Auburn land lab broadens students’ perspectives


AUBURN — In a recent science class teacher Cameron Sutton and students talked about the weather, the sun and condensation.

“Where on Earth do we see water as a solid?”

“The Antarctica,” one student answered.

“Is there water in the air right now?”

Yes, students answered. The day was sunny but they knew about humidity.

Other class conversations included the cycles of water, what the sun has to do with rocks, how animals, plants and people wouldn’t exist without the sun.

Students did almost as much talking as the teacher.

The class wasn’t just about science. The East Auburn Community School students were attending their “academy” at the Auburn Land Lab.

The land lab, located near the East Auburn School, has long taught science to Auburn students. Recently it has branched out with “academies,” where regular school teachers work with land lab teachers trying to get students more engaged in learning.

The land lab is hosting academies for two schools, East Auburn and Walton, said land lab director and teacher Jim Chandler. Students leave their normal school for a few weeks and take classes at the lab.

At East Auburn, all fifth- and sixth-graders attend the academy. At Walton groups of students were chosen because teachers wanted them to improve their grades and attention. At the academy students are taught science, writing, reading and other subjects in a different way.

“They all have black, scientist notebooks,” Chandler said as he stood outside with his students.

The fifth-graders looked like they were playing hopscotch. They were actually jumping on squares and words drawn in chalk that mapped out the body’s circulatory system.

“Our motto is thinking is the key to understanding. ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer at the academy,” Chandler said.

Lessons are high energy, he said. “It’s not ‘fill out this work sheet.’ … We talk about the importance of thinking on your own rather than being a spectator.” He coaches students that what they find interesting often depends on their attitude. With the right attitude more things become interesting.

Each academy day starts with a morning meeting where students greet each other to form a community, Chandler said. After, each student meets with a mentor to set a goal for the day. At the end of the day they revisit that goal to think about did they achieve it.

Inside in one class students were writing reports and corresponding blogs about books they read.

Fifth-grader Rianna Roewer said lessons are similar to regular classes, but “we do more hands-on activities. … It’s not as loud.”

Hannah Arel, 10, said she enjoys how the academy has different teachers and students. “They mix us up with fifth and sixth graders. It’s more interesting. We’ve been with the same people throughout our whole schooling.”

Lily Marie Russell, 11, likes having a daily goal. At the end of the day students write down whether they accomplished their goal, she said. “That really helps us.”

This is the first year of the East Auburn academy, the second academy for Walton. East Auburn students said they enjoy the change but the academy hasn’t impacted their overall grades. With others “it really has turned around their attitude toward school,” Chandler said.

Walton principal Michelle McClellan agreed. Kids sent to the academy were students at risk of becoming high school drop outs. “It’s not a high school problem. It just shows up there,” McClellan said.

Since her students have attended the academy, “we’ve seen significant progress,” she said. Student scores have improved. “And we’re seeing social and emotional growth, which is awesome.” The program is helping build confidence, prompt more flexible thinking. “They’re making better choices,” McClellan said.