You may have noticed that the volume of my posting here and elsewhere has been way down for the past couple of weeks. That's because I've been head-down, 100% focused on facilitating a teen summer intensive for the California Academy of Sciences.
The summer intensive involved giving a group of 13 middle-school youth a unique experience doing citizen science by conducting a scientific survey of a local nature habitat, documenting their data using mobile devices, and creating their own mobile game about what they learned. The final product of the two week intensive is a mobile game that the students produce together that can be played by other people visiting the area to learn more about the local flora and fauna and the ecosystem surrounding it.
It's been a really instructive experience for me to design and implement this summer teen project. It has called upon some areas I have quite a bit of experience — digital literacy and game design — and other areas that I don't have much background — citizen science, climate change, taxonomy and other scientific subjects. Luckily I've had a ton of support from science writers working with us, other educators and scientists at the Academy, and the staff at the local nature preserve.
One of the key challenges for me was learning how to effectively facilitate a group of middle-school students. Many of the other educators I've talked with have warned me that middle school was one of the most challenging age groups to work with. While I've been doing my own research on the subject, and preparing with my colleagues, nothing can compare to the actual experience of working with them in person.
On the positive side, for the large majority of the summer project, the middle-schoolers in our group were fun and easy to work with. I've really enjoyed seeing their minds open up to new ideas and schema, watching them do things outside their comfort zone, and observing them help and encourage each other.
Getting them to participate in discussions, group activities, and solo work was not difficult, as long as we structured the activities to be clear, understandable, engaging and enjoyable. Group discussions were spirited and lively, with several hands shooting up when we had prompts and interesting side-conversations starting as they became more informed and curious. Often we had to stop interesting discussions and activities from going on too long because we were running out of time.
I do have a lot to learn about classroom management, since most of my facilitation experience is with older students. I had a couple of days where I didn't feel particularly effective at keeping my students focused or on task. But luckily I've had the support of colleagues with much more middle-school experience to give me tips and step in when things got a bit too chaotic. And in a short amount of time I've felt like my own youth facilitation skills have grown and deepened.
Because of all the ways that this summer intensive called upon the full range of my skills, experiences, and knowledge and beyond, this was one of the hardest projects I've ever had to manage. Despite all that or because of all that, seeing our students on the last day stand and deliver their mobile games — the culmination of all that they had learned and experienced during the program for the past two weeks — to their families and other observers was an extremely satisfying feeling for me.
At the end, I have renewed respect and appreciation for middle school teachers everywhere. I salute you and your work cultivating young minds at this critical stage in their development!