Sunday, May 18, 2014

Mini-Courses: An Ellis Upper School Tradition

An Ellis tradition, "mini-courses"  happen at the end of each school year, after finals are completed. Mini-course topics range from mountain biking, to the chemistry of cooking and experiential trips to places like Costa Rica and Powdermill Nature Preserve. They are taught by students, parents, guests and Upper School faculty. Take a look at some of the courses and their descriptions from last year:

Introduction to Mobile Robotics
This course is designed to introduce you to the world of autonomous mobile robots.  In this class, you will learn to program a small two-wheeled (the Pololu 3pi) robot to perform tasks such as autonomous line following and maze solving. We will teach some basic C++ programming and show you how to load the resulting programs onto the robot.  You will learn how robots perceive the world through the use of sensors, and how to write programs that allow them to plan and act based on what they perceive. The only prerequisites for the class are curiosity and a willingness to explore new things.

Lady and the Voice
The female voice and image in the music world plays a very powerful role in pop culture. In this course, we are going to look at how women are represented in music and dissect the meaning behind the lyrics of a particular few songs we choose. The greater focus of the course will then be to use performance art and  reappropriation of songs to advocate for the issues that we would like to hear in music.
Love and Dance in Austen's Novels

“to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love” 
In this course we will study the representation of dance in Jane Austen's novels as a prelude to falling in love. Those who dance well will love well.  We will read one Austen novel (and excerpts from others), watch film adaptations, read some early 19th-century documents about dance, and pose some thoughts about the meaning of dance in literature and in life today


The World of James Bond

Meet and learn about the generations of villains who pursued power, money, and mad schemes of revenge amid the ideological wreckage and changing political landscape of the Cold War world and beyond. Students will explore the historical context of Ian Fleming’s novels and films which reflect the fears and paranoia of their era.

As you can see from this brief list, mini-courses are meant to be fun, engaging and relevant for Ellis girls. Each year, upper school girls may propose to develop courses themselves (with a faculty mentor) and each faculty member designs 2-3 courses to run over the two-week period. I have co-taught with students twice in the last few years. One course, Youth and Media was led by two Seniors and explored social networking and its influence on youth culture, psychology and women's portrayal in the media. Last year, I co-led "Radio Ellis" with two juniors and a partnership with WYEP radio station in Pittsburgh. The girls went out into the community and interviewed people on the street to create "Girl on the Street" spots. Class times vary and many meetings are off-campus. Most courses are cross-disciplinary in nature and little course time is dedicated to lecture. Learning is active, hands-on and experiential during minis. 

As we re-envision our academic program as a part of our strategic plan, I believe that core courses will evolve to include many of the co-taught, active and inquiry-driven mini-course pedagogies we see each May. We already have several classes that "feel" like courses that would normally happen only at mini-course time: voice and vision, introduction to engineering design are two that come to mind and several projects in other cores. As we continue to infuse learning innovations into our program like inquiry-driven Design Thinking methodologies, blended learning/flipped classroom and maker education, mini-courses may evolve as well. I would love to see student groups (determined through self-interest) explore problem solving for others using social entrepreneurship, human-centered design, and have the ability to travel globally during the time we reserve for mini-courses. It will be fun to see how this program evolves in the future. 

In addition to students and faculty involved in teaching mini-courses this week, we will host over 10 guests on campus for faculty Professional Development. From award-winning Professors from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, the Online School for Girls, amazing K-12 educators from other schools and the LUMA Institute, Ellis Upper School faculty will embark on their own journey these next two weeks as well to plan and prep for our new schedule coming this fall. 

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