Last semester, Middle School students were given the challenge of renaming the new and experimental ‘Expedition’ course. While several names were suggested, it turned out that the original stuck, and, certainly, it remains fitting. The course is a long journey, an odyssey, really, in which students work together to complete difficult, complex tasks within the perspective of a collective goal. They identify and solve problems, they hone their methods of collaboration, and they participate in building the course, itself, by adjusting their own expectations and sharing their feedback en route to their (often unexpected) outcomes. During the first semester, both the 5-6 and 7-8 classes were charged with the same endeavor: research and design an outdoor ice rink for Steamboat. As faculty, we expected each class to produce widely different results, which we might then compare and contrast. Actually, by very different processes, both classes designed very similar concepts, including the size and relative offerings of the accompanying building designs, the shape of the rinks, and even the synthetic surface of the ice, an idea that the adults in the room had never thought of when the semester began but solved several engineering difficulties for the students while expanding the hypothetical season of the venue to become available year-round. After multiple revisions, and by means of impressive endurance, each section ultimately presented their finished concepts to the other, and to a local expert, former City Council member and EMS parent Cari Hermacinski, who expressed her appreciation for their skills in articulation and the real-world potential of their respective plans.
This semester, we’re looking to build on what went well in the fall and refine the limitations we experienced within the new course design. Merrick has stepped in, following Beth’s departure to Tennessee, and we’re designing a new angle to the course whereby the focus remains on collaboration and effective communication, but the students solve more personalized problems in smaller groups based on their own interests. We don’t yet know what problems they’ll identify, much less how they’ll solve them. But, we’ll guide them in realizing their own skills and identifying new strategies to address their goals. To begin, both sections recently completed a difficult challenge in communication. Broken into small groups, they needed to replicate an exact structure (of wooden blocks) which only one member of the group at a time could observe and then could relay as plans to the rest of the group. To make it harder, they were not allowed to speak during the first round. Round two included talking, a seeming advantage but one that actually throws lots of adults off the rails during similar intellectual challenges. The results for both classes within each round were impressive. Students strategized, found loopholes in the rules, delegated tasks, constructively critiqued their own methods, were creative and spontaneous, methodical and thoughtful, and they sustained their common respect for one another along with their collective sense of humor. Both groups are highly bright, and very different from each other. To their credit, they have become increasingly aware of their own attributes and been more receptive to critical feedback. In the short term, the eventual products of their expedition promise to be engaging and perhaps even life-altering. In the long term, they are certainly developing the skills and motivations they will need to maintain healthy relationships and to change the world for the better.