A Dynamic Approach to Learning

A Dynamic Approach to Learning

Investment in faculty professional development creates profound learning opportunities for students.

When Ava Gallagher ’19 entered her first-year computer-aided design (CAD) class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she was better equipped than most. Thanks to the Honors Engineering class she took during her senior year at Govs, Gallagher had already mastered CAD software by way of the project-based curriculum in her Govs engineering course.

Gallagher’s early exposure to CAD—as well as electronics, programming, and mechanical systems—helped illuminate her future path. She graduated in December with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, and is staying on at RPI to earn her master’s.

Project-based learning (PBL) is taking off at Govs, thanks to investments in professional development for its teachers and the remarkable outcomes students experience at Govs and beyond. Science faculty Marcus Soule and Jamie Brandt spent part of summer 2022 at PBL 201, a Buck Institute of Education seminar that trains teachers to work in new ways. 

“The project is the learning, not the outcome,” says Soule, who teaches the engineering class. “Students are building their mastery and knowledge as they go through it.”

“It costs more to educate students with PBL,” he explains. “We use laser cutters, a band saw, and 3D printers, and we go through a lot of materials in producing the projects.”

The innovative approach engages students in a way that traditional teaching may not, argues Soule: “It aligns beautifully to Governor’s Seven Essential Skills. Students learn to be analytical, accountable, and collaborative in stressful situations.”

In Brandt’s Honors Environmental Science elective, student pairs tackle a life-or-death project: create and sustain a biosphere inside a two-liter plastic bottle.

“We’re doing science, rather than just talking about it. It makes it more effective, and the kids really enjoy it,” says Brandt.

Bryce Ciampitti ’23 elected to take the course after enjoying Brandt’s physics course during junior year. “I like Mr. Brandt’s style of teaching because it’s project-based and interactive,” he explains. “It’s helpful to learn that way because you’re not just listening, you’re actually putting knowledge into action.”

For their biosphere, Ciampitti and partner Cam Russo ’24 chose every available element: mud and water from a local freshwater pond, a bit of beach sand, four rotala indica plants, four freshwater guppies, three snails, and a smattering of saltwater brine shrimp. They sealed it up on a Friday, found one dead fish on Monday, and suffered mass mortality by Wednesday.

“I’m disappointed, but the goal wasn’t to keep the fish alive; it was to understand what’s happening inside the bottle,” says Ciampitti, who predicts widespread algae as the semester progresses.

Academic Dean Karen Gold P’14,’17 is inspired by the projects she’s seeing across campus, and the interdisciplinary collaboration that’s happening among faculty: “When Marcus and Jamie shared during a faculty meeting what they learned from PBL 201, their energy lit up the room. We all change and grow as educators, as does the school… It feels limitless what we can do here.”

Faculty excellence is a priority of the With True Courage campaign. Support for the academic enterprise gives our teachers more opportunities to strengthen and sharpen their practice, and ensures that our faculty are inspired to do their best work and that our school is an inspiring place to learn.