The Physics of Humanity and the Power of Student Exhibition

By JONATHAN STABLEFORD

I had seen this classroom before — lab tables with students working independently or in small groups, the clutter of work-in-progress, laptops open and running, a bicycle propped in the corner — but today when I approached and looked through the panel of glass, it was all in medias res. I checked my watch and saw I was neither early nor late. I opened the door and immediately felt like I was like entering a theater through the backstage. People streamed in after me, and gradually the room filled with students and a few adults. There were chairs arranged in a small arc facing a screen and, behind that, the whiteboards.

This was to be the final exam for “Physics: Waves, Light, Electricity, and Magnetism” at Thetford Academy, an elective open to juniors and seniors with strong backgrounds in mathematics; in place of straight rows and long faces, of test booklets and answer sheets, there would be an exhibition of five, semester-long projects. Last to enter the room was O., a 7th grader at the school, accompanied by J., his individual educator. When she had him positioned with a good view, she sat down immediately to his right.

Because O. has cerebral palsy, he needs a motorized wheelchair for mobility and a computerized communication system for speech. He is new to Thetford Academy this year, but he is familiar with the eighteen students in this physics class because they have made it their business to get to know him. Half way through the semester their teacher Marc Chabot divided them into small groups of three or four and challenged them to use science and engineering to improve O.’s life at the school. Their first step was to talk with O. and his teachers to learn how they might help.

In full disclosure, I should say I was an invited guest because I am a member of the board at Thetford Academy. A week earlier I had been talking with Chabot before a meeting, and I asked him if the pace of exam week would be easier are harder for him as a teacher. He thought for a few seconds — there are no simple questions in a mind like his — and said, “Come and see what we’re doing next Thursday. You might find it interesting.”

I took the chair to O.’s left. One by one the groups went to the front of the class, introduced themselves, and then explained and demonstrated their projects. Some showed short videos of O. using what they had invented, and others showed what they could of work in progress. Each group addressed O. directly at some point in their demonstration, and he answered, as he could, with a gesture or his beatific smile. At the end of each demonstration, a small panel of three adult judges that included Sharon Henault, who had come all the way from Island Pond and who had entered the classroom in her own wheelchair, had questions: “Now that you are done, what would you do differently?” “Did you consider…?” Most of the audience simply watched in enthrallment.

Of the five projects, two engineered ways for O. to participate more fully in specific subjects. For his art class, one group designed a humped block of wood that O. could use to draw. They fashioned straps for his hand and embedded casters at the base so the block could travel across a piece of paper, and through the block they cut a slot that could be adjusted for a pencil, a marking pen, or a brush. For an up-coming music class, another group designed a synthesizer that O. could activate by touch to participate instrumentally in an ensemble with the rest of the class. Two projects tackled the dilemma O. faces every day crossing the quadrangle from one class to another when he must use the same joystick to “walk” and “talk.” One solution studied ways to use “line-tracking” to guide O.’s wheelchair, freeing him to activate his speech device.

The other designed a “button-talker” to activate speech while he used the joystick to propel his chair. A fifth project addressed the two issues of safety and tedium in O.’s exercise regimen. The group re-designed the pedals and straps on his exercise bike, making his feet and ankles more secure; and they mounted a screen above the LCD monitor so he could stream videos of extreme biking trails as he pedaled. Four of the projects involved electronic technology (Samsung tablets, a Raspberry Pi, a MaKey MaKey Kit, and a robot), and the fifth relied on simple and clever ergonometric design.

It was clear the projects were more about process and scientific approach than about ending up with a polished and durable product. Each group began by talking with O. about his life at school and then writing a problem statement to articulate a need to address. For instance, one read, “O. is unable to use his communication system while driving. Both the communication system and the driving system are controlled by the same joystick.” The next step was to research “the state of the art” for each problem, identifying the commercial products already available, and evaluating them for their advantages and drawbacks. In virtually every case, the major drawback was cost because each group had a ceiling of $100 to spend on materials. Next, each group imagined new solutions and made a list of criteria (cost and ease of use were two recurrent themes), then created a matrix to judge each solution. The solution that scored highest on the matrix would be the one they would build. To keep the groups focused, Chabot set a series of deadlines for steps along the way; and had each student keep an engineering notebook throughout the project for scientific notations and for recording his or her personal thoughts on the experience.

At 56 Chabot has gradually evolved into the teacher he is today, but he has always seen a connection between teaching and service and has always seen the value of having his students do science. He began teaching at Thetford Academy 19 years ago, and at one point he encountered a student like O. with cerebral palsy, although manifested in a different way. It was then that he first had students design projects to help a classmate. Back then, Chabot says, their solutions were limited by available technology and by the way he had trained them. Something was missing, and for a while he shelved the idea of service projects.

At about the same time his interest in robotics began to blossom, and he started an after-school club that soon caught on. The students, boys at first, built robots and began entering competitions, where they were so successful that they began to win distinction in national and international competitions. Interest grew, and today there are girls and middle-schoolers as well, building robots and taking prizes in competition. A few years ago Chabot began incorporating robotics into his classroom teaching.

Technology has changed the way all teachers approach their subjects, but for Chabot this theme has infused his career from the start. Before he arrived at Thetford, he had taught in four other high schools, and twice or three times, depending on how you count, he left teaching for technology, first for graduate school in computer science, and then for work in programming. At one point he joined an exciting research project on blood disorders at Dartmouth Medical School. But always when he was not teaching, he missed it, the vitality and purposefulness; so he returned and returned again, each time bringing the technology with him and to enrich his classes. He was in front of the wave.

Today Chabot divides his time evenly between classroom teaching and serving as the academic dean for Thetford Academy, where among other things, he is working to make teacher evaluations a process of personal growth. He understands well how complicated and demanding good teaching can be, and he speaks humbly and openly about the lessons he has learned.

A few weeks after witnessing the final exam, I asked him the same question the judges asked his students: “What would you do differently now? He said he would have started earlier to give the students more time to learn the necessary programming and to iron out the glitches as they developed along the way. Our discussion turned to time and how there is never enough of it to do what you want. Thetford Academy uses a block system where a year’s work is accelerated and concentrated into a single semester. “Maybe it’s not ideal for this course,” he said. It wasn’t so much a complaint about the schedule as it was the humble recognition by a great teacher that perfection is a beguiling mirage.

Using exhibitions to assess student learning is neither new nor revolutionary. Many years ago when the iconic educator Ted Sizer began building The Coalition of Essential Schools, he set exhibitions as one of the cornerstones of the classroom experience, and when he spoke to educators, he often cited their use in the 19th Century as a way for young students to demonstrate competence in a subject. Although Thetford Academy, which will celebrate its bicentennial in 2019, is not a Coalition School, exhibitions have long been part of the culture. There is a class that produces one-act plays written and directed by students, another that puts on a spring musical, and another that designs and builds for the school’s use a timber-frame structure, just to name a few. Exhibitions are part of the culture.

Good teachers know the wisdom in using a variety of assessments to measure student learning, but they hear the steady drumbeat for standardized testing and feel the withering effect these tests can have on curriculum. Already, there is evidence that testing will become a wedge issue in the next presidential election, even though it’s clear that some of the best learning will always evade detection in standardized tests.

What I saw that morning in the exhibition for “Physics: Waves, Light, Electricity, and Magnetism” was demonstrated knowledge of physical science and the determined use of scientific method. I saw evidence of organization, teamwork, resilience, and research. I saw students use their public speaking skills, some of them more poised and articulate than others, but all taking a turn to stand before an audience to explain a segment of their project. I saw good humor in the face of adversity. Most of all, I saw student learning focused on a specific need in their own community, where their hearts and brains were working together and where the study of physics would make sense even to a poet. I spoke with E., a senior who worked on the team that improved O.’s bicycle. She said she had taken a lot of conventional science with textbooks and labs and tests, but “… this was the first time I could apply science to actually benefit someone.”

On my way home, I couldn’t help thinking back nearly a decade ago to a day when I sat before a panel of visiting educators from the People’s Republic of China. At the time I was chair of the English department at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and these educators had come to visit our school to learn how we “taught creativity.” The idea sounds absurd as I write it, but they were with us for nearly a week — mostly administrators but a few teachers — to observe classes and ask questions. Every conversation went from Mandarin to English and English to Mandarin, and with my department their curiosity zeroed in on how we created our curriculum. They saw English classes where students confidently discussed literature, and they were astounded to hear that teachers wrote the curriculum in a collaborative and evolutionary process and that my job was to help them launch new ideas. I thought they got it, but later when I outlined the process once more for the panel at the end of their visit, they had only one question: “What do you do when a teacher doesn’t follow your orders?”

Two of the students in Marc Chabot’s physics class were tuition-paying students from the People’s Republic of China, lucky souls with parents who have the means to send them to Vermont for a very different kind of education. When they return to China, I believe they will be able to explain better than I how creativity is nurtured in American schools.

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