Interdisciplinary pilot course aims to create concrete solutions to global issues

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

In an age of instant virtual gratification and white-collar job expectations, liberal arts education seems to be fighting a losing battle. With today’s youth being taught early on to work toward their optimal future, the recent cries for career-based education have come as no surprise. It’s from these frustrated students that we hear the familiar, “When am I going to use derivatives outside of calculus class,” and, “How will literary analysis get me a job?” The remoteness of post-school life only seems to limit the motivation of students seeking an outcome from their studies.

PHS’s Transformative Education Program, an upcoming interdisciplinary pilot course spearheaded by Spanish teacher Martha Hayden and media specialist Jennifer Bigioni, aims to bring meaning back to the liberal arts classroom by having its students create and implement tangible solutions for real world problems.

Rather than start the program as a full-fledged course, Hayden, Bigioni, and the administration opted to run the Transformative Education Program as a pilot course next fall. The course will take place after school, on 1:49 Wednesdays, as a credit course open to rising juniors and seniors.

The Transformative Education Program was originally conceived as a full-year elective course in which, if the pilot were successful, students would enroll in one of five areas of specializations for the first semester: Sociology, STEM, Art and Design, Math and Computer Science, and Spanish.

“First you become an expert. You’re looking at and analyzing different problems in different areas, and then the second [semester] you’re bringing in your knowledge and your expertise to the group,” said Hayden.

For the first semester, students would be placed in a class with about 20 peers of the same specialization and would be taught through that subject lens. During this time, they would research and expand their understanding of the needs of people in different countries, including Peru.

Come second semester, the students would be put into about 20 groups of five students, with one student from each area of specialization, and would be asked to find and solve an issue specific to the people of those countries. While the first semester will require students to identify hypothetical problems, the second will entail thinking of feasible solutions to real issues in the given countries. The result of their work will directly affect the lives of others.

“I think that’s the part where education becomes meaningful,” Hayden said. “I’m always thinking that this is a wonderful time for you guys to be creative and to apply what you learn in class [to] something real.”

Rather than write a community service essay or answer multiple choice questions, the final test for these students is to successfully send their creations to Peru and other countries for distribution. This final goal distinguishes the Transformative Education Program from any other course or club.

“We have people that are aware about the problems in our community and are taking the time to involve themselves in the problems, learn more about them, and [find] ways to solve them in community service. However, this course would help take steps to actually solve the real problem,” said Nadia Shahab ’17.

Another way in which the program has broken the mold is in its schedule. While the pilot will meet on Wednesdays, an earlier plan had it following a different schedule. “You’d be changing teachers every day, so we have it set up on the seven-day cycle that we already have, and, on five of those days, you’re rotating through each one of the teachers,” said Bigioni. “Your group of five students is [tentatively] going to be with Señora Hayden, [Social Studies teacher Mark Shelley], and others and are going to rotate through. The other two days they’d be back at their home class.”

If the pilot is successful, the course may be put into effect the following year after any adjustments are made to improve the program. “A pilot course is necessary because there are so many things that might not work out for the course,” said Michelle Kyin ’14. “I’d attend the course because it would help me learn more about Latin America, culturally and politically, in a present-day context.”

The course, which has been in the works for the past three years, was originally envisaged five years ago by Hayden, after her annual community service trip to Peru. Throughout her many years of work in the communities of Peru, Hayden has witnessed firsthand the issues that arise with foreign intervention in international development. “I think, a lot of times, with the community international development … [people] haven’t really investigated what their culture is about, how they are [going to] accept what you’re bringing them, and if they’re even going to implement what you’re telling them to do,” she said.

Hayden realized that, to solve these problems, the world would need not only innovators and thinkers but also listeners. Students who have taken Advanced Spanish IV in the past are familiar with Hayden’s econegocios, or “eco-business,” project, in which students blend their knowledge of Peru and its environmental and social issues with business practices and entrepreneurial skills in order to successfully present hypothetical solutions to Peru-specific issues.

By offering a broad spectrum of focus options for students to choose from, Bigioni and Hayden hope the program can both educate and inspire participants.

“Some students, who might not know what they want to do, [will] get inspired by the class … It [will act] as a motivator,” Bigioni said. “There’s a certain idealism that exists when you’re young, and I think seizing on that is wonderful.”