Tomorrow's Syllabus, Today

By Michael Kotsopoulos
Knight Based Learning teaches students to see connections between STEM and the humanities — but also the grit, flexibility, and adaptability needed to succeed in a new-age workforce.
A sea of horseshoe crabs appear to swim along an upstairs wall at Catholic Memorial School.
 
They sit on a background of painted bubbles and waves, illuminated from beneath their shells by a warm, LED glow, which upon closer inspection have been etched with nautical motifs that arrest anyone passing by. 
 
Positioned at the second-floor entryway of the Yawkey Center for Integrated and Applied Learning, this mixed-media collage heralds what lies in store for anyone entering from the old section of the high school. There’s something new going on, and a group of anthropods dating back 450 million years etched with 21st-century technology is just one of them. But is this art project for show, or have its creators come away with more than just “making pretty?” 
 
Knowing how dramatically the workforce has changed since the 1950s, CM Principal Mr. Andrew O’Brien, a teacher himself, believes the aquatic display encapsulates everything the new center is meant to accomplish. The collage, he says, reflects the interdisciplinary functions of tomorrow’s economy. “We need to prepare students not just for the working world as it is today, but the way it will be in the future,” he says. “Because we don’t know what the future holds, we need to emphasize creativity, design thinking, iteration, the ability to take feedback, and to apply that feedback when solving a problem.”
 
According to Mr. O’Brien, two decades of technological development have changed what’s expected out of tomorrow’s labor force. McKinsey & Company, a U.S. strategic management consulting firm that advises corporations and governments, suggests that half the tasks individuals are paid to perform at work could be automated. This means that, by 2030, an entry-level worker will need a skillset that embraces and optimizes the use of technology, not one that could be replaced by it. That means students must know how to perform a range of tasks across several different disciplines. To help students achieve that end, schools must adapt a project-based learning curriculum that breeds savvy, cutting-edge thinkers. “There’s more cognitive science around a need to deviate away from the standard, assembly-line idea of education,” Mr. O’Brien says. “When you are in a traditional classroom and students are seated six rows across and five deep, there becomes a herd mentality towards thinking.” 
 
 
In 2017, CM responded to this need by developing its own version of project-based learning called “Knight- Based Learning,” or “KBL.” Designed around the ideas of adaptation, evolution, and flexibility, KBL better prepares students for an ever-changing workforce by connecting faith and service with real-life problems. The horseshoe crab collage, Mr. O’Brien says, epitomizes the exact assignment KBL uses to integrate four distinct disciplines — art, ecology, ethics, and epidemiology — all while pondering a real-world problem the likes of a global pandemic. 
 
Mr. Brian Mulcahey, a National Geographic Educator and CM’s Science Chair, frames this colossal problem into the context of his AP Environmental Science class. Using a flatscreen monitor inside the Imagination Studio, the collage project begins with a lesson on the taxonomy of horseshoe crabs, the endangerment of the species due to overharvesting, and the reliance scientists have on the crab’s blood for developing vaccines. Students break into discussion as Mr. Mulcahey introduces the question aloud. “Can we make vaccines using the product of these crabs while protecting fisheries at the same time?” he asks. “If we can’t, then how do we find a solution in the age of COVID?” 
 
Students are then sent into the Digital Design Lab, where they design motifs on the backs of the crabs. The lesson ends in the Maker’s Studio where students use Corel Draw, an AutoCAD, to laser cut these designs into the shells. Students, upon seeing their horseshoe crabs on display in the hallway, take a step back and see a much larger picture. Rather than understanding the humanities, STEM, and the fine arts as separate from one another, they draw distinct roles and connections that each play in solving a problem. 
 
Senior Nick Olwell says the crab collage inspired him to think of the problem from a variety of avenues. While horseshoe crab blood could help scientists develop a vaccine to a virus, researchers must find a means to balance the ecosystem of the living fossil. If they don’t, then the species risks extinction. But if an alternative solution takes longer to develop, thousands of human lives could be at risk, he ponders.
 
“Instead of thinking just of the need to find a vaccine, I was thinking of how the human population affects their environment and how our own needs can accelerate the rate at which horseshoe crab populations are declining.” 
 
In her freshman theology class, Mrs. Katie Rich uses a KBL design-thinking exercise to reinforce lessons on collaboration and creativity into a lesson on the Book of Genesis. The exercise tasked her students with designing pegboard mazes with obstacles representing reallife scenarios. These scenarios included social dynamics at school, supporting a friend after a loved one passes, or considering social media posts and their potential fallout. 
 
The maze exercise, Mrs. Rich says, serves as a tangible representation of how students can strategically think through a problem and make decisions that either lead to freedom or to bondage, just as Abraham agreed to form a covenant with God. Students guided a marble through a myriad of rubber bands, construction paper, and pegs, representing their ability to make choices in the face of difficult decisions. “At first, the boys were surprised to learn that they would be completing a hands-on task in theology,” Mrs. Rich says. “They were surprised again when they started connecting the lessons about free will from the maze project to our lessons on the Book of Genesis.” 
 
The theology maze and horseshoe crab collage are only the tip of the proverbial KBL iceberg. Mr. O’Brien says that, thanks to the updated studio classrooms in the Yawkey Center and across CM’s campus, there are any number of opportunities to expand the crossover between the sciences and the humanities. In the past four years, CM has already added 31 new courses, including a design engineering course. These courses also include two Critical Making middle school courses and a theology-economics elective. “In a traditional educational model, you teach one subject in one space and that lives there,” Mr. O’Brien says. “KBL has always been about taking the learning from one place and spreading it across the entire curriculum.” 
 
But what is next for KBL? What will be the next hybrid learning course that entwines one discipline with another to solve problems we don’t yet know exist or even understand? Faculty might need only to step outside, watch a falling apple, like Sir Issac Newton, and understand through cause and effect that keeping fresh produce from spoiling might lie in zero-gravity refrigerators. It could be? One thing is for sure: This approach to learning requires teachers and students to both synthesize information as well as understand that definitive answers aren’t set in stone, but found through an iterative process that is constantly undergoing change.