There is teaching to the test, and then there’s teaching to the test of life. This summer, 140 high-achieving Clark County middle-school students will be preparing for the life-test at an innovative program that challenges them to confront our most vexing energy problems—and come up with a solution.
The tuition-free, five-week program begins July 13 at the Alexander Dawson School in northwest Las Vegas. Drawing on multiple disciplines, students will work on issues ranging from fossil fuel pollution and solar energy to consumption patterns and politics. After the fifth week, student project teams will show off their knowledge at downtown’s Historic Fifth Street School.
More than 200 public-school sixth- and seventh-graders applied for the program, which is the creation of the Alexander Dawson Center, a Colorado-based educational nonprofit. For students, it can be the beginning of a lasting engagement with the center: This is the third year for the program, and all three groups will be active this summer. Last year’s students, who studied epidemics, are back for two weeks to work on a community service project. Students from the 2009 program, which focused on water use, recently launched “The Water Revolution,” an initiative to reduce use of plastic water bottles by providing reusable stainless steel bottles and filtered water to local schools. In addition, the center offers all students academic advising throughout high school.
Award-winning teachers from around the nation created the summer curriculum, and professionals from the community will speak, including Michael Yackira, president and CEO of NV Energy; Stacey Crowley, director of the Nevada State Office of Energy; and Mark Mizrahi, president and CEO of EnLink Geoenergy Services. For the first half of the program, students are divided into three groups—math, science and humanities. Some will learn the mathematics behind the energy crisis; others, the politics of it. Next, interdisciplinary teams are formed to work on problem-solving projects.
“It’s very hard for a traditional public school to do this kind of learning,” Dawson Center executive director Kevin Cloud says, “because they have those standardized test regimes—and because they are going to be evaluated based upon those tests.”
Because the Dawson Center is free from those evaluations and standards, it can be more creative and responsive. “We react,” Cloud says. “What we do in the program is organic; we react to what we see as the program goes on and then do different things. The projects are student-initiated. We support them on what they want to research and work on.”
Students enter the Dawson Center at an age when many important choices are made, and the center’s academic advising program can have a powerful impact on the students’ lives. “Sixth, seventh and eighth, that middle school time, is where a lot of students make the decision to either be a high achiever or not,” Cloud says. “It’s a social choice: ‘Where are my friends? Am I in this set of friends or that set of friends?’” The decisions kids make in the seventh grade, he says, can determine whether or not they go to a prestigious university.
Cloud tells the story of one student who was admitted based upon a counselor’s recommendation and a phone interview, not his test scores and grades. “The first day, his body language said Get out of my face, leave me alone, don’t mess with me,” Cloud says. “But over the course of the program, you saw this change.”
That student turned out to be one of the brightest in the class, often challenging the presenters’ assumptions. Cloud said that he could hardly recognize the student just two months after the program—the way he presented himself had changed that drastically. Counselors told Cloud that he had saved a life.
The Dawson Center also runs programs in Lafayette, Colo., near the university town of Boulder. Most of the students in the Colorado programs come from families of higher social status and have more options for summer enrichment available to them. And while Cloud hasn’t noticed any difference in the quality of work produced by the students in Colorado and Las Vegas, he thinks the project is more crucial for many of the Las Vegas students.
“If your parents are both professors, this is fantastic,” Cloud says. “But it’s also pretty much the space you live in. It’s not as monumental.”
But at the Las Vegas program, some of the students are from the first generation in their families to speak English; others are from families with no history of college education. For these students and their families, opportunities such as the Dawson Center program can be life-altering.
“I think that the experience here in Las Vegas has been more momentous for more of our students,” Cloud says.