By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach
Already this year, about two-dozen upper school students are engaged in WISRD work. That’s what we call the Wildwood Institute for STEM Research and Development—a seriously inventive program that is significantly re-shaping The Wildwood Way. The program launches all interested 9th through 12th graders into science and design projects driven by student interest. That confidence in our learners—to pose good questions and search for the answers in a range of ways—is at the core of our philosophy, and now it is genuinely programmatic.
The “Institute” moniker is intentional and is one of the differentiators for this class. Only a handful of high schools in the US offer science through the Institute model. Like independent and university scientific institutes, Wildwood’s student researchers engage in inquiry in a range of areas, including cosmic radiation or holography, form and test hypotheses, and share their findings with the broader scientific community through presentations and publications.
This past week I spent some time visiting the WISRD labs and found students pursuing an array of interesting projects in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Interest-driven projects: real-world impact
Wildwood 12th grader Olivia C. discovered WISRD this past summer when she happened upon the Institute workspace in the mezzanine area at the middle and upper campus. “I saw a plastic prosthetic hand made up of a dozen parts that looked like they’d been made with a 3D printer”, she says. “I’m really interested in prosthetics—so this was intriguing.”
This was Olivia’s first encounter with WISRD (only now in its second year) and she never considered herself much of a science student. “But then I met Joe,” she says, “and started talking to him about 3D printing. Before I knew it, I’d signed up for the class as my elective. Now I’m printing and assembling these prosthetics myself.”
Olivia’s desire to help children in need also motivates her. Her WISRD work this year contributes to Enabling The Future, a non-profit group that connects a worldwide network of volunteers to produce low-cost prosthetics with the children who need them, around the US and the world.
Wildwood 9th grader Josie B. was eagerly anticipating upper school so she dive into WISRD-based research. She is loving the experience.
Josie’s WISRD work this year is adding to the knowledge of the world’s astronomers: She is collecting and analyzing data from Jupiter being captured by NASA’s Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT). Josie’s among a handful of high school students across the country who are part of the project, which involves operating NASA’s the 112-foot radio telescope from her computer. Her data and analysis will be added to NASA’s on-going research. “I’m not just studying the project,” Josie reflects. “I’m part of it.” Next, Josie will use GAVRT to study another research passion—black holes—and write about her findings as an assistant editor this year of WISRD’s semi-annual research journal.
“I’ve always been curious… about everything,” Josie says. “I knew that this class would be perfect for me.”
Fellow 9th grader, Aiden S.’s WISRD work this year investigates how robots can relate to humans on an emotional level. He’s working with a programmable, commercially available humanoid robot that the WISRD students have named Lucy. He’s already programmed it to make announcements for WISRD at All School Meeting (see video below), and has an even bigger idea: He wants to program Lucy to pick up on and respond to a person’s emotions—to share in someone’s excitement or cheer someone up who’s having a bad day.
Aiden’s also learned a life lesson that science often teaches: Things don’t always go according to planned. “I realized early on,” Aiden says, “that while Lucy has a camera, she can’t understand human facial expressions.” So, Aiden decided that he would have to program Lucy to understand voice commands. “In order for my program to work, you have to be honest—tell Lucy when you’re happy and when you’re sad; then she can try to cheer you up.”
Where’s the teacher?
Students take on their research, reporting, and thinking with guidance form Wildwood’s STEM Coordinator Joe Wise, assisted by science teacher Tim Sekula, math/science teacher Scott Johnson, and retired teacher/volunteer Bob Baker. The WISRD class meets three times a week.
Joe Wise, WISRD’s lead teacher, joined the Wildwood faculty last year as the upper school’s Applied STEM Coordinator. A physics aficionado, Joe brings decades of knowledge, teaching experience and connections within the academic and corporate scientific communities in the Los Angeles area and beyond. He’s also the driving force behind InnovateED.LA 2015, a free event at the middle & upper campus on October 17 for students and families across LA—with workshops, cool demonstrations, a makerspace, and hackathon.
Joe sees his role as facilitating students’ learning and work, rather just merely delivering content. He follows their interests to map out the workflow. “We’re working to build a new paradigm in education here,” Joe says about WISRD, “where students’ interests are truly driving the work they do.” Joe knows that his students will seek him out when they need to—with an idea they want to bounce off of him, to tap his extensive scientific and engineering knowledge, or in search of help with using a tool or piece of software.
“Joe’s great,” his students say. “He knows everything, is always willing to help, and gets us back on track when we need to.”
The WISRD model is an approach to teaching and learning that is genuinely progressive, and a seamless addition to The Wildwood Way—connecting students with opportunities to guide their own rigorous, meaningful work under the supervision of inspiring teachers. And it’s a model that works in every discipline as we help students learn real-life lessons: Ask good questions, critique one’s own work and refine it—it can always be better, and will never be perfect. Keep thinking, keep working, keep improving.
WISRD is here to enhance the Wildwood Way.