January-February 2015 | LESSONS LEARNED




Though America's students continue to lag behind their peers internationally, The Salisbury school is doing something about it

Written By: Nick Brandi | Photographer: Grant L. Gursky

For more than 40 years, The Salisbury School (TSS) has been known as one of the premier K-12 learning environments on the Eastern Shore. They’ve earned a reputation for pushing the educational envelope by engaging their students through an experiential learning model and continually working to make sure they are prepared for 

an increasingly global society.

This reputation is especially well placed at a time when, according to the New York Times, nearly 90 percent of 
more than a million high school graduates surveyed said they’re not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering or math, known collectively as STEM. Moreover, the number of students who want to pursue careers in engineering or computer science is actually falling dramatically, at precisely the wrong time, considering 8 of the 10 most sought-after employees have degrees in one of the STEM fields, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Globally, the news is equally discouraging. American students currently languish at 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with students in 65 other top industrial countries.* Under the leadership of Headmaster Ed Cowell, however, TSS has taken decisive steps to reverse these alarming trends.

“There is a groundswell of opinion, which is only growing, that a teach-to-test method of learning ultimately places those students at a disadvantage not only in terms of real-life preparation but also, and even more important, in terms of potential cognitive development,” said Cowell, now in his second year as headmaster. “By contrast, TSS takes what might be described as more of a Rube Goldberg approach.”

An American author, sculptor, cartoonist, engineer and inventor, Goldberg is arguably best known for a series of cartoons that depicts complicated gadgets performing simple, everyday tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. The underlying mentality is that in complicating what is inherently simple, you create a more profound learning experience.

“The greater, more long-term intellectual enrichment comes not in the answer itself but rather in the pursuit of the answer,” Cowell said. “At The Salisbury School, we want to place the emphasis on developing and nurturing classic yet relevant problem-solving skills. This is achieved through Montessori-based practices coupled with inquiry-based interaction and application, which are the pillars of the experiential learning model.”

Cowell added that key to achieving these goals is having the right staff in place. That’s why TSS currently has four Ph.D.-holding faculty members teaching STEM-related courses, as well as two designated STEM coordinators devoted exclusively to the middle and upper schools.

Following a pilot program in the spring of 2014, all TSS middle-school students were issued Google Chromebooks they could use in school for coursework and at home for homework, personal or social applications. Though tracking the results will take some time, the thesis is that the integration of such technology into everyday applications will foster a more sophisticated yet instinctual problem-solving partnership between human cognition and technology. But the current TSS model seeks to establish other partnerships, as well.

“Since we already enjoy a reputation for being especially strong when it comes to arts education,” said Cowell, “we saw an opportunity to integrate those resources with our STEM-enhancement goals in order to create a synergistic effect that enriches both.”

Cowell went on the say that the arts aspect is intended to develop, then enhance, a more creative, outside-the-box thinking approach to applied STEM-related situations. One such example is an assignment in which TSS students are issued two speakers and a small amplifier, then tasked with finding creative ways to house the equipment for the purpose of creating utilitarian yet quality-oriented sound-reproduction devices, using anything from shoeboxes to lamp stands. Cowell added that another fruitful exercise is the annual chain-reaction assignment that has middle-school students using their creativity and knowledge of simple machines to construct elaborate schemes of domino toppling, which ultimately functions to expand the limits of imagination.

“At The Salisbury School we are committed to experiential learning methods that prepare our students to be creative problem solvers and critical thinkers,” Cowell said. “Our students leave here with sophisticated cognitive, intellectual and research skills that will pave the way to lifelong success and positive contributions to society. At TSS, we want to give students the tools to broaden their horizons and to push beyond where they are.”


*CNN.com, February 9, 2012.




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