This post is by Cyndi Gueswel, director of program resources for Expeditionary Learning.
How often have you heard graduates bemoan, "What next?," a bit adrift and unsure of what to do with themselves after college?
Mary Carlson is among the 1.6 million U.S. students graduating with a bachelor's degree this spring, but Mary is crossing the stage with something even more valuable than a diploma. Her educational career has yielded what she terms "practical passion"--the drive to make a difference in the world, combined with knowledge, skills, and confidence. She is clear about her purpose, and explains that it was borne from a combination of passion and practicality.
Mary's passion as a scientist developed through the deeper learning experiences she had as a middle and high school student at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (RMSEL), a K-12 public school of choice in Denver, Colorado. Her practical approach to the "less glamorous" side of science came from college, where Mary admits her learning was more "sheep-like" but where she says she learned to be "more disciplined, organized, and aware of due dates and procedures." The powerful combination--practical passion--has launched her on her career as a scientist.
Mary credits her experiences at RMSEL for nurturing her passion for science. "School fostered my curiosity and I flourished," she reflects. In middle school, she became obsessed with marine biology. Encouraged by her teachers, Mary created her own saltwater ecosystem at home and documented the process, tracking her observations and reflections through all four years of high school. As a junior, Mary interned at a local dive shop. She became SCUBA certified and volunteered for two weeks in Baja, California, collecting data on marine invertebrates. The following year, she (along with every other senior at RMSEL) designed her own multi-week Senior Learning Experience for which she returned to Baja, this time to study whale migration and conservation.
Mary's education at RMSEL sings of deeper learning: real-world experience, critical thinking and problem solving, self-direction, collaboration, communication, and the development of academic mindsets. "I loved that my teachers trusted me to do research, be independent in my learning, pursue opportunities, and learn to appreciate the value of feedback and revision," she says.
"Whereas high school fostered my curiosity and ability to make connections," Mary says, by contrast, her college years have emphasized following rules and meeting deadlines over passion. But for Mary, both experiences are important. Her college years have provided critical learning about scientific rigor.
For the past two years, Mary has been working with a research team for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, measuring the effects of increased CO2 and temperature on short grass prairie. "The combination of college courses and my job has made me take science more seriously," she says. "I've learned that science is a careful process; I have to be patient, precise, and consistent--not just passionate."
Confidently taking her place as a scientist in the real world, Mary wants to know: what questions can I pursue that the world needs answered? "No matter what the topic," she concludes, "I want to do scientific research that matters. I want to pursue an important question, work with others to gather answers, and communicate my findings. I want to contribute and create change." It's clear that Mary's deeper learning experiences in middle and high school have now melded with her college work, and both were essential to the development of her "practical passion."
Collectively, following the principles of deeper learning, we can help more graduates become like Mary: graduates who foster their passions, understand the beauty of practical application, and throw their caps into the air not with confusion, but with determination and purpose.