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Alternative Assessment and the Art of Exploring

By Brady Loomer, Science Faculty

Alternative Assessment and the Art of Exploring

Exploring can be described as the simple act of discovery. In a literature course, a student may explore meanings, interpretations, and characters’ lives. In an art course, a student may explore depth, shadow, and space. In a science course, a student may explore the structure of the atom, cellular structure, or action vs. reaction. All these are important aspects of a student’s education, however there is something still missing in that definition of exploring and discovery. Exploratory Sciences tries to delve into a distinctly human condition, the desire to explore new places. If human beings were not inherently curious about what lies over the next hill we would not be one of the most well adapted and expansive species on the planet. Unfortunately, the modern world and its endless need for connectivity has hindered the sense of exploration of new places for the majority of our students. In our modern world, it is easy to view places that you have never been; however, only through the process of being present at that place can the experience truly begin in to sink in. It’s one thing to look at the picture of the Grand Canyon; it’s totally different to be hiking it and peering into its depths. So the question becomes, how do we train our students to become eager explorers like our ancestors, both ancient and more modern?

In Exploratory Sciences, we place as much or even more importance on the journey than in the destination. Of course this raises important questions about that journey. What does it take to explore? How do you get to where you want to go? What kind of people become explorers? What are their personality traits and skills? This can be incredibly hard for students as these are somewhat abstract ideas. When presented with the conundrum of abstraction, sometimes the best way to learn is to take a look at what already works. Why not learn from someone else’s experience? Why not follow someone who has actually done this before, gone where no other has gone before, done things that push human understanding, humans’ physical capabilities, and achievement. By following a role model, you can begin to understand the characteristics that are necessary for successful exploring. This is where the idea for a project began. The students would be required to follow an explorer for the semester. They would primarily focus on reading an autobiography or biography throughout the entire semester along with finding other interviews and quotes about the explorer. What makes this project a unique idea is how students are assessed during such a project.

One of the most important issues that plagues education is the fact that traditional assessments are still being used for modern learning. As education has advanced into the 21st century, much of the focus has shifted away from content and more into the realm of skills. As teachers try and assess these skills, gone are the days of a simple presentation or paper. No longer can we assess what we want to assess with the tool box that we’ve used in the past. So in light of this dilemma, a new tool needs to be created. The Explorer project and assessment originated around the idea that actors and actresses are constantly assessed on how well they know a character when they perform. The better the performance, the better they know that character. So began the idea of a Meet and Greet. In order to best show that the students know their explorer and what it takes to be a successful explorer, each student would be required to act as that explorer in a session where he or she has conversations with other people. Through these conversations with others, the students can be assessed on how well each knows his or her explorer, both through pointed questions on life events and through how the students (or “explorers” for that matter) carry themselves and act. So in this regard, if the students’ performances are convincing, they have shown that they know the explorer extremely well. It is only through this unique assessment that the students can prove they know the necessary skills that it takes to become a successful explorer. Through this experience the students can learn, use this knowledge, and hopefully become adventurous explorers themselves.

Brady Loomer teaches chemistry and an elective on exploring the world around us and beyond. He is a passionate advocate of science and space education. He earned a BS in Chemical Engineering at Villanova University and got his Masters in Education from U-Mass Amherst.

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