Re-thinking Learning

By Kelsey Van Dalfsen, Ph.D.

You’ve seen the phrase on our website, and you’ve noticed the #cityaslab posts on Twitter - but what does using the City as a Lab actually look like in the 9th grade intensive? Investigating how one learns best is a pretty tall order for a 14-year-old, but luckily our impressive 9th graders have been aided by visits to and from community partners in our neighborhood.

In week one, a neuroscientist from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Dr. Gabe Murphy, visited our class and led us in a variety of hands-on activities to explore individual differences in how we experience the external world. Students participated in an activity to demonstrate how we learn simple motor tasks, and Gabe explained some of the important aspects of more complex learning, such as language acquisition. The highlight was when students designed their own experiment to investigate visual perception!


Our connection with Gabe has also been extremely helpful as students conduct independent research to prepare video tutorials on topics such as how memories are encoded and how our brains physically change when we learn. Gabe served as a “research consultant,” allowing each group to schedule time during his visit to pick his brain. We’re anxious to see students’ final products as they finish filming and editing their videos this week.

In week two, students made use of their Pacific Science Center memberships, heading next door to learn through play. Groups took video footage for documentaries they produced that highlighted how their time at PacSci demonstrated an aspect of learning investigated during the intensive. Everyone is excited to see these mini-documentaries in an upcoming student-led assembly!

Additionally, our neighbors at Koru visited the 9th grade intensive to explore the development of non-cognitive skills. Koru helps companies hire based on a complex set of soft-skills that are highly correlated with success. Students had a chance to see how the “Koru7” impact skills map to our five core competencies, and importantly, spent time reflecting on their top impact skills and how to further develop the skills they identified as needing more work. This experience will dovetail nicely with the learning portfolios students started building last week, which they will use throughout their four years of high school to track their growth towards the five core competencies.

The 9th grade intensive is flying by, which is surely in part due to all of the fun we’ve had learning through using the City as a Lab! Teaching and learning in a place where we have such incredible experts who are enthusiastic about working closely with our students and access to institutions we can explore meaningfully is energizing.