We believe that all students benefit from knowing a caring adult, so all SAMI students participate in a multi-age mentor group. Mentors and mentees teach each other to reflect on their dreams related to their place (downtown near the arts, at the park close to natural and physical science explorations, in or alongside businesses). They teach each other how to plan their class schedules to reach those dreams, and how to improve standards mastery and professionalism goals like attendance. Similarly, teachers develop strong relationships with other adults that work with students, including community members and professionals, during common planning Friday mornings. In the building design for the Environmental Learning Center, planning areas for school staff and zoo staff are situated close to each other. This design will not only support creativity, but encourage staff to find natural opportunities to talk, develop relationships, and create curriculum together for high quality and engaging experiences.
The Environmental Learning Center will also foster connections between students and the greater community. The center’s Makerspace, Design Studio, Fabrication Lab, Discourse Space, and chemistry and biology labs will be used by SAMI, the zoo, and community members. The building design even includes an Early Learning Center for pre-school children to visit on a bi-weekly rotation from all over our city. Students whose passions and post-high school plans include early childhood education will have an opportunity to intern at the center.
Interdependence takes time, trust, and risk. Relationships built on trust and risk are worth discomfort, the disequilibrium. Stephen Covey’s maturity continuum of dependence-> independence-> interdependence illustrates the growth pattern we see in ninth graders as they become eleventh graders; novice teachers as they become veteran teachers; and our schools as their culture evolves to become interdependent and place-based. Teaching in traditional schools, I saw staff walk into their classroom and shut the door. For a school situated in a larger community asset like a park (or museum) this isolation would be disastrous – no pressure to be in the greater community, see connections, solve problems. How does learning ever become rigorous if there is no relevance, if everything is theoretical and about opportunities in the future? Rows of desks and teaching from a textbook were designed to develop the mind of a factory worker. Classrooms within the greater community develop more creative and interdependent minds for the future leaders of our city. Interdependent, organic, authentic relationships create relevance and high quality educational experiences.
Continuous improvement opportunities, mindset, and professional relationships make place-based learning possible. These relationships last beyond a mere four years of a student’s high school experience and inspire our students to love and care for whatever community they choose to call home. What is the proof? We consistently graduate our cohorts 97-100% with the highest test scores in the South Puget Sound region, despite the fact that we do not emphasize testing. Our staff remain at our schools and are empowered to create projects, to take risks, and learn from each other. Our graduates report that they love their school and feel cared about – they are stakeholders in our success and feel like important members of our community. Our regional lottery each year can only offer 50% of the seats that our Tacoma students (and surrounding areas) need. Ultimately, I wonder if the best measure of success is where we are located. Where better to help students learn – and by this I mean really trying, doing, making mistakes, persisting, and being encouraged – than in public schools that reflect our city’s demographics and community resources?
About the Author
Liz Minks, co-Director of the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, Washington – native Tacoman, attended Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) and joined Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA – www.tsota.org) in 2006, the first TPS public, place-based school (www.elementsofed.org) to support full inclusion programming and arts education. In 2011 she earned a certificate in education administration from University of Washington, Tacoma and in 2014 joined the leadership team at the Science and Math Institute (SAMI) in Pt. Defiance Park. Her son and daughter attended SAMI and SOTA.