The Science of Community

by Thomas Fortieth, Humanities Teacher

published in previously in the Pioneer Press newspapers in Illinois

I know embarrassingly little about science.  As a teacher of humanities, I consider myself a student of letters and, in my nobler moments, of human nature.  Experiments and formulas, dissections and hypotheses, have unfortunately never been a part of my mental universe.  It is therefore odd that, over the past few months, I have become a fascinated observer, perhaps even a fan, of a passionately pursued academic phenomenon known as Science Olympiad.  Your April 15th issue ably covered the recent state Science Olympiad competition.  However, what I have discovered, and what I would like to share with your readers, is that the competition itself is far less significant than the community that surrounds it.  Indeed, the North Shore Country Day School Science Olympiad community has, in recent weeks, taught me a thing or two about human nature.

Initially, North Shore’s performance at the state finals puzzled me.  The middle school team earned fifth place, finishing ahead of thirty-five other schools, each of which contained a significantly larger student population.  Similarly, the high school team finished second in its division and fourteenth overall, improbably taking more medals than our friendly neighbor to the east, New Trier High School.  Upon hearing these results and (eventually) believing them, I began to consider the source of the team’s success.

Had my friends in the development office known of my query, they would surely have pointed to the recently completed Conant Science Center as a major factor in the fine performances of our young scientists.  But I know that such is not the case… As lovely as the facilities may be, buildings do not define schools; a school culture is principally created and maintained by the student body and, to a lesser extent, by parents, teachers, and administrators.  And so I turned my attention to the students as I continued to search for the secret of our success…

 The students, in true teenage fashion, proved to be a source of bemusement.  I had observed them preparing for the regional and state competitions for several months.  While I admired their diligence, I also noted that Science Olympiad was clearly not their only scholastic priority.  One of the team’s standouts acted as stage manager for the Middle School play; another was a two-way player (offensive and defensive line) on the football team, while a third served as student council president.  Given such demanding schedules (which were by no means unique to these three students), it seemed a wonder that the team would even make it to the state finals!  However, it later occurred to me that the varied interests of these students might have, in fact, been a key factor in their success, broad-mindedness triumphing over single-mindedness.  Could an understanding of Homer’s Odyssey, or even of a football playbook, help budding engineers comprehend the laws of motion?  Apparently so…

 The behavior of our student scientists puzzled me in a second significant manner.  As they prepared for their events, I saw eighth graders and eleventh graders working together in the same laboratory.  The idea of putting thirteen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds together in the same room struck me as, at best, mildly foolish and, at worst, as a blatant violation of the fire code!  Nonetheless, the juniors and eighth graders not only exchanged ideas about their various projects, but they also exchanged stories, jokes, snacks.  They spoke to each other as equals, as partners in pursuit of knowledge.  A community of learners, a community of learning, a team…

 And then there were the teachers and parent volunteers who served as coaches… Beginning in January, I made a point of stopping by the labs each day at four o’clock.  On almost every occasion, the coaches were conspicuous by their absence, which is not to say that they were not physically present.  They were indeed there, yet I often found it hard to pick them out, to separate them from the students.  The coaches seemed to be learning just as much as their young charges.  Indeed, it frequently seemed as if the students provided the education.  The strategy of the coaches was pedagogically expert; they spoke only when necessary, rarely offering specific advice while frequently extending words of encouragement.  The students clearly owned the process, their relationship with their coaches collegial yet respectful, a partnership.

The Science Olympiad program at North Shore Country Day embodies not only a community of learners, but also a culture of learning.  As gratifying as success in competition may be, the pedagogical and communal victory was won not at the regional or state competitions, but in the laboratory and classrooms of our home campus by students, teachers, and parents who share the common goal of intellectual growth in an environment that supports the development of the whole child; the scholar, the athlete, the artist, the human being in each of us become inseparable and inviolate. 

 And so I begin to wonder at my initial categorization of myself… Perhaps next year I will join others in volunteering my time to coach Science Olympiad.  With any luck, they will let me work on an event that involves robots!

Note: Thomas coached our wheeled vehicle team in 2005-2006


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