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Q&A with Jason Park, Department Chair, 5th-12th Grade Science, Princeton Day School

Photos courtesy of Michael Branscom

What fueled your passion to rework the science curriculum at Princeton Day School?

While chair of the science department at a New Jersey boarding school, I connected with the highly regarded interim head of the science department at PDS, Dr. Leon (Lee) Rosenberg, to talk about what our science departments were doing and see if we could start a larger conversation about the future of science education in our respective schools.

Two years ago, I joined PDS because I strongly connected with the School’s commitment to teaching students how to use content to innovate, experiment, and ask the right questions. Moreover, it was clear that PDS was truly positioning itself to make elevated moves in the quality of science education through the development of a STEAM initiative and dedicated STEAM space. Another key factor was the alignment and support of the Head of School, Paul Stellato, the Board, the science faculty, and the community, all of whom wanted to look at the science program at PDS in a thoughtful, reflective way to best prepare students for the future. Another big draw I observed was the open and accepting nature of student and teacher interactions. It’s very clear that PDS is an environment that embraces people for being individuals and gives each community member the space to flourish and really delve into who you are and can be.

The philosophy that Lee and I championed launched a thorough self-assessment process and drove the evolution in PDS’s science approach. Some key results have emerged: One was alignment, both vertically and horizontally. Not every school has a PreK-12 program in one place, like PDS, and this distinct physical advantage allowed us to create a thoughtful, visible curriculum that could build from Lower through Upper School. It also helped us more easily ensure that the students’ experience across any grade would be comparable and consistent. Another goal was to define the STEAM initiative, and a big component in achieving that goal was assembling the best team. We had a unique opportunity to focus on adding several new members with similar values and approaches toward science education who also brought a range of different strengths, skillsets, and experiences, totaling about 40 percent of the science department over the past few years. The chemistry – pun intended – has been pretty good!

What are some examples of changes in science curriculum at PDS?

As a team, we’re transforming the science program experience for students across grades, with inquiry-based, applied science curricula designed to help students tap into their interests and passions as they build a framework to understand science and apply it. New and redesigned courses include: a STEAMINAR for all 9th graders; a new Upper School robotics and information processing elective; an 8th grade physical science curriculum with inquiry-based and constructivist approaches to applying physics principles and chemistry; a 6th grade life science curriculum animated by an advanced level of student-inspired garden research projects; and the redesigned 5th grade science curriculum focused on innovation experiences. In the Lower School, every grade delved into a seven-week STEAM elective last year, and this year we’re asking homeroom teachers to thematically connect more of their existing curriculum to innovation projects. New initiatives and scheduling are coming out of our Innovation for Impact Task Force that will bring all grades into the maker space.

How would you describe the impact of this reinvigorated science approach on students?

What we’ve seen is how much this approach allows students to engage as true scientists – students are the ones looking for patterns, asking questions about data, and reflecting on observations, rather than us as teachers delineating the patterns, questions, and conclusions to draw. We find that kids love to engage when they are owners of their own knowledge.
A key program aspiration we achieved last year is a capstone opportunity designed for the most passionate Upper School science students: an intensive in-class and in-the-field research experience, PDS’s REx (Research Experience) program, developed and directed by Upper School science teacher Dr. Carrie Norin.

Through REx, our highest-level science students have tangible experience in real-world academic research labs and also find applications for what they’re learning in the classroom that goes beyond what’s reflected in the AP test. This junior year course involves independent classroom study for each student to develop lines of inquiry and research, identify summer lab possibilities, reach out to labs, and secure summer internships to pursue their work begun at PDS.

A big component is about developing self-reliance, self-advocacy, and interpersonal skills – starting with how to broach their research questions and leading to their requests for consideration to intern with researchers working in labs that are on the leading edge in their fields. As someone with deep experience of scientific research labs, Carrie helps guide them through the inquiry process – how do we make sense of some of these conclusions? How do we gain knowledge of their methodologies? And where Carrie’s areas of scientific expertise ends, there are others on the PDS science team with other skills, many at the Ph.D. and medical professional level – civil engineering, chemical engineering, organic chemistry, to name a few. We also advise on possibilities in the professional community to go to for expertise beyond PDS.

When the students go into real-world labs for their summer internships, their scientific learning curve grows exponentially. The learning they’re doing beyond the science is also substantial – interacting with diverse team members across age groups and styles, navigating public transportation in new cities, acclimating to dorm or apartment life, and more. This fall, as seniors, they will deliver their final presentations as we launch this year’s new group of junior Rex participants.

How do new programs like REx inspire and challenge PDS teachers?

For PDS at large, the program clarifies our mission and helps shape what we do because it helps us see the rest of the curriculum as it relates to this kind of pinnacle experience.
We’re fortunate at PDS that there’s an entrepreneurial, R&D spirit where teachers feel the freedom to break new ground to enhance programs and methods. We have so many veteran faculty with deep experiences and skillsets who want to continue learning skills and exploring passions. What we’re doing parallels what we’re asking the kids to do. Our leadership expects that of us, pushes us toward it, and encourages and supports our development.

Our Innovation for Impact Task Force came out of this collective desire to maximize student engagement in science, technology, math, and engineering experiences. Building off PDS’s core values, we’re not just innovating for innovation’s sake, we’re pursuing innovation for real-world problem-solving. And we’re using a variety of tools — from microprocessors to 3D printing and maker-space resources, to coding and app development.

Across academic disciplines, we want PDS kids to learn skills in the context of solving specific challenges. In the humanities, for example, innovation ideas abound that look to the past as they connect to present-day problem-solving; and in math, innovation and design is being applied to real-world issues. In foreign language, faculty are looking at ways to engage students through innovation-based explorations. Our goal is for each grade level to experience the innovation space across a spectrum of academic disciplines by the 2020 school year.
At PDS, there’s agreement that for a growth mindset to be realized, it has to be lived. Going through the process of iterating, revising, benchmarking, designing, and redesigning benefits our faculty tremendously along with every student at PDS.

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