This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 Harker Quarterly.
Near the end of the school year, 24 grade 8 students took to the stage to celebrate the exciting culmination of their work with the middle school’s new optional Discovery X program. During the student showcase, held on the evening of May 20 at the upper school’s Nichols Hall auditorium, the eighth graders shared with fellow participants and their families their experiences as the program’s inaugural members.
The students had been working all year on independent research projects, with support from faculty advisors and outside mentors, many of who were also present at the event.
At the beginning of the evening, students spent time informally mingling with parents and answering questions about their Discovery X endeavors, discussing both the joys and tribulations. Following that, as the program officially got underway, they presented some of the projects they had created.
While the projects they worked on varied greatly, the students all had one thing in common: enormous amounts of enthusiasm for their creations. The endeavors included bicycle building, animation, playwriting, playing the flute, choreography, modern dance, developing an app, podcasting, discovering meditation, pastry artistry, horse photography, developing a board game and sculpting.
Discovery X participant Mathew Mammen chose woodworking, which has always been a passion of his, as his project. “I have always loved working with my hands, and I wanted to use Discovery X to dive further into it. My goals were to become a more knowledgeable and overall better woodworker,” said Mammen. He was mentored by Gary Hinrich, from Harker’s tech department, who is a master woodworker.
“The first thing we made was a chest, where he taught me the basics of woodworking, how to be safe around power tools, and how to go about designing a project. Now we’re working on a wooden sphere that I managed to primarily design myself. In the future, I would like to keep working with Gary, and maybe I could start a woodshop in my family’s garage. I am very grateful for Discovery X,” said Mammen.
Another participant, Devanshi Mehta, recalled that her Discovery X project was to form a Bollywood dance team. “Discovery X gave me the platform to share my ideas and progress with a group, and that motivated me to go further. My mentors checked up on me occasionally, just so that I could stay on track (and I’m very thankful for that). We were able to hold a Bollywood dance workshop at the middle school,” she said.
Discovery X is intended to give student participants the opportunity to more fully explore areas they are passionate about. “It is a journey of learning where they choose their own topic of interest, find a mentor to support their learning, and hopefully gain a better understanding about the topic – and, more important, themselves,” explained middle school art instructor Elizabeth Saltos, who served as one of Discovery X’s 12 faculty advisors.
Moreover, explained Saltos, one of the main goals of the program was to give students practice and enjoyment in the process of learning how to contact and gain knowledge from professionals in their fields of interest.
Discovery X mentors are professionals in various fields, who enjoy passing on their knowledge and expertise to inspire the next generation of innovators, designers, etc. Mentors worked with the students regularly with the support of a Harker faculty facilitator as needed. A few of the student mentors were Harker parents, but the majority were not.
For example, renowned physicist Dr. Leonard Susskind of Stanford University was a Discovery X mentor.
“Why did we name the program Discovery X? Because X is the big question mark! Discovery X is an opportunity to study, create, devise, explore and discover something of personal interest with a widening circle of adults who are committed to the students’ success beyond the classroom,” said middle school English teacher Patricia Burrows, who was instrumental in helping to implement the program.
Burrows, who also served as faculty mentor for the pro- gram, added that while Discovery X requires a meaningful personal commitment and investment on the part of the student, it is not extrinsically rewarded or driven. And, while the process was aided by Harker faculty facilitators and expert (non-Harker) mentors, there were no grades or credits given upon the program’s completion. Moreover, all meetings with the facilitators and mentors took place during the students’ personal time, either at lunch or before and after school.
“We wanted the students to know that we value their passions …. It was not about the outcome but the process,” recalled Burrows, noting that Discovery X is now slated to become an annual opt-in program for the middle school’s eighth graders.