Academy for Sciences and Agriculture expands into elementary school with cross-curricular, experiential learning

Classes at the Academy for Sciences and Agriculture are often held outside, giving students a chance to learn from their surroundings.

Students at AFSA Middle School get creative during Innovation Studio time.

Group projects are an opportunity for AFSA students to learn the importance of collaboration and communication.

What makes students stand out at AFSA is also what makes them fit in, as educators encourage a tight-knit community of inspired world citizens


Middle school students at the Academy for Sciences and Agriculture are all about owls. 

After reading Carl Hiaasen's novel "Hoot" in English class, they did an owl pellet lab in science and ventured to the Raptor Center to see the birds of prey up close. 

These fifth- and sixth-graders are part of a new standards-based, cross-curricular program, serving as a pilot for AFSA's expansion into elementary school. This experimental model has set AFSA’s high school apart since 2001, and it will expand to include kindergarten through fourth grade in the fall of 2019.

In addition to providing students the chance to study plant science, food science and other agricultural fields, the school prepares them for any career by allowing them to take ownership of their learning and grow through hands-on projects. While kindergarteners will have a separate, play-based curriculum, first- through eighth-graders will be taught in multi-age cohorts based on instructional level.

The curriculum will emphasize the connections between subject areas. Students will be able to meet math standards through hands-on chemistry experiments, or learn how to write grammatically correct lab reports in English class. 

"The kids don't compartmentalize it, they see learning as a whole," says teacher Teri Petrin. "[My colleague] Jodi teaches science and I teach math. But for their science fair project, they need to do graphing. So we'll talk about graphing and using their data to create graphs in math."

Innovation Studio is a designated class period in which students self-direct their learning. Students choose a topic they want to know more about and a teacher acts as a facilitator. Students have used this time to learn about computer software and coding. Others have designed and conducted community surveys on local political issues.

Additionally, AFSA's curriculum requires one field experience at least every two weeks. These trips, often to local nature reserves or environmental nonprofits, are used to expand on classroom learning. Field experience always has a clear connection to educational units, and students further their learning through required participation. 

Encouraging students' unique educational pursuits, as well as offering them opportunities to explore outside of the classroom, has helped excite kids who struggled in more traditional schools. Parent-teacher conferences are often a highlight for AFSA educators, who get to rave to parents about students' involvement. 

"I'm happy for [the parents], that their child has found a place where they are accepted, belong and are thriving," says Petrin. "But it hurts, it breaks my heart that it's taken until fifth grade to get there."

Enrollment coordinator Liz Burkwald says being able to reach younger students is a major reason for the expansion into more elementary grades. AFSA hopes to provide this experiential, cross-curricular learning from the get-go, getting kids excited about learning and providing them with a space where they feel valued and engaged. 


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