At the heart of Moses Brown’s faculty cohort program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. Two ideas sprang to mind for lower school science teacher Carol Entin: electricity/electronics or brain research. “I knew that electronics would offer far more project opportunities for my elementary students!” She proposed the following:
- advance her own understanding of some of the fundamental skills and concepts required for working with electricity and electronics
- become familiar with the currently available components, educational resources, and desirable equipment
- determine various ways electricity and electronics could be used in lower school projects, across all grades, as well as subject areas, naturally supporting the principles of project-based learning and the “Maker Movement” in the classroom
Her project combines her love of learning, teaching, and creating. “Electricity and electronics are topics I wanted to learn about myself. I’ve always found them fascinating, with new innovations like LED technology developing within my lifetime.”
Carol created a curricular project for her second graders: making simple electrical circuits, using coin cell batteries, LED light bulbs and another innovation, carbon-based paint that conducts electricity, so no wires are needed. (watch video) Tiny hands painted along the lines of Carol’s paper template and glued down the battery and bulb. During the previous week, the students worked with art teacher Sarah Barnum to make Valentines that could accommodate the circuit cards, lighting up the hearts. “Art and science go together so well,” Carol says. “They share elements of experimentation and discovery.”
Carol’s research led her to another project that combines her interest in electronics with her affinity for anatomy and textile design. She designed and created a hand-knit “a-knit-omically” correct neuron: a battery inside the nucleus powers tiny chip LEDs at the ends of the dendrites and axons (watch video). Eventually, when coupled with more knitted neurons, it will demonstrate how the body’s electrical impulses travel along the nervous system, jumping across synapses from one neuron to the next on their way to and from the brain. Carol’s hand-knit “brain hat” features 40 yards of knit tubing, coiled in place to represent parts of the brain: purple for the frontal lobe, maroon for the motor cortex, yellow for the sensory cortex, green for the parietal lobe, blue for the temporal lobe and red for the occipital lobe. Next she plans a model eye, built with polymer clay and photo sensors, showing how images travel from the eye along the optic neurons to the brain for interpretation. “I recorded twenty-five pages of notes during the neuron design, and five pages of drawings. The students can see how I use the documentation skills I teach them. An artist documents, just like a scientist does.”
“This was a real stretch for me,” says Carol, “because I’ve never played with electronics. I had to figure out which components to purchase and how to safely connect to which kind of battery. I had to learn soldering, wiring, basic terminology. Academic Dean Laurie Center found a set of child-friendly electrical components called littleBits that connect to each other via magnets, and introduced them to art, technology and science teachers. As a result, the lower school science lab now has 9 sets for children to use. littleBits are real, visible electronic components, not toys, so children become familiar with the real thing as they tinker and invent.
“I have more ideas than I can ever develop. It’s my job to develop experiences for our students that energize them about learning how the world works. I’m so lucky to spend my days with kids who fall off their chairs with excitement when the lights light up. They light up themselves!”
Moses Brown’s faculty cohort system is a professional development and evaluation program for veteran teachers. Evoking our commitment to lifelong learning, a year of transformational study launches a five-year cycle of professional development. A cohort of teachers drawn from all three divisions sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers are continuously engaged in deepening their expertise, refining their curriculum, bringing the latest research back to the classroom and partnering with colleagues to improve the learning experience. A pilot cohort of six faculty began work in 2011-12, and a second group of sixteen followed in 2012-12. This year’s seventeen are well on their way to integrating their cohort projects into their curricula. Three years in to the program, roughly 40% of faculty have taken part in the cohort system.