An Enriching Academic Exploration Day

Six times a year, the Upper School embarks on a deep dive into largely uncharted areas of study. During these far-reaching “Academic Exploration Days” – designed several years ago as a valuable alternative to traditional exams – teachers pause their regularly scheduled lessons to guide their students in a host of immersive, “out of the box” learning experiences. 

Thus, on Friday, October 18, the History, Science, Technology and World Languages Departments individually curated a special agenda for their Class 9-12 students. As this writer observed, both students and faculty members made the most of the sophisticated, inquiry-based discovery and uninterrupted time the day offered, both here at School and throughout the city.

“The day was an opportunity for the students to delve into topics that they wouldn’t have had the chance to otherwise,” explained Dr. Prasad Akavoor, who teaches Upper School Engineering and Physics. “They either learned techniques and tools or they applied what they already knew to nuanced and new situations to solve a real-life problem.” 

Here are a few examples of Academic Exploration Day in action:
•    In a fifth-floor science lab, Class 11 and 12 Chemistry students made environmentally-friendly plastic out of potato starch. After grating the potatoes, they combined the pieces with distilled water in a beaker and brought the mixture to a boil on a hot plate. After completing the first stage of the experiments, these scientists tested the newly created plastic to determine which type it most closely resembled. They conducted research to identify a need in society for which a bio-plastic, made from biodegradable substances like potatoes, could replace an existing plastic, which is made from petroleum. At the end of the day, the students presented their compelling findings to their classmates.

•    Down the hall in Room 505, students in Spanish III participated in a series of engaging activities around the theme, “Art, Artist and Activism: Cuba Post-1959.” Dressed in period costumes, these Class 10 scholars re-enacted scenes, in both Spanish and English, from “Susurros de Tatlin #6” by the Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera. Next, to their indescribable delight, they spoke directly with the distinguished artist herself through Facetime, asking her questions about her art and politics (she currently resides in Vienna, Austria). Later, the class traveled downtown to view the arresting exhibition “La tierra habla (The Earth Speaks)” by Ana Mendieta, another notable Cuban artist. 

•    In the Assembly Room, a cross-disciplinary initiative, “Physics in Motion: The Game,” united elements of physics and dance with amazing results. Divided into groups, these Class 11 and 12 students began by selecting four physics concepts (such as “acceleration,” “energy” or “velocity”) and one prop (like balls, bands or hoops). They then brainstormed, ultimately choreographing imaginative one-minute dance pieces informed by physics. Each group performed their dance twice – once silently and the second time by simultaneously moving and speaking the physics terms aloud. Each student was an active participant in the creative process and the presentation.

Other Academic Exploration Day activities included:

•    Led by a visiting scientist from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, students in Molecular Genetics identified different types of plants by extracting their DNA.

•    French and Latin classes visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and students taking Chinese spent the day at the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) in Chinatown.

•    Class 9 History focused on art of the Middle Ages. One half of the class traveled to the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, while the others explored exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

•    Engineering students designed and built a mechanical robotic hand with Adobe Illustrator and learned how to use a laser cutter to cut the pieces. Dr. Michelle Gelbs, a biomechanical engineer, worked with the groups. 

•    At the Bronx Zoo, the Advanced Biology class investigated animal conservation through the lens of genetics.

•    A group of Computer Science and Engineering students collaborated with industrial engineer Pat Hudson, a senior manager at Walmart, on a captivating discussion about supply chain optimization. 

By all measures, this year’s inaugural Academic Exploration Day proved to be a rewarding and enriching endeavor for the Upper School as these thoughtful reflections demonstrate:

“I would definitely say that Academic Exploration Days are preferable because we now have the opportunity to do activities and – in this case – labs that we are not able to do in our limited time slots of our everyday classes.” 

 “I really enjoyed the Exploration Day because I felt that I learned more through experiential learning than just reviewing the information I had already learned before.” 

“I enjoyed this day and had a lot of fun with my group. This Academic Exploration Day allowed me to learn more about the modern application of chemistry today and more about environmental issues, specifically plastic pollution.”

“I feel that Academic Exploration Days help us learn by seeing something, doing something or going somewhere, which is completely different from a normal classroom experience in which we sit and learn. We were also practicing our Spanish for the entire day, which probably augmented my Spanish skills more than an hour of class each day could.” 

“I think Academic Exploration Days allow students to satisfy their intellectual curiosity by really exploring and not being afraid to get anything wrong because it doesn't affect their grades. Overall, I thought the day was an interesting change from what we usually do, especially since we got to explore a new topic. I enjoyed it!”