Observations From Our Head of School, Ed Walters

The Role of Science and Math in Elementary Education

Recently I read some very disturbing statistics about the status of science in American education.  Sadly, 68% of elementary school students have never written a report about science, and 58% have never designed a science project.  The statistics are a little better when you include middle school, 6th through 8th grade, improving to 47% never having written a science report and 39% never having designed a science experiment.  This is still so depressing.  At a time in life when “why” questions abound, we are denying children the thrill of exploration and the joy of understanding.  Fortunately, at AVS, starting in Kindergarten with the Area of Expertise papers, and followed by Science Fairs for all other grades, in addition to the class-level science curriculum and the school-wide weekly science lessons, our students are experiencing the joy of inquiry while practicing the art of documentation and communication.  It is a joy to hear them say that a demonstration was not magic, but science, or to ask a “why” question and listen to a teacher guide them into explorations and connections.

In this our 4th year, and with a dedicated, creative, and very involved faculty, we continue to adhere to our mission of putting learning first.  Our faculty teach in a manner that works for children, not because it is easy to manage, assess, or control, but because it engages children in the act of learning by making the process fun and enjoyable.  As a science, math, and tech focused school, we try different things, we experiment -- not to the detriment of education, but in support of learning and understanding.  We ask "What is best for students?", and "How do we make learning a better experience for our students?".  Here we know that science is not a list of facts and principles to learn by rote; it is a way of looking at the world and asking questions; and that math is not a static subject, but is alive with the possibilities of application.

One of the greatest gifts we can give to the next generation is a unique way of looking at the world.  Let’s call it the sight of understanding, connecting, and exploring.  Thank you for supporting our efforts to provide this unique vision to our students so they can be the innovators of the future.

Back to School, Greetings from West Virginia!

Despite the mostly rainy, hot, and humid East Coast weather, this has been another exceptional summer of rest, relaxation and projects, shared with the excitement of planning for another outstanding AVS year.  Although I am sorry to see summer end, I am also anxiously counting the days until our students return to campus.

As many of you know, one of my hobbies is the restoration of, and tinkering with, classic cars. Cathy calls it an addiction, but I consider it a hobby.  Because of the temperamental East Coast weather this summer, I found myself spending a significant amount of time under, in, and around the cars in the garage, organizing parts and making the necessary repairs to keep them running.

My grandson, Sam, expressed an interest in spending some time alone with us at the lake.  His visit provided an amazing opportunity, a chance to pass on my love of all things mechanical to the next generation.  Together we spent quality garage time looking at how things were put together, exploring what would happen if we changed this or added that. It was, as Sam said, “automagical.”  He was curious, had great questions, enjoyed getting dirty, and basically reaffirmed that it is never too early to start young minds exploring, experiencing, and making connections.

When it was time for him to return home from his visit, we were able to continue this generational exchange.  At the end of July, Pittsburgh hosts an annual event, the Vintage Grand Prix.   The Grand Prix consists of an extensive exhibit of vintage vehicles, followed by a race around Schenley Park, making it the last motor race still held on public roads in the US.  So, there we were, three generations (father, son, and grandson), walking in the paddock area, speaking with old acquaintances, admiring their vehicles and discussing the unique engineering skills that have kept these vintage machines running.  It is a time I will remember and cherish, knowing that as Sam gets older we will most likely continue to explore this special mechanical connection.  I feel so fortunate to be able to pass on an appreciation for and understanding of simple engineering to my grandson.

The July issue of Mechanical Engineering asked the question,  “Will Engineers be True Global Problem Solvers?”  It was an interesting article that focused on how to best “prepare and inspire the next generation of engineers to solve the most pressing global challenges.”  It examined, through panel discussion, not only teaching and the need for a more disruptive approach, but also how well we are preparing engineers to effectively deal with problems in the field.  The panel recognized the need for certain basic academic skills, as well as the ability to identify and define a problem, and then to create a subset of possible solutions, but felt that something was missing in the traditional educational approach for engineers.  That provocative question of course got me thinking about Alta Vista.

In traditional programs, engineering students acquire their skill sets in a singular manner, one class at a time, without a focus on the collaboration of skills needed to solve real world problems.  The disruptive learning model discussed, proposed, and endorsed by the panel, teaches “many skills through projects, where students learn by doing,” thus giving engineers a broader perspective of the problem, and the collaborative skills needed to solve them (the Olin College of Engineering was used as an example of this approach).

So, as I prepare for my cross-country drive back to San Francisco, I will have plenty of time to reflect on how the AVS experience-based learning model is preparing students by giving them not only a deep understanding of the basic skills, but also the freedom to apply them in a cross-disciplinary manner.  With a guiding hand from our outstanding faculty, and by providing an opportunity for our students to experience, expand, and connect, I think we are well on our way of preparing the next generation of  “true global problem solvers.”

Enjoy the rest of summer, and I look forward to seeing you all at our various school events at the end of August.

Kids Who "Shadow" Eratosthenes

A few years ago, I did an experiment that I’d like to share with you.  Those of you well versed in experiment design will recognize that this was not a carefully structured and controlled activity, and I hope you will forgive the messiness of the process.  The idea was to determine if children, allowed to be active participants in the gathering and recording of data, could make the link between the known to solve for the unknown. 

Loosely following the 2000-year old work of the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes, the experiment entailed having families with young children, 5 to 8 years old, engage in recording measurements of length.  I asked the parents of these children to, with careful explanations and great gestures, have the children participate in measuring their height at various times during the day, and as well as the shadow they cast.  This data was to be recorded on a large piece of paper and prominently displayed for the children to examine.  Parents were also instructed to answer all the children’s questions with demonstrations, not just words.  The goal was to have children realize that their height was not changing, only the length of their shadow. 

After recording the data for a week or more, and making sure that the recordings occurred during similar times of the day, therefore yielding similar results, the parents were to ask the children the height of an object they could not measure directly, a flagpole, tree, telephone, arbor, etc.

When the parents reported back to me, amazingly, 85% of these young, bright minds made the connection.  To find the height of the object, you simply needed to measure the shadow it cast at a certain time of the day, the time when the shadow cast and the height had equal measurements.

As you all know, I am passionate about making education a fun and engaging process.  I strongly believe that children, provided with opportunity and actively involved in discovery, will rise to the challenge set before them.  This has been a driving force in our math, science, and tech-driven school curriculum, built by our amazing, dedicated, and absolutely outstanding teachers.

Unlike King Sisyphus, we are not condemned to repeat the same task over and over again knowing its futility, but caught in the standardization of the routine.  At Alta Vista, our teachers have the freedom to teach and our students are given the encouragement to explore, without a fear of failure, but in celebration of understanding.

As I think about the foundation of Alta Vista School, and all that has been accomplished in so little time, four words from one of Maya Angelou’s poems, A Brave and Startling Truth, ring true to me:  "We are the possible."   

Driving Einstein's Brain

In his book "Driving Mr. Albert," Michael Paterniti describes a cross-country journey with former Princeton pathologist Dr. Thomas Harvey and, neatly stored in the truck of the teal-colored Buick Skylark, Albert Einstein's brain.  Together, they set off on an eight-day quest, heading to California to bring some closure to what was clearly a strange series of events. 

Fascinated by this unbelievable journey, I started reading about the tangential events leading to, and following, this trip.  Of particular interest were the studies of a neuroscientist from UC Berkeley.  This scientist had been studying the effect of enrichment activities on brain development in rats.  The research discovered that the brains of rats in enriched environments had thicker cortexes and more complex dendrites, and were able to process events faster. With this data in hand, the scientist undertook a study of Einstein's brain to determine the essence of genius, bringing to question whether "escaping an everyday life of raw monotony to take refuge in a world crowded with images of our own creation" makes us smarter?  Do these activities change the composition of the brain, or simply awaken the potential?  The question of nature versus nurture, and the quality of the research will be for others to decide.  It is fascinating, however, that the research discovered a larger number of glial cells in Einstein's brain, and those rats from enriched environments than in those of the other brains in the study.

Intuitively, we all know that engaging activities and sensory stimulation awaken the portals to understanding.  We see it in our students as they animatedly participate in classroom projects and activities that generate an enthusiastic flow of questions, punctuated with palpable excitement.  There is nothing greater than having students energetically engaged in learning and exchanging ideas with their teacher and peers.  I cannot determine if this has led to an increase number of glial cells in their brains, but I can attest to the joy they express in recounting their classroom experiences to me in the hallway.  This joy can stem from their latest garden project, to manipulating numbers in new ways, or dipping a simulated, blubbery hand in ice water to understand how seals and penguins survive in Antarctica.

If enrichment activities stimulate the brain enough to place one in the arbitrary classification of genius, then we now have, or will have, a lot more geniuses in the world.  A far more likely outcome, I believe, is that we will have students at Alta Vista who are excited about learning, seek out knowledge, and derive joy from the process.  For me, this is school at its best.

Back to School, Winding Down the Dog Days of Summer

As I try to finish the remaining items on my "to-do" list during my last few days of summer, I can't help but feel that familiar anticipatory stirring, knowing that another school year is just a few weeks away - made even more exciting by a new location, new students, and new teachers! Alta Vista will now include third grade and enroll approximately 90 students.  We should all feel a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment, for it was just two years ago that we followed our educational dream and started a school focusing on the underemphasized disciplines of math, science and technology, and actively engaging students in the process of learning. It has been such a thrill to watch our Alta Vista students thrive and embrace our curricular focus under the careful guidance of our faculty.

Every summer Cathy and I journey cross-country, back to the Appalachian hills of West Virginia for our annual rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. It has become a tradition to drive a different, less traveled route to explore and discover our amazing country. This year we decided to follow Route 50 from Sacramento to Dodge City, Kansas. The stretch of Route 50 in Nevada is known as "The Loneliest Road in America", something that was quite evident as civilization yielded to desolation and incredible scenic vistas. We spent the night in a small town called Ely, about 80 miles from the Utah border. That evening we met an exceptional young man, Clay M., who was our waiter at The Jailhouse Restaurant. We started a conversation, and his story was extremely unique: Clay didn't live in Ely but in the old silver mining town of Austin about 90 miles west of Ely.  His town's population was steadily dwindling, and only had nine high school students who were bused daily to attend the Ely regional high school. Clay was a good student as well as an all-state linebacker, winning a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska. In addition to that daily trip, the football team drove a minimum of three hours to play opposing teams in their league. For Clay, this was a way of life.  Along with the support and guidance of his family, he had set his priorities, valuing above all else the importance of education.  Clay's determination and positive attitude, plus that daily 90-mile drive back and forth for four years had paid off.  We couldn't help but be in sheer awe of his daily routine, but he remained humble and grateful for the opportunity to fulfill his dream of attending college (and playing Division I football).

This example is probably just one of many portraying the importance of education and how it can make all the difference in life.  It sure impacted Cathy and me.  We are so fortunate at Alta Vista to be able to provide for children and the next generation, one of the few things that does not depreciate with time, an outstanding education.

The school building renovation is almost complete, and the school looks great.  I am very excited to start the unpacking process, getting the school ready for what promises to be another outstanding AVS year.  I look forward to seeing all of you then!



Remarks at End of Year Celebration, Education and The Art of Tinkering

Welcome to the Alta Vista School end of the year ceremonies.  This is a time when an alchemy of emotions heightens our celebratory spirit in recognition of all that has been accomplished over the past year – A year filled with activities and the excitement of discovery, a year when the connectiveness of math was examined, and the wonders of science explored, while being immersed in the beauty of the literary world around us.   Now, here we are at the end of a fantastic Alta Vista year, gathered in celebration.

Alta Vista School was founded based on a vision of emphasizing math, science, and technology in the teaching of young children, and with the understanding that we were going to approach education, and teaching, a little differently.  Here we were not going to focus on memorization and the use of multiple worksheets, but on relevance and understanding.  In other words, at AVS we are going to focus on the learner.  I believe that an excellent education measures a student’s level of creativity, comprehension and practicality, and how they confluence information to identify the connections between related and seemingly unrelated data points.  At AVS, eloquence of thought is gauged by the simplicity of the execution, not by its complexity.

Having spent most of my youth traveling with my family in rural Latin America, I was exposed to what I now realize were diametrically opposed, but fascinating, methods of looking at problems and finding solutions.  My engineer father, like most in his profession, found great satisfaction in finding solutions to problems, in his case, how to best bring water and remove waste from emerging cities in Latin America.   Once the solution was found and determined to be effective, plans were drawn, and materials ordered so the job could begin.

Recently, I took a trip to visit my daughter in Bozeman, Montana.  As most of you who have taken that trip know, you can’t get there directly from here.  The first part of the trip was a great time to relax and read a book.  The second leg, a short hop from Salt Lake City to Bozeman – and with the excitement and anticipation of the visit – a good time to just stare out the window.  Having made this trip a few times in the past, I thought I was familiar with the terrain and the mountain vistas down below.  I don’t know if it was the lack of overwhelming mountain snowfall, or the altered path of the plane due to inclement weather aversion, but I noticed something I had not seen on previous trips.  Tucked high on a rugged mountain and next to what looked like a thumbnail-sized lake, was what appeared to be a small, crudely built cabin, with puffs of smoke emerging from its chimney.  There were no visible means of ingress or egress, no roads or footpaths, just blankets of green pine trees and scattered patches of snow.

Seeing this structure, I was reminded of my youthful days with my father, and our travels to the remote villages of our host countries.  For years the inhabitants of these villages had found eloquent, simple solutions to daunting problems without the use of specialized tools and materials.  They had correctly identified the relationships between the items they had at hand, and devised solutions to their pressing needs. 

They were, for lack of a better word, TINKERERS.  The Art of Tinkering is celebrated when the realities of isolation or scant resources force people to find creative solutions to common problems or needs.  They focus on using the tools and materials on hand to solve problems and create solutions in an eloquent, simple manner; a process I speculate was used to build the secluded cabin in the remote mountain region of Montana.

Although the Alta Vista classroom resources are plentiful, our teachers’ spirit of resourcefulness has no boundaries.  Part actor, part wizard, our teachers are skilled in facilitating inventive opportunities for learning.  The often-quoted “teachable moment” is reached and used to create a mystical aura, as they unveil the mysteries of the world with the ultimate goal of student understanding.  They have the discipline and subject mastery that enable them to develop creative lessons, filled with clarity and relevance, and thus bringing complex concepts and ideas to their students.  They practice and teach the Art of the Tinkerer.  In this 21st century world of limitless data, they give our students the tools to practice eloquence of thought by helping them find the thin, sometimes unrelated, strands that bind problems and solutions.  This is what I would classify as true teaching that leads to understanding.  At AVS, our teachers are teaching and celebrating the Art of Tinkering.

a progressive learning environment
an emphasis on science, math and technology

Alta Vista School     info@altavistaschoolsf.org |  Telephone: 415 / 467.3700