Seven Educational Discoveries Proven by the Bullis Discovery Days Experience
- Students loved being outdoors.
- They sank their teeth into projects that allowed them to design solutions to problems.
- The adolescents' empathy poured forth when students were met with opportunities to help others.
- When students lose themselves in art and performance, they experience a state of "flow."
- Fascinated by the greater world, students are drawn to global topics and experiences.
- Developing wellness habits helps students thrive.
- Greater Washington D.C. area is the ultimate classroom.
"I know there is still a lot to learn, but I feel confident that I can figure it out."-- Upper School student reflecting on his Discovery Days experience.
"Learning new skills, bonding in new social groups, developing grit in the face of adversity while hiking or facing challenges --it was all about experience, growth, and process, rather than a grade or end product. That made them more willing to take risks." -- Upper School Faculty Member reflecting on Discovery Days
Bullis School faculty and staff asked, "What kind of learning could our students do if students and teachers were freed from traditional ideas about curriculum, classrooms, and assessment? What if the spark of curiosity was fueled with more time to develop?" Then, to answer their own question, they created Discovery Days, which launched last Spring and will soon take place again.
For Discovery Days, Lower, Middle, and Upper School faculty at Bullis created week-long sessions around areas of interest rather than traditional academic subjects. In addition to imaginative educational sessions, activities, and guest speakers on campus, there were wide-ranging field trips as Bullis buses crisscrossed the D.C. area and beyond, exploring cities or heading into the countryside. Chefs, entrepreneurs, authors, experts in many fields, service dogs, food trucks, even a flamenco dancer visited Bullis. Students picked their courses from a catalog following an assembly where choices were presented in entertaining and intriguing ways. Each session explored topics that were new, unusual, and exciting for every student involved.
With the classroom reimagined, teachers let students take the lead building, designing, creating, and deciding. "The best part about Discovery Days was that it gave us, as teachers, the freedom to explore while letting students discover ways to grow during projects," said one teacher.
The energy and enthusiasm of the faculty spread to students. "They were incredibly excited that entire week," said another teacher. "They benefited from diving deep into a subject that they were interested in and wanted to learn more about."
By the end of the experience, students presented their adventures and projects in showcase assemblies, demonstrating that they had gained a fairly deep exposure to their topics. Just ask a Broadway Bound Middle School student to talk musicals, or let a Mastering Money participant explain the difference between credit and debit. You could even ask Upper School Superhero Physics students how much jet fuel Ironman's suit would need to carry in real life if he were to fly around as he does in the movies. Let another student tell you the difference between building a bridge or designing an airplane, or what it takes to create an escape room mystery.
"I am so proud of what our students and faculty accomplished together during Discovery Days," says Head of School Dr. Gerald Boarman. "By taking a risk and trying something new, our teachers stimulated critical thinking in students who were given exciting questions to explore. The amount of learning that took place in such a short time was incredible. This program is not only about discovery but about authentic learning and growth."
Below, by division, are descriptions of some of the 55 courses offered to nearly 700 students in Kindergarten through 11th grades.
MARCH: Middle School – Five Days
The Middle School's informal motto, "Lead from the Middle," captured the spirit of their students and staff, who dove into Discovery Days the week before Spring Break to take the new program from a promising idea to a successful and enriching learning experience. "Many students pushed themselves to try something different or face a fear," said one teacher. "There were times when kids struggled, but they recognized that they could push through and come out on the other side exhilarated."
Middle School: Children's Book Creation
Students interested in designing children's books sat down with Bullis kindergarteners to find out how young readers think, and what they want and need from a good book. This led them to brainstorm story ideas, develop narrative, invent characters, write stories, and envision and create illustrations. Children's book author and illustrator Courtney Pippin-Mathur visited to discuss the process of writing, illustrating, and finalizing a children's book, sharing insights into the creative life and the editing process. In the art studio, students created storyboard versions of their books, combining text with illustrations in creative and fun ways. Middle School English Teacher Andy Marusak and Middle School Art Teacher Kelsey Donegan, along with Pippin-Mathur, were on hand to guide and help the young authors, whose final books will be printed in hardcover and included in the Lower School Library collection.
Middle School: The Story You Tell
A week of playing Dungeons and Dragons might seem like playtime, but it was also a creative bonding experience for the students, some of whom had not played before. Dungeon Master and Middle School Theatre Teacher Chelsie Lloyd quickly taught the group the complex rules of D&D, and students thought on their feet during the role-playing dice game. Imaginations were sparked by the scenarios that Lloyd designed, staying up late at night to keep pace by mapping new situations. Students were immersed in a game that challenged problem-solving skills, leadership, integrity, courage, loyalty, imagination, and empathy—adversary or friend, they helped one another out, and even held an outdoor memorial for a fallen character. They learned to take careful stock of a situation and in a crisis by asking the iconic D&D phrase: "How do you want to do this?"
Middle School: The Weird, Wild World of Food
Vegemite, a food favorite in Australia, tastes worse than hickory-smoked, bacon-flavored crickets, concluded Middle School participants in The Weird, Wild World of Food. Students studied and sampled unique foods eaten in various cultures such as blood oranges, guava, and dragonfruit (declared mild despite its dramatic appearance), durian (a fruit the students unanimously found disgusting), miso soup, and more. Learning that for thousands of years many people have regarded insects as a tasty and convenient source of protein, students bravely sampled crunchy flavored crickets. "Knowing there was a cricket in my mouth was horrible," said one student, "but the taste was not that bad."
Between snacks, the students welcomed guest speakers who discussed the business of food preparation, restaurants, and food trucks, including the owners of the Roaming Coyote food truck. Students designed their own food truck concepts, creating menus and building models to display at the showcase.
Middle School: Walking Through Hallowed Ground: Civil War Tours
With their imaginations in the past and their feet in the present, students explored Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields and toured Ford's Theater in Washington D.C., where President Lincoln was assassinated. Some tried on Union soldier uniforms and stood enthralled as battlefield tour guides wove stories into their presentations. On campus, students wrote letters from the perspective of young soldiers, aware that many soldiers had been teenagers. At the showcase, they displayed the letters along with videos compiled on their tours.
Middle School: Discovering Nature
Students considered the outdoors from the top of a mountain and the bottom of a test tube, spending most of the week outdoors hiking at Sugarloaf and the Catoctin Mountains, and exploring marsh and forest as well. They studied conservation in the classroom and in the field with Fred Pinkeney, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who brought models of species and talked about wildlife deformities caused by pollution and climate change, taking students into the field to do water testing. "I would do this all the time! We could call it Bullis Outdoor School," suggested one student. Their enthusiasm for outdoor exploration was unhampered by buckets of rain or cold windy weather. "That's when we saw the bald eagles," said MS STEM teacher Rita Gerharz.
Students enjoyed the learning experience, "especially those who spent the majority of time outside the school walls or out in nature." said Lisa Vardi.
Middle School: Caring for the Community
Students and teachers alike noticed the contrasts between the affluent area where they live and/or attend school and the poverty and struggle nearby. A week of community service opportunities revealed the vast community needs among parentless children, low-income families, babies in poverty, even injured animals. Giving back to the community inspired many students to want to do more for organizations like Comfort Cases and the DC Diaper Bank. Realizing they may have taken things for granted, students expressed gratitude and appreciation. "I had no idea how many parents struggle to supply diapers and other baby needs for their kids," said one. "They still have to pay for food and rent. The DC Diaper Bank makes sure these parents have baby supplies. It felt really good to help out and know that I made a difference too."
Middle School: Television Marketing
Students gained a start-to-finish understanding of television marketing and video editing process with a visit to Discovery Television, where they met editors and creative directors, viewed films, and discussed messaging and marketing. The students were shown advanced footage for new seasons of shows on Discovery's TLC, and formed groups to create promos for actual shows airing this fall.
Spanish teacher Whitfield Mastin saw perseverance, decision making, problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, presence, and storytelling in action as the students worked together.
Middle School: Appreciation of Art
Nine students spent the week with Johannes Vermeer, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Barbara Kruger as they traveled each day to view art at the National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and Glenstone. They returned to campus to reflect, post to the Appreciation of Art KidBlog, and create projects of their own. To help students better analyze and understand, teachers helped them explore artistic movements and styles, artists, their artworks, history and cultural backgrounds. Masterworks in the National Gallery, Kruger's stunning "Belief + Doubt" installation at the Hirshhorn, Calder's kinetic sculptures and more inspired students' final projects. When students took a final trip to Glenstone in Potomac, Enzo Bell '23 blogged, "the unspoken best part of it was the architecture of the building and how they used it to display the art." Over the week, students were immersed in the ideas, emotion, creativity, and beauty of art.
APRIL: Lower School – Four Days
Immediately after Spring Break, Lower Schoolers and teachers became immersed in Discovery Days experiences--an exploration of the C&O Canal by foot, bike, and canoe; Spy School; a Top-Chef-style nutrition and cooking course, and an animal-welfare service course. Students in the Stretch and Grow class collaborated on the challenge of ice skating, some for the first time, by helping each other. Teamwork bonded those in different grades, and teachers got to know a different side of their students. Afternoons were sweetened by ice cream breaks.
Lower School: Farm School
On the farm, the day begins with chores. In groups of four, students rotated through morning chores, slopping pigs, changing water and straw bedding in the chicken coop, or feeding and watering the chicks born on day one. An early task was building the brooder, a heated house where the chicks would live. Students developed as observers, documenting their experiences in sketchbooks. They also sheared sheep, made bread, made butter, feasted on those, planted seeds, and visited with sheep, pigs, chickens, dogs, and a llama. Spending time outdoors, making sketches, and working together left them tired but eager for more. "They developed a spirit of collaboration when it came time to chores," said one teacher. "There were many challenges to face and working together helped overcome difficulties. They thought creatively and critically, and were resourceful with problems."
Lower School: Spy School
Lower Schoolers created spy identities, choosing secret names and abilities recorded on iPads. After reading books and watching clips about spies, the newly-minted spies explored codebreaking, fingerprinting, and crime scene investigation methods. They visited the Escape Room in Rockville and the Spy Museum in D.C.; in the city, they followed clues to discover a secret. Finally, each student made a book safe, cutting the center pages of a book to create a cavity, then gluing the pages together, creating a clever hiding place for valuables.
Lower School: Imaginary Worlds
The week began with stories such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the time-traveling cartoon adventures of Peabody and Sherman as examples of fantasy worlds with their own internal logic. In lively discussions, students compared those worlds to our real world. Each student designed an imaginary world, creating models out of cardboard, construction paper, paint, and more. Worlds could be reached through a portal leading in and out again, and each had unique characteristics. Students explained their world-building in person or in a group video during the Lower School presentation assembly. For instance, Rainbow Land features a colorful landscape where everything is made of rainbows, and visitors enter through a magical portal. In Princess World, people move around on flying carpets. Queso City features a slide made of nacho cheese, tortilla chip surfboards, and a pool filled with melted queso. Peaceful Land has green trees, a quiet atmosphere, sugary snacks, an ocean of melted chocolate and a laid-back sun wearing sunglasses.
Lower School: Top Chef Survivor
Teachers guided 15 amateur chefs through several days of exposure to food-related survival skills where they learned about everything from flavor to planning and preparing a meal on a budget. The taste test drew volunteers from across campus to bravely don blindfolds before tasting foods including dates, kumquats, kimchi, parmesan cheese, and dark chocolate. The exercise forced students to isolate and listen to their taste buds, observed one student. Students also tackled managing a food budget, navigating a grocery store, and visiting Potomac Pizza for a kitchen tour and lunch. With $30 budgets, working in pairs, they created a balanced meal (dessert optional) that could be safely prepared if students were home alone. No stoves, ovens, or microwave ovens were permitted, but the creative chefs used air fryers, electric griddles, and an electric burner to create and present meals such as sushi served with fried rice, hamburgers and fries, fried-chicken-topped pancakes, and even egg-free cookie dough.
JUNE: Upper School
In March and April, Discovery Days demonstrated great success, and by June it was time to scale up the idea as Upper School embarked on 32 Discovery Days courses over seven days. The end of the school year can be a difficult time to engage students with new material, but Discovery Days reminded faculty that it is crucial for choices to drive Upper School learning and for students to have the opportunity to learn through experience.
Upper School: Wilderness Photography
How do you capture a waterfall? Students began their Wilderness Photography journey by discussing a gallery of images by award-winning nature photographers before heading outside to explore the Bullis campus with phone cameras in hand. Reflecting on what interested them most in their favorite photos, students began experimenting with mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. Playing with settings for aperture, shutter speed, light sensitivity (ISO), and focus, they discovered how to use those for practical and creative effect, and took those lessons to Great Falls the following day. One student described another new skill: "I have also learned how to describe photography and nature with the voice of a storyteller and I am excited to continue to do so." Following the trip to Great Falls, the group headed to the Shenandoah Valley for a camping trip and seven miles of hiking with specific goals, such as: capturing a waterfall, an insect on a rock, the landscape along the path, the campfire with s'mores, and the intricacy of wild greenery over rocks. Wilderness photography seems to have captured the students as well. Said one who had never worked with an actual camera, "By the end of Wilderness Photography, I knew how to use aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and editing techniques to create pictures...and I have a new passion: photography."
Middle & Upper School: Surviving Independence
Middle and Upper School students participated in two versions of this course to acquire new life skills and hone familiar ones that will help them manage as independent young adults. Students designed and executed BITLab projects, visiting Home Depot to purchase supplies within a budget, then used power tools safely to build picnic tables and complete home improvement tasks. One rainy day MS students visited the Bullis Facilities garage to learn how to change a tire, check oil level and tire pressure, and clean and maintain a car. They also took public transportation to tour the Kennedy Center. Heading home, they needed to remember the way to the Metro and navigate back to Rockville before catching a T2 bus to the Bullis gates. Mr. Kezmarsky noted: "There are so many pieces that go into navigating public transportation--needless to say, it was not their favorite event!"
Thanks to budgeting, grocery shopping, and baking skills, the group treated students, teachers, and parents during Friday's Showcase with scrumptious brownies and chocolate chip cookies whipped up by the class. Later, one student reported to Mr. Kezmarsky that she had cooked dinner with her father and used techniques she had learned during the cooking session.
Upper School: Design Your Escape!
In a smoke-clouded hallway in The Blair Center, Upper School students spoke by walkie-talkie, eyes fixed on a video baby monitor, waiting for classmates to cave and request a clue. The classmates were stuck in a room, forced to solve riddles and piece together clues to pass from chamber to chamber in the escape room designed by those in the course.
Students visited Rockville Escape Rooms to play a group game of collaboration and problem-solving. On campus, in teams, they designed a complex puzzle of their own, creating four mysterious rooms. The setting is a government building where suspicious experiments may be taking place. An anonymous letter begs for help, but those who step inside the first room can only unlock the door by solving a riddle and discovering a code. Students designed an office, a break room, a storage area, and a lab using furnishings, curtain dividers, and props and details essential to the mystery unfolding in their fictional location. Smoke machines and special lighting added to the atmosphere. Students and staff were invited in groups of five to enter the rooms, solve the mystery, determine the room codes, and escape. "It was a lot of fun learning how to create the puzzle and design the rooms," said Katie Culham '20. Julia Mendelson '20 agreed. "We all worked together and had a great time!"
Upper School: Beyond Graffiti
Touring Philadelphia, Washington D.C, and Baltimore, students examined graffiti and street art. Observing outdoor murals and urban art examples, they discussed how such art can reflect a social justice message while others are examples of beauty or even corporate advertising. Returning to campus, students in groups of four painted on 4' x 8' boards to create their own graffiti-style murals to express their own beliefs and discoveries, "responding to a particular topic through visual symbolism, color, and design," said Shih-Kahn.
Upper School: Duke Ellington's Washington
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!" Live jazz trumpet greeted students as they walked into a music classroom reimagined as a 1920s speakeasy. Throughout the week, Ellington's music never stopped, and neither did the students. Soon they were out of the classroom and into the city, beginning with a historical walking tour of Ellington's neighborhood and the music scene known as "Black Broadway." The next day brought a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, hosted by Dr. Michele Gates-Moresi, Supervisory Curator of Collections. Students ate at the 60-year-old Ben's Chili Bowl and met with an Ellington scholar at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The pièce de resistance was the final performance, when students shared a video they had made about Ellington and his relationship to DC—then they hit it, giving a strong ensemble performance from a group that had gelled in just seven days.
Discovery Days 2.0
In addition to presenting final products at the showcases, students also completed feedback form. Lisa Vardi, Bullis' Executive Director of Teaching and Learning collected and analyzed feedback will allow Bullis to "continue to build on the creativity and energy of our faculty," she said
Another Upper School faculty member reflected, "I think the best benefit was tapping into Bullis students' natural intellectual curiosity unadulterated by anxiety over grades. They asked great questions, played, laughed, responded to the poignant, and learned a lot!"
We can't wait to share what we Discover this spring!