PCSD summer program takes aim at achievement gap
July 7, 2016
Summer school is in session, but it doesn't look much like the images most people conjure when they hear that term.
Students in the Park City School District's summer program don't simply read from textbooks, and there are no tests at the end of the summer. Instead, students entering first through sixth grades get to do things such as build rockets, mechanical claws and electromagnetic motors.
The project-based learning approach teaches the students important STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts, but does it in a way that keeps them engaged, said John Hall, director of the program. The hope is that the knowledge accompanies the students, who mostly come from the underserved population, into next school year.
"We teach the kids that these same skills that they're learning, the same learning strategies they're developing by doing these projects, they can transfer them to the classroom in any subject area," he said. "Building background knowledge, applying background knowledge, persevering, looking at how things work."
The program is split into three two-week sessions. The first was devoted to the life sciences, and students learned about skeletons and muscular structures and how bones and muscles work together. They learned about forces in the second session, exploring properties such as gravity and inertia. In the third term, they will be taught about energy.
Hall said the students research the topics, much like they would in a normal classroom. But then they put what they have learned into action. In the first session, they built mechanical claws and had competitions to see who could build the longest. Last week, they created air and water rockets and launched them into the air. They will finish the course by constructing solar ovens and electromagnetic motors.
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Hall said research shows that style of learning can have lasting impacts. Further, the lessons touch on areas students learned during the previous school year or will learn in the upcoming year. For instance, they had to use math to build the mechanical claws.
"It's invaluable," he said. "Because we always come back and ask them to write about it, evaluate why it worked, make sense of it and be able to communicate it. All kids are able to engage in that kind of learning. All kids have an idea about why the rockets work. All kids have an idea about why a mechanical claw works the way it does."
The critical-thinking element of the program is perhaps most important. Project-based learning forces students to solve problems, a skill that could have ripple effects throughout their educational careers.
"Every activity that we do, hopefully they hang onto it, so when they get to the beginning of the school year in their new classes, they're going to say, 'I remember doing something very similar to this in the summer program. How did I go about it?'" Hall said.
Sean Corbin, who is also involved in the program, said it's rewarding to see the students progress. He is the after-school and summer education coordinator for Holy Cross Ministries, which helps put on the program, and he said it's a critical step toward closing the opportunity gap that afflicts many in the underserved population.
"It's an amazing opportunity for us to work with the school district," he said. "We couldn't do this without them. We're heavily involved in the schools, whether it's the after-school program or the summer, and we're here to serve a population that has an opportunity gap. We want to try to decrease that gap with diverse students in Park City."
Hall echoed those sentiments, lauding Holy Cross Ministries and the district staff that participates for their dedication. It's among the most gratifying work he's been part of as an educator.
"In nine years of administration, this has been the best three weeks in my time as an administrator," he said. "It has been very satisfying."