Bringing the Real World to School

In a new post in his series on academics at Bay, Academic Dean Andy Shaw reflects on how Bay students are able to grow and thrive as sophisticated, young professionals, thanks to the myriad, meaningful opportunities available at Bay.

In an era when classical notions of academic rigor beg to be redefined, one of the most compelling types of 21st century academic rigor has to do with bringing meaningful real-world problems, issues and circumstances into the classroom: schools must challenge students to think and operate like the adult problem solvers we hope they will become. The sophistication and authenticity of the tasks Bay’s teachers assign our students speak volumes about the way we think about academic rigor in this dynamic world.

In planning her Marine Biology course this past term, teacher Nettie Kelly reached out to friends and colleagues in the oceanography field for their help in creating a 21st century project that realistically modeled the work of marine scientists. By tapping into databases of publicly-available data from ocean buoys, satellite images and oceanographic sensors, students were able to access the same kinds of data scientists use in research institProject Center for Andy's Postutions. Nettie’s students aggregated the data and used it to predict plankton blooms, deepening their understanding not only of oceanographic and marine biology content, but also the research and data analysis skills that are crucial to advanced scientific work.

This same kind of thinking explains why our Project Center Director Brad Niven has filled our engineering lab with tools like a table saw, a drill press, a laser cutter and a milling machine instead of rows of 3D printers. Professional designers need to understand materials, tools, tolerances and applied physics on a deep and fundamental level; they need to truly feel how a thing is made in order to consider the strengths and weakness of the design, how users will experience it and how it might be mass-produced. We give our students the tools of an adult production facility in order to give them a meaningful experience of the professional design process.

Sometimes undertaking a project in an adult way is about emotional maturity as much as it is about intellectual sophistication; that is, students must gracefully take on a difficult or, to an adolescent mind, awkward subject in order to develop greater skill. Such was the case this past term in Ascha Drake’ s honors 11th- and 12th-grade elective, Advanced Drawing and Painting Studio. During the course, students had weekly sessions with nude professional models – a pedagogical choice some schools might not support, not only because working from a live model is artistically challenging but also because of the complex ways our society perceives nudity. At Bay we know, however, that if we want students to produce mature, professional work, we need to treat them as mature, professional artists and give them the opportunity to work in this way. The results were exceptional – both in terms of students’ work as well as the thoughtfulness with which they approached this new challenge.

This philosophy, of bringing the adult professional world into students’ academic experience, informs so much of what we do – the technological platforms we use, our focus on primary sources throughout our Humanities curriculum and our growing emphasis on oral proficiency in world languages classes. Nowhere Anni SSP for Andy's Blog Postis this way of thinking more alive than in our Senior Signature Project course. Dave Wang and Katie Buono, the teachers in this program, tell students on Day 1, and on most days thereafter, “You’re not a high school student in this course; you’re a young professional working in the field.” After conceptualizing their projects, students are tasked with researching what a professional-quality product will look like, be it a small-scale prototype of a new ferry hull, a publishable scientific study, a piece of draft legislation for the Board of Supervisors or a smartphone app. The student then spends the remainder of his or her six-month project creating this product, guided by a mentor who is working as a professional in the field of study. I won’t tell you that each and every project ends up meeting the standard of “professional quality” – after all, that can’t be said even of most undertakings of college graduates in their early career efforts – but the experience of working as if they were professionals in a field has profound effects upon the way our students see themselves and their work

This, after all, is the point – if we aim to produce students who know how to truly effect change, how to be entrepreneurial, how to contribute in adult ways to the world, we believe it is our duty to treat our students as adults and professionals in the tasks we set out for them and the ways we teach them to operate.

– Andy Shaw, Academic Dean