At University City’s Brittany Woods Middle School, Legos are much more than toys: They’re building blocks for future scientists.
Every Thursday, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are busy programming small bumper-bot vehicles to negotiate pre-determined paths in the after-school Lego Robotics Club. “Do you want a challenge?” asks Washington University-student adviser Allen Osgood, offering an idea and a plan for a more complicated route. Eighth-grader William Austin is at first determined to do it his own way.
“Then let’s try both our techniques,” Osgood suggests.
“Dang it!” Austin declares after a false start. But it’s not long before he has changed his tune: “I think I can do this!” he beams as his vehicle speeds ahead.
Excited about coming to school
After-school enrichment was one facet of Washington University’s collaboration with Brittany Woods that began five years ago.
When the university’s Institute for School Partnership (ISP) teamed up with the school in WUSTL’s own neighborhood, there were few afternoon clubs. Parents felt expanding after-school activities would be a good place to begin revitalizing the learning environment.
Now, students can choose from among a dozen clubs including chess, a Chinese pen-pal activity and dance. Washington University student and Ervin Scholar Kellie Wilson, who is aiming for a career in neuroscientific research, works with the dance club kids, whose number has doubled in size since the club began. But accomplishing dance steps is just a gateway to other life lessons.
“They’re learning confidence; they’re learning skills, like how to pay attention,” Wilson explains.
The kids are also learning there’s a world beyond the one in which they’re growing up.
“They ask what it’s like to go to classes and live with other people. They’re curious about how college works,” Wilson says.
In addition to after-school programs, Brittany Woods offers weekend activities. School and Community Liaison Angela Lewis points to a Saturday mentoring program in which professional men, including one from Wells Fargo, interact with middle-school boys.
“All the boys say they want to be in business now,” Lewis says. “I don’t believe they would have said that, if it weren’t for him.”
Lewis wants to expand weekend and after-school activities, and says the kids have requested clubs for music, photography, community service and journalism. The value of these activities is written on the children’s faces.
“To see kids excited about coming to school on a Saturday is really encouraging,” Lewis says.
Questions lead to learning
The recent surge in enthusiasm among Brittany Woods students also extends to the classroom. Through the ISP partnership, teachers are learning they have important backup. Recently, in the spirit of the community-school model, WUSTL engineers helped bring to life a study of carbon dioxide sequestration in Megan Eberle’s science class.
Young-Shin Jun, PhD, associate professor in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and her graduate student Haesung Jung, encouraged Eberle’s students to learn the material in a deeper, hands-on manner, using a saltwater solution, slides, microscopes and a rock collection.
A series of questions piqued students’ curiosity. When you look at a rock, how can you tell how quickly it formed? (The secret’s in the size of the crystals.) When saltwater cools over time, will its crystals be larger or smaller? (Hint: a large diamond may take billions of years to form). How might acid rain change that process? (Think of a stone statue worn away by weather.)
“It shows them that, in real life, scientists aren’t sitting there with a textbook,” Eberle says. “They also learn that a career in science isn’t just about being a doctor or a nurse; it’s a bigger field.”
ISP Curriculum and Assessment Specialist Rachel Ruggirello provides a vital link between WUSTL students and Brittany Woods teachers. Finding the right match also starts with a question: “This is what the WUSTL faculty or student wants to do and this is what the school needs — how can we make this work?”
“Pairing the right people with the right kinds of projects benefits both parties,” Ruggirello says. “But it’s ultimately in service of the students.”
Ruggirello has collaborated with Brittany Woods teachers not only in the area of science but also math, communication arts and social studies. Students now learn about the civil rights movement through the WUSTL archive of “Eyes on the Prize” documentaries, an extensive collection totaling 14 hours.
Ruggirello works with teachers on strategies to ensure they align instruction with the new Common Core Standards as well as Next Generation Science Standards.
A school structure known as Data Days helps teachers track the effectiveness of their instruction. Students take online benchmark assessments and respond to open-ended questions to test their knowledge. The results are used to create individualized strategies for each child.
Professional learning communities, called “Job Alikes,” allow teachers who concentrate on the same grade-level and subject matter to meet twice a week to brainstorm what works, and reflect on what didn’t.
“A teacher may say, ‘Wow, my students struggled with this particular concept, around, say, light energy, and your students did well. What did you do differently in your classroom?’” Ruggirello says.
Teachers helping other teachers is also part of the team-building that’s critical to success at Brittany Woods. Washington University’s work with the school, which includes classroom walk-throughs and check-ins with teachers every week by WUSTL professionals, is not a top-down operation but a partnership. That’s by design, according to Vicki May, director of the Institute for School Partnership.
“The school leadership, teachers, and parents are all striving for the same goal – student success,” May says.
‘Our kids can do it’
The teamwork approach is netting positive results. School principal Jamie Jordan credits WUSTL for a jump in student performance on state tests.
WUSTL’s cooperative and creative approach has made all the difference in an atmosphere of understandable initial skepticism on the part of teachers and administrators.
“Instead of coming to me with, ‘This is what we have,’ they asked, ‘What do you need?’” Jordan says. “It’s a different type of partnership than any I’ve seen before.”
Jordan, who came in as Brittany Woods’ seventh principal in a decade, has now been there five years, a solid presence underpinned by the sustainable support of Washington University. Jordan knows the finish line is still in the distance but she’s confident the school is on track to be a contender.
“We’re not there yet; we still have work to do,” Jordan says. “But now we really do believe our kids can do it; we just have to keep working to get them there.”
— Nancy Fowler