The next addition to our ASpotlight Interview Series features Jack Cooley, Science Department Head and Sixth Grade Science Teacher. Read below to learn more about the project-based, cross-disciplinary projects he has introduced and his vision for the Science Department's use of the flexible new science laboratories and teaching greenhouse that are part of Allen-Stevenson's transformative building expansion project.
This is your inaugural year at Allen-Stevenson! What drew you to the School and what are your first impressions so far?
I taught at a single-sex school before joining Allen-Stevenson, so I know the value of a single sex education. Also, my son has friends who go to A-S, and their parents comment on how happy they are with the quality of the education that their sons are receiving. This gave me a window into the culture, and I liked it.
I spent a full day interviewing when I applied, and I felt the whole process was very organized and impressive. I met with many faculty and staff members who asked lots of thoughtful questions. Some questions were difficult to answer, and I appreciated the thoroughness of the interview and I thought it spoke to the culture of the School. I also just liked everyone I met. I got the feeling that the School could be a really good fit for me.
As Head of the Science Department, what initiatives are you undertaking? How are you weaving in guided inquiry and project-based learning into Allen-Stevenson’s science curriculum?
We are integrating projects that are connecting the boys to real-life scenarios, if not literally doing research out in the field. Two new projects in line with my belief in “keeping science real” are the Billion Oyster Project and Trout in the Classroom in the Fourth Grade.
For the Billion Oyster Project, we actually already have live oysters in our labs. After Spring Break, we are going to have a cage of oysters in the East River that boys in Fourth Grade will be in charge of monitoring. They will be tasked with going to the dock in-person to check the oysters for mortality, measure them, look for other organisms living in the cage, test the quality of the water, and report their finding back to Billion Oyster Project headquarters, located on Governor’s Island, as real researchers, knowing that their research is informing whether oysters can be successfully reintroduced to the waterways around New York City. One hundred and fifty years ago, oysters were a prolific and important species in the waterways surrounding the City. So hopefully, the boys see that what they learn in class has real-world applications and the research they do is critical for this effort. It’s not contrived – it’s real research.
The other project is Trout in the Classroom. The Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery & Aquarium visited the Fourth Grade to teach the boys about fish hatcheries and how they contribute to habitat conservation. They discussed the fertilization process in hatcheries as compared to in the wild and received an amazing in-person fertilization demonstration using eggs and milt collected from live brook trout right in our classroom. Students are now waiting for the baby trout to hatch. The trout eggs are currently developing in our new lab space. If you went in and looked at them, you can see their eyes! The boys will observe their attributes throughout development and ultimately release them at the end of the school year. The real-world relevance of this unit is, again, restocking our waterways, but this time in Upstate New York. The students will be releasing the trout into a river that is connected to one of New York City’s drinking reservoirs in early May. So, theoretically, when they turn on the tap, they are drinking the same water in which their trout will swim. This gives them first-hand knowledge of where our water comes from. What’s good for their trout in the lab is also what’s good for our drinking water, so we talk about how to measure that and to do data analysis.
Another interesting curriculum unit is happening in the Sixth Grade. They are constructing a model of a room that applies what they learned from a guest speaker, Mark Reber, who is the architect in charge of the new Allen-Stevenson gym space. Specifically, he talked to them about what they are using to construct and insulate the floor, bearing in mind the specific needs of the space. They are now taking what they learned, specifically about sound-proofing materials, to create their own model spaces.
The big picture is giving students choices, creativity, and opportunities to experience science in a relevant context both by exploring what is going on in this building and out in the real world. When kids can see that real-world connection, it’s just so much more exciting.
Also, we are aligning ourselves with the New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and in doing so we are looking at which skills are recommended across grade levels and asking ourselves as a department which skills we already address well versus which ones that are a work in progress. The Science Department has been focusing a lot internally on professional development and peer coaching along these lines. We are identifying what NGSS skills we want to work on and the benchmarks that students will gain over time and are then observing peer-led lesson plans in action and giving each other feedback.
As you know, we are in the middle of a transformative building expansion project, which includes flexible new science laboratories and a teaching greenhouse. Can you share your thoughts on how you think the science department plans to make use of these new spaces?
The greenhouse is going to become an aquaponics greenhouse that is ideal for project-based learning. We will have a system of water running through a fish tank. The waste from the fish will fertilize the plants, and the oxygen from the plants will go into the water. Plants are sometimes lost on students because they’re not considered a thrilling subject matter, but when you introduce this mutually beneficial cycle, it gives them another dimension that adds intrigue. There are so many curriculum activities that can surround this, and it will be exciting to watch it unfold.
I was brought into the design process of these new science laboratories last spring to help create beautiful, efficient spaces that honor science and engineering and foster excitement and wonder for our students. In considering the design, both flexibility and safety were our top concerns, both of which will precipitate good learning.
We will be able to use these spaces in such diverse ways. For example, tables and desks can be tucked or wheeled away, allowing our robotics class to utilize this space to spread out. They will also have easy access to power outlets that pull from the ceilings and will have able storage space for their materials. If the room is needed the next period for a physics lab, the tables can be quickly re-introduced and have the ability to move up, down, or slanted horizontally depending on the needs of the class.
In what ways does the Science Department collaborate with other departments at Allen-Stevenson?
Integrating multiple disciplines is something that I’m very passionate about and is a very important part of our curriculum, particularly our STEAM curriculum.
I already have a sixth-grade unit in mind for the spring that will cross the disciplines of history and math and hopefully, other disciplines as well. It’s going to be an updated version of their unit, focusing on the Gowanus Canal. This time they are going to be working with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, which is redeveloping the area. The Conservancy is looking into putting in new green spaces around the canal. This will be a jumping-off place for our students to design their own green spaces using math to create scale models and history to look into how we have developed green spaces in New York City over time – including what went wrong in the decisions that were made that led to the pollution of these spaces. In addition, this unit will spark discussion on sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) and where our waste goes. One big issue in New York City is that on heavy rain days, the waste and rain get mixed together. Treatment plants can’t handle the quantity, so the excess water/waste gets dumped into our waterways, including the Gowanus Canal.