Defying Gravity

Recently, an alumna from the class of 1997, Molly Mulligan, spend some time on campus as a future member of the board of trustees. Molly holds a Ph.D in mechanical engineering, and works for a company that facilitates manufacturing in space. For example, there is a cancer drug formed from two liquids that, when mixed, make crystals.The crystals form better if they have low gravity in their environment.
It’s a totally out of the box concept. We spend our whole lives with gravity, so it takes a particular sort of educated mind to imagine deleting gravity from the picture of a chemical reaction. And then on top of that, figuring out a way to make space exploration profitable is quite innovative. And then on top of that, turning the idea into something feasible– which is Molly’s particular area– makes all the out of the box thinking, actually possible.

Molly believes that the seeds of having a mind to think in this innovative way  this way were planted at Parker. Her mother was a public school teacher, and very dedicated to her students, and nevertheless, believed that Molly’s education should be more. I am sure Molly would have been fine in public school, but her mom did not want to settle for just “fine.” I think this must resonate with many current Parker parents– since they come to us wanting their child’s education to be better than “just fine.”

The seeds of our attitudes about learning are planted when we are young. The love of learning, inquiry, and curiosity are all planted early. We can think of this as sort of double helix of learning. There are two strands. We do come to school to acquire knowledge. But school should never be focused only on that. Because there is another strand– the disposition toward learning.

In many of traditional schools, the system  measures the success of a student by how much knowledge they can acquire. We test them; we make them memorize. We compare them to each other with grades and class rankings. The traditional educational system creates an environment that makes students feel they are placed at a certain level. We are realizing that for some kids, the pressure of feeling that you have to be good at everything, that you’re no one unless you get straight As is becoming crushing. All of this becomes like gravity– it is so assumed to be part of life that you don’t even begin to imagine what might be possible without it.
But when you have a childhood at Parker, we let you exercise creativity. We deliberately create an environment where learning and the attitude toward learning can grow, like those crystals in space, away from gravity. We look for ways that leave open a chance for students to think out of the box. We do this by giving students a chance to imitate the things that are happening in the real world and to actually participate in the things that are happening in the real world. These experiences shape a student’s disposition toward learning in positive ways. Once that disposition is set on the right path, it’s a pretty firm course. It grows, like those crystals in space. Students graduate from Parker protected from some of the weight of school gravity, because they have grown up in an environment that cared about cultivating excellent attitudes toward learning.

A good example came from the seventh graders this week. After being outside for so long, our old weather station can no longer can function to hold the instruments. This week John Sherry, the middle school science teacher asked his students to use the TinkerCAD program to design a replica replacement part, so that we can repair the weather station.
I have to let you know that this seemed like an impossible task. This is a cylinder, but it has rectangles attached. There are holes that screws fit in. You can’t see the whole thing at once and some of the pieces are broken so you have to guess about how they are going to fit together. The students got to work. And some of them never came up for air.
They did this on their own– with only an end result as inspiration, they figured out what they had to do to model the part so that they can print one on our 3D printer and get the weather station operational again. There certainly is acquired knowledge in this activity– measurement, observation, breaking the whole into parts, using a computer program. But intertwined with that  these students, also had a positive disposition toward learning and the task. No student complained that the modeling was impossible. No said it couldn’t be done. Although not every student got equally far along on the task, they all had the experience of starting it, and they were all positive toward each other’s efforts, and eager to see what each other had come up with.
School work like this removes gravity. Their teacher gave these students a real job; asked them to fulfil a real need. Some moved further toward the end result, but no one failed. There was no single right way to start the design, and no teacher had to say what was right and what was wrong. The result itself was the feedback. Everyone left the class happy and looking forward to seeing a print of the design in the future.
Returning to our alumna, Molly, she related an interesting story from her school years when visiting. When she was a fourth grade student at Parker, New York State administered the fourth grade science test to her class. And every student got 100% on the lab practical. Every one. Incredulous, the authorities immediately swooped in and interviewed the students. They assumed the children had cheated on the test. They certainly brought gravity with them. The children were asked, “Did you cheat on this test?” Molly remembers not even understanding the question. “Why would anyone cheat on a test? They asked us to do something, we knew what to do, and we did it.” Then as now, Parker students’ positive disposition towards learning let them shine when faced with task.
Even at that young age, Molly’s disposition toward learning had been permitted to slipped the grasp of gravity. That can do attitude, is the outcome of a perfect environment for learning. We know our students have to acquire knowledge, and they do. But we also know that we have to concentrate on fostering their disposition for learning, and their ability to keep going. Our creative and caring teachers give our students opportunities to imagine an end result, work toward it and link it to something that is real. We don’t settle for just knowledge acquisition when positive disposition is what their futures will call for. We don’t let gravity tie our students down, day after day, year after year. We know that their futures will require them to slip out of gravity’s grasp. To resist that tug to remain in place, they will have to preserve and focus on the final goal.
I am proud to be working with a group of teachers who create this environment every day, with a board work strives to provide us with what we need for Parker now and in the future, and most of all, our families, who like Molly’s mother, decided that they they wanted better than fine, and found Parker.