February 05, 2013
The Indianapolis Star
Learning heats up in University High School's winter term
By: Scott Elliott
The University High School science lab was filled with sounds you wouldn't hear on a typical school day morning.
Saws ripped, drills whined and hammers whacked on one side of the room. On the other, the gears of a remote-controlled toy truck grinded, speakers crackled inside a candy tin and sophomore Isaac Mervis methodically snapped the heads off black, white and silver plastic spoons.
On the table before Mervis on this mid-January day was a thrift store lamp and half a milk carton. Soon a lampshade decorated in spoon heads would glow.
This isn't a club or a free period. The spoon lamp is for a grade. So are the speaker tin and the remote-controlled truck.
The class is called "constructables." It's part of what is known as "January term" at University.
The concept, borrowed from a small band of liberal arts colleges, is rarely seen in high school, but University's teachers and students say the idea sets the school apart in a way that is rewarding for faculty and students.
For three weeks, the usual school days are shut down as students are reshuffled into in-depth, six-hour classes. Among about 20 courses offered this year was a class in drawing the human form. Another was making iPhone apps. Other classes were capped off with trips to New York, Chicago, Paris or Berlin.
"The knock on education is that it's an inch deep and a mile wide," said English teacher Wes Priest, who taught constructables with math teacher Mike Syrek. "This goes the other way."
In constructables, students build all sorts of things. On this day, half of the 20-student class was building bookshelves that Priest designed. The others were making electronic devices.
"This is an experience they don't always get," Syrek said. "A lot of them have never used power tools or ever made anything. When they plug it in and it works, they say, 'Yes!' "
University is a private high school at the west edge of Carmel with about 265 students. It was opened in 2000 by parents who wanted a new high school option.
The first January term trip was to George W. Bush's first inauguration in the school's first year. The idea for a month away from the usual calendar came from science teacher Carolyn Bradley, one of the first teachers hired and part of a group that helped plan the school.
Bradley had gone to Middlebury, a small liberal arts college in Vermont, and experienced what it called "winter term" each year. One year, she took "the geology and geography of snow," led by a professor who took her class to northern Canada. They studied everything about the environment there: how snow crystals formed, how the snow pack affected the landscape, how animals survived, how to build igloos.
"It was totally out of anything I'd experienced before," Bradley said. "It was a pretty spectacular experience."
So she asked: What about applying the same concept at her high school?
"We all sort of stopped and said, 'Yeah, that would be amazing,' " Bradley said. "If we're starting a school from scratch, why not?' "
There is no national organization of schools that use this sort of divided calendar. The only other high schools in Indiana known to follow it are the Burris Laboratory School and the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, both on the campus of Ball State University. They use the month of May as their breakout term. Some liberal arts colleges in Indiana, including Franklin College and DePauw University, offer winter term. Middlebury, in Vermont, also has stuck with it.
University High School gets regular visits from other schools whose teachers want to learn about January term. A recent group visited from Wisconsin.
"Every once in a while someone shows up at our door in a caravan and says, 'We want to figure this out, what you're doing here,' " said Chuck Webster, the head of the school.
University's early planners didn't necessarily expect January term to become the signature attribute of the school it is today.
"It turned out to be way more than we envisioned," Webster said. "Sometimes this is just a transformational experience for the students."
It was for senior Evan Baughman, who two years ago took a class called "law and justice" that included a trip to Chicago and a visit with Judge Richard Posner, who sits on the federal appeals court. The students also made a trip to Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions, which aims to free unjustly convicted prisoners.
It sparked an interest in Baughman, who has since studied the United Nations and global social justice. He hopes for a career in law, international relations, political science or religious studies and can envision himself working abroad.
But he also has wondered about becoming a teacher.
So Tom Fitzgibbon, who teaches the law and justice class, invited Baughman to be his assistant teacher this January.
"I have a little authority as a senior, but it is nerve-racking," Baughman said. "Instead of a teacher asking you how or why, you have to have all the answers."
In the constructables class, a lot of the students are thinking about their future careers, too. Several students in the class toy with electronics as a hobby, building their own computers, for example, and dream about being engineers.
"I love this class," senior John Cochrane said. "Everything we do we make."
Cochrane, who aims to study computer engineering and has a college list that includes Bradley and Rose-Hulman, wanted to make a cell phone charger out of something unique. On a class trip to Goodwill, he spotted the remote-controlled truck. He took it apart, installed batteries and a connector and now has a cell phone docking station that also can bring him his phone.
"I can drive it!" he said, showing it off.
The projects are graded. Quizzes and writing reflections are part of the coursework. There is minimal lecturing by teachers Priest and Syrek -- no more than 90 minutes over three weeks.
Part of the enjoyment of teaching such a class, Syrek said, is watching the students channel their creativity in ways that sometimes even surprise their instructors.
"I don't want them to think like me," he said. "I want them to think like them."