Several teachers and administrators enrolled in two sessions of Blair’s Summer Faculty Institute, which aimed to restructure two longstanding classes at Blair—chemistry and western civilization—as well as design a new introductory science research course and explore additional areas of growth for Blair’s science department.
While last year’s inaugural program was closely tied to the opening of the Chiang-Elghanayan Center for Innovation and Collaboration and how teachers and students might best utilize its features to promote creativity and hands-on projects across disciplines, this summer, faculty focused on curricular changes to some of Blair’s core classes. During two week-long sessions, the School’s science and history departments examined the infrastructure of their courses to pinpoint curricular goals that the groups as a whole want to attain each year.
“We discovered there is an appetite among our teachers to sit down and hammer out what we want our core curriculum to look like,” said Gwyneth Connell, dean of teaching and learning. “We want to determine what great things happen in each teachers’ section of a course and find ways to incorporate those opportunities in every section for every student.”
Both sessions of the Institute included a mix of guest speakers, feedback sessions, one-on-one instruction and attendee presentations. At the end of two weeks, faculty felt in sync with their colleagues across the department, and confident that Blair students in each of these courses in 2018-2019 would greatly benefit from the “nitty-gritty” organizational work accomplished during the Institute, Ms. Connell added.
Bolstering Blair’s Science Program
Members of the science department gathered in June to map out plans for two courses: a revamp of the School’s longstanding sophomore chemistry class and curriculum for a new introductory research elective for underclassmen. In addition to the extensive work done on those courses, the department also laid the groundwork to implement a number of exciting offerings over the next two years as renovations to Bogle Hall commenced this summer. The three-story addition and interior overhaul will yield updated classrooms, state-of-the-art labs for AP courses and dedicated research space for team and individual projects.
“These enhanced and new spaces will provide students more hands-on laboratory experiences, which will help immerse them in the science behind the theory and reinforce concepts learned in the classroom,” said science department chair Kelly Hadden, who added that Blair’s curriculum needed to be restructured in some areas to fully realize all features of the new building. “These changes will also help to connect students with research that is currently underway by other scientists in industry and academia and give them the platform to support that research.”
With just over a week until the first day of classes, science faculty prepared to roll out a number of new and improved courses for students of all grade levels.
Introducing an Independent Research Elective
In 2018-2019, motivated and scientifically curious underclassmen can enroll in the School’s inaugural Foundations of Research course, which will introduce them to the world of independent research this spring, followed by an opportunity to embark on a research project of their choosing during their junior year in the department’s Integrated Science Research (ISR) program. As part of the foundations course, students will examine scientific writing, explore current industry research and gain in-depth knowledge of cutting-edge laboratory techniques. The course culminates in student research project proposals submitted to the ISR committee, which, if accepted, may be pursued during the next two school years in the ISR I and II courses.
“We want students to ask questions and find ways to answer those questions through research,” Mrs. Hadden explained. “We also feel it is necessary for students to get a realistic idea of what it is like to be a scientist by introducing them to current scientific literature and helping them to make connections to research scientists in industry and academia.”
Elevating Core Curriculum
Faculty Summer Institute attendees also spent time restructuring the department’s chemistry offerings. Though every Blair sophomore takes the course, Ms. Connell and Mrs. Hadden understand that not all students are scientifically inclined or interested in studying the subject beyond their required coursework. With this in mind, they redesigned the course to frame the curriculum on basic human needs—air, water, energy, food and materials, which will be the five units of study throughout the year.
The goal, Ms. Connell explained, is to connect what kids learn in chemistry class to what they experience in their own daily lives.
“We don’t want students to be passive absorbers of knowledge,” said Ms. Connell. “We don’t want to just give an answer before students even know the question or want to know the answer. We hope to tap into their curiosity through these course changes.”
Additional changes to the science department’s offerings include a new biochemistry honors course and concepts in psychology class, both of which will be taught using a hands-on, project- and inquiry-based platform. Mrs. Hadden also looks forward to mid-2019, when the Bogle Science Center comes online and the School can further expand AP science and research opportunities. (Click here to read more about the repurposing of Bogle Hall.)
Reshaping Western Civilization
Members of Blair’s history department returned early for the 2018-2019 school year to spend a week revamping the School’s Western civilization course in a second session of the Summer Faculty Institute. Throughout the week, teachers focused on aligning the course curriculum across sections and developing new project-based assessments for the fast-approaching school year.
A longstanding class at Blair, Western civilization has been “shaped by the most hands” of any course in the department, said history chair Jason Beck. A large number of faculty teach sections of the class each year, so the goal for the Institute was to start from "first principles" of the course: “What goals, outcomes and skills do we want students taking the course to take with them in their future studies?” Mr. Beck said. Next, he added, the team determined how to build content, activities and assessments to accomplish those goals.
By the end of the week, Institute attendees felt confident that they had designed a more structured and purposeful curriculum for Blair’s Western civilization course that would best serve students moving forward.
“The outcome for the student experience is multi-fold,” Mr. Beck explained. “It will help to create a more uniform experience among sections and teachers, focus student learning on essential questions and common skill sets, and maintain high expectations while asking students to focus on higher-order thinking, instead of more elemental recall.”
Looking ahead, the history department is enthusiastic that the course will continue to introduce historical research skills and provide students with the opportunity to complete independent research projects.