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Learning from a Lamb Carcass: How Mack-Boulder Focuses on Experiential and Service Learning

A group of fifth graders is gathered around a table. On the table is a lamb—a dead one. In class, the students have been learning about how food is transformed from molecule to seed to farm to table and into their bodies, and now they are here at Blackbelly Market to learn about butchering.

“What is your favorite part about being a butcher?” asks one of the students of Master Butcher Nate Singer. He and Clint Buckner, owner of Boulder Lamb and Meat, talk to the students about the Farm to Table movement, the Food Revolution, and the difference between their farm and commercial farms. These topics and more are what the students have been studying in science, and it is now being brought to life on this field trip.

This is just one example of how Mackintosh Academy-Boulder has been focusing this year on experiential learning, which the University of Colorado Denver web site describes as “a process through which students develop knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.”

Last year during community wide strategic planning work, the administration of the Boulder campus discovered that they were not hitting full marks in one key mission area: global action.IMG_9027

“While that phrase encompasses many aspects and definitions of programming, the two key areas that we felt needed strengthening were experiential education and service learning,” explains JJ Morrow, Head of School. In response, he created the Outreach Coordinator position to strengthen current programming as well as to lay the foundation for future success.

The main tasks for this year’s inaugural Outreach Coordinator, Catherine Barnes, have been to increase experiential education opportunities via in-house and off-campus field trips, to strengthen and focus campus-wide service learning days in partnership with Service Learning Coordinator parent volunteer Mara Rose, and to grow the school’s network of local, national, and global organizations.

IMG_9022Experiential learning is deeply rooted in the culture and pedagogical approach of Mack-Boulder. When planning IB units of inquiry, teachers are constantly seeking ways to help learning come alive for the students. For example, the third grade class recently created a simulation of the digestive system by turning their classroom into a series of tubes learners could crawl through, concluding with an optional photo with the stuffed poop emoji at the end.

The Outreach Coordinator’s role is to help extend experiences like this by also connecting students with practicing scientists and health experts to make the learning even more relevant – say, by talking to butchers while crowding around a lamb carcass.

In addition to touring Blackbelly Market, students at Mack-Boulder met Jared Polis and Nick Morse during election season, ordered lunch in Spanish at the Old Santa Fe Grill, made pies for the homeless at the Bridge House, viewed performances by the Boulder Symphony and the Fairview High School choirs, and visited Cure Organic Farms, the Butterfly Pavilion, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Colorado State Capitol Building, and Spark Fun.IMG_9020

Expert speakers also came to speak on topics such as viruses, the brain, life in India, water issues, and entrepreneurship. The dramatic increase in hands-on field trips and in-house experiences has led to increased student engagement with the areas of study. Through experiential learning, students gain a personal connection to the people and experiences related to their IB units and are able to connect both on a cognitive and emotional level.

In some instances, coordinating experiential learning on certain topics can be challenging. “Take the American Revolution,” says Catherine. “In Colorado there is just not as much to see compared to other states.” The solution was to bring in the You Can Live History organization that ran a simulation where our fifth graders became Patriot and British soldiers by dressing up in period uniforms and then practicing the same military drills taught at Valley Forge under the leadership of Baron Von Steuben.

IMG_9028The vision of Mackintosh goes beyond just experiential learning, however. Experiential learning is a sub-field of the broader term experiential education, defined by the Association for Experiential Education as “a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.”

Developing Mack students’ capacity to contribute to their communities has also been a primary focus this year for Mack-Boulder with the help of Mara Rose, who volunteers as the school’s Service Learning Coordinator. She and Catherine have worked together to build service learning opportunities related to curriculum and to create a culture of service at the school. “Service learning is a way to bring the real world into the curriculum and make it relevant,” says Mara, “to provide contextual learning and make it more meaningful and engaging.”

Students have participated in two service learning days this year, with another scheduled for mid-May. The first focused on poverty, hunger, and homelessness, with speakers, supply drives and projects that helped support Heifer International, Meals on Wheels, Bridge House, Attention Homes, and Emergency Family Assistance Association. The middle school students also had the opportunity to visit one of four non-profit organizations in Boulder County that work every day to combat poverty: Community Food Share, Sister Carmen, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, and Harvest of Hope.IMG_9019

The second service learning day incorporated a wider variety of topics due to an increased focus on aligning with curriculum by grade. The kindergarten through fourth grades focused primarily on animals, working with the Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, the Birds of Prey Foundation, the Wild Animal Sanctuary, and There with Care. The fifth grade focused on human rights by volunteering at A Precious Child and the YWCA.

Since the sixth graders were preparing to dive into a unit on alternative energy and conservation, they learned about solar power on the second service learning day via two visitors from Namaste Solar, then visited EcoCycle and the CHaRM facility to learn about resource conservation and waste reduction. Their afternoon culminated in a design thinking workshop focused on applying what they learned to the task of making Mackintosh a greener school, a project they have continued to work on throughout the spring.

Finally, the seventh and eighth graders explored issues of equity and equality in the Boulder community with the help of guest speakers from The Community Foundation and the Boulder Youth Opportunities Program before they did a deep dive with Dream Tank to explore and design ways to become agents of change in their communities by employing the tools of social entrepreneurship.

The third service learning day in May will focus on the environment in our own literal backyard: weeding invasive species, gardening, planting squash for the fall, and exploring pond cleanup, irrigation, and recycling—all on the Mackintosh Boulder campus.

As the service learning program develops, the hope is that it will increase in depth and impact. “Service can mean a lot of things,” says Mara. “There’s direct service like what we did in the fall—the book drive, collecting supplies, and engaging the community. It’s accessible and good place to start but is the low-hanging fruit of service.”

The greater vision is to use the school as a microcosm for creating change by developing long-standing relationships with the community in symbiotic relationships that benefit the students as well as partner organizations. The effect can then spread further. “Can Mack be a place where students can take direct action?” Mara elaborates. “Maybe they learn about the environment from community organizations and actually make a greener school. Then they educate their parents about it and the impact can grow.”

Mara also sees service as an opportunity to build a stronger community at the school, and as a way for Mackintosh to set a precedent in Boulder for how service can be incorporated as a fundamental element of a school’s philosophy.

Perhaps the greatest impact will come, however, from what Mack students take away from these experiences as they venture out into the world. As Mara points out, “We have bright and capable students. We want to plant seeds of awareness so that as they grow, being a change-maker in the world is a piece of what they think is possible. We want them to think, ‘How can I use my knowledge and skills for service and good?’”

If the impact the students have had this year in the community is any indicator, they are well on our way.

~ Alice Shi Kembel