It’s another day of learning at Catholic Memorial. At O’Connor Stadium, several boys are yelling and punting footballs as far as they can across the football field. Outside, near the entrance to the Yawkey Center, talkative students are using chalk to write on the sidewalk, and inside boisterous shouts are emanating from some of the nearby classrooms.
Look a little closer, these are the audible reactions to science in action. The boys on the football field are measuring the distance of their punts and learning how to convert yards to meters. The chalk drawings on the sidewalk demonstrate an understanding of biomechanical feedback loops with real-life examples. And inside the classroom, eighth graders are excitedly creating roller coasters.
According to a 2018 edition of the Journal of Research and Science Teaching, students have a higher level of engagement in math and science classes when their classes feature more student-centered instructional practices compared to students absorbing concepts through traditional lectures.
“Boys tend to be more effective learners when they are building or tinkering. So, for me, it’s a more creative and engaging way to run the class,” says Science Department Chair Brian Mulcahey.
While there is risk in a classroom filled with lessons that produces a more chaotic atmosphere, Mulcahey says the noise it generates is worth listening to. He sees how interactive learning supports the absorption of information more than traditional lectures or brute-force memorization. He recalls a student who had spent the previous year at another school memorizing the periodic table. When asked to write every element he remembered in four minutes, the student produced mostly an empty sheet of paper. “All that time and energy spent on memorizing, and they still can’t recall. It’s much more useful as a learner or a scientist to apply what you learn,” Mulcahey says. Parents of students also validate this approach as many are hard-pressed to recall any of the lessons they learned during their time in school, with one exception.
“The one thing I hear from parents about their own time in science class is dissections,” Mulcahey says. “It’s the one lab at the end of the year that they got to get dirty and that’s all they remember. My thought is how can you deliver more of those stand-out experiences when delivering the content?”
That thinking led to curricula such as the dinosaur footprint project. At the start of the year, students learn how specific species of dinosaur behaved in their environment. After this didactic portion of the lesson, additional discoveries must be made by the students themselves. To achieve this, they are split into groups. One group straps-on a dinosaur footprint made of wood Velcroed to their shoe and walks through sand in random ways to create physical evidence about what kind of dinosaur it was, how it lived, and what was happening to it in that moment. A different group assumes the role of paleontologists, who then collect data on the age, species, and population size with the help of tools from the Museum of Natural History. Teamwork, collaboration, and excitement are hallmarks of CM’s science coursework.
Like many of the active learning experiences in CM’s classrooms, the school’s partnership with EXPLO, a Boston-based non-profit educational organization specializing in innovative learning experiences, plays a significant role. Since 2016, CM teachers submit lab ideas to EXPLO, and they, in turn, provide the concept as well as creating the equipment to bring to life the teachers’ ideas… like realizing the footprint idea for the dinosaur project. For a lesson on water allocation in the Colorado River, EXPLO gave CM teachers the idea of moving marbles down a track to show water use across the river.
“You start to think, what are the best ways to engage kids? You let them build things, be creative, give them competitions, and leave things more open-ended. Those ideals were some of the basic principles we started with. We started with those same provincials when we designed the Yawkey Center for Integrated and Applied Learning,” says former CM Science Department Chair and current Assistant Head of School Brian Palm.
All this provides an experience that doesn’t exist in the traditional educational model that calls for a teacher to lecture to a class of students who are expected to repeat what they heard word-for-word.
For students like Nathaniel Berlucchi ’23, the CM approach has harnessed his love for design, something he plans on studying in the future.
“Unlike a piece of paper, you’re looking at a tangible thing. You can understand it better, and you can look at it from all perspectives” he says.
The dinosaur project isn’t the only lab work done outside the classroom. As part of a lesson on evolution and natural selection, freshman biology students design a bird’s beak that can be worn like a hand puppet. The designs are made from predetermined materials, and the chosen shapes reflect certain avian characteristics.
Students then test their beaks to collect gummy worms hidden throughout an obstacle course designed to simulate the natural habitat of birds. The experiment often turns into a race between students about how fast they can complete the course or how many gummies they can find. In addition to a lesson where CM students can apply their knowledge in a creative setting, it’s an opportunity to learn outside and explore a world where birds have a sweet tooth for Haribo gummies.
A spring tradition for CM eighth graders is the egg drop experiment, where students demonstrate their understanding of Newton’s Third Law of Motion – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. During this exercise, students create a device that can protect an egg from a drop from a second-floor window. One of the first lessons to be learned is that a parachute won’t slow the egg’s descent or protect it when it lands. For this to happen, students need to consider Newton’s laws to readjust their designs. As the eggs drop, excitement abounds as students on the ground check to see if their delicate cargo has survived. And if the egg breaks? The students return to the planning stage with more motivation to achieve a safe landing rather than scrambling them on the ground.
“The students have to be involved. That’s where labs come in. You’ve learned Newton’s Third Law, and
now you’re going to see it in action. This is where there are a lot of good eureka and a-ha moments,” says middle school science teacher Nora McGauley.
The innovative approach isn’t exclusive to the science classes in the Yawkey Center or the labs elsewhere throughout school. Teachers in other departments create lesson plans that challenge their students to learn in many other interactive ways. In Katie Rich’s theology class, students don’t listen and then regurgitate the definition of freewill. Instead, they use a marble to navigate a maze with scenarios that they may experience during a school day that requires freewill and morality. Make a choice that results in oppression, and you’ll be at a dead end. Use your freewill to make decisions that lead to freedom, and you’ll find the maze’s exit.
“I would think that any child would be more engaged in any class if they are learning in this kind of way,” notes Palm. “The learning is shared and not one-sided. When you start owning something it means more to you.”
Peek inside our classrooms and you’ll see lessons in action. These activities, according to a 2020 edition of the Journal of Curriculum and Teaching, lead to increases in a student’s problem-solving and engineering abilities, giving them skills, they’ll need outside of class and in their post-CM lives.