Guest post by Cameron Ishee, High Tech High International, Class of '14
While studying abroad in China during the summer after my freshman year, I came across a zoo in Shanghai where the exhibited animals were obviously neglected. When I came back to the United States, I started an independent study project to investigate the world of zoos. Over the course of the next two years, I looked into the social, economic, and historical factors that have given the United States and China different attitudes towards animals. When I started running out of things to read, I contacted professionals working in conservation, education, and zoo design to hear their opinions and discoveries in their own words. I attended two national conferences and worked in an office on a conservation education project. In my senior year, I spent five weeks traveling through Southeast Asia with a professional delegation to promote positive human-animal relations and to network with other conservationists.
None of this was in the curriculum for any of my classes at High Tech High International, but at the same time much of my project would not have been possible without both the structure (and flexibility) of High Tech High and the support of International's teachers and administrators. Over the course of the last two and half years, my opinions, goals, and outlook on life have been transformed with each new experience. The most important shift was my evolution from looking at architectural issues of exhibit design to focus on conservation education in China.
One of the most critically helpful pieces of the school's structure was the junior internship. For the month of January, I was able to work full-time with my mentor: Dr. Chia Tan, a primatologist at the San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research. Dr. Tan studies a species of monkey whose last refuge is a reserve in southern China. She started the Little Green Guards (LGG) conservation education project, an initiative aimed at primary school children. Her description of her project's goals and reasoning was a primary factor in my gradual turn towards education.
During this month, Dr. Tan and I created an afterschool club for the Little Green Guards. I made a video that was the first of an ongoing series intended to teach English alongside fun facts and stories about animals, entitled "A is for Ape." When a delegation from the nature reserve in China came to visit, I was in the San Diego group that took them on a tour of the southwestern United States. Not only did I learn quite a bit about both the subject matter and the "real adult world," but I felt an intense satisfaction at actually making an impact, at actually working to change the problems that I had encountered at the zoo in Shanghai. It was the ultimate project-based learning experience.
The connection I made with my mentor grew stronger over the following summer, when she traveled to China and implemented the activities we had planned and designed for the club. Towards the end of the summer of 2013, once she had returned, we started planning for me to accompany her on her next trip.
I was able to arrange with my teachers and school administrators to take five weeks off from school during the fall of my senior year. Everyone at school that I talked to about this was extremely supportive, and I had all the resources I needed to manage the major change to my schedule. Furthermore, my Engineering class even helped me with my project. We made jigsaw puzzles that taught basic physics concepts, which I later used to teach the Little Green Guards.
The trip began in southern China. I hiked through the reserve where the monkeys live, conducted a club meeting with the puzzles, held meetings with many officials, scientists, and educators about our project, and planned for the future. We even held an outreach event at a local teacher's college to recruit volunteers, and I gave a speech in Mandarin to the assembled students and officials. Next, we went to Vietnam. We attended an international primatology conference, a meeting at the US embassy in Hanoi, and several networking sessions with other conservationists. I filmed primates at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center during the conference, and I saw wild monkeys for the first time. Later, we traveled to Taiwan to meet with the leaders of the Taipei Zoo about possible future collaboration, and we got to tour their institution and see their practices. This sudden immersion in the world of conservation was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
When I returned, I had to immediately focus back on school and college applications. But I started thinking about everything in terms of this project, and I also started to see my school as a tool for real-world change in and of itself. The connection between my Engineering class and the Little Green Guards really opened my eyes to the potential the High Tech High model of education has for making such strong connections between the students' passions and the content of the curriculum.
In reflecting on my independent study, I have come to see how valuable it has been for me to have all of this time to develop not only my independent study's content, but also my own thoughts and opinions. I started this in sophomore year, and now as a senior, I am in the middle of something incredible. I have gained confidence from my successes and from the support of my community here, and I am much more capable in a variety of areas than I would be otherwise. The fact that my school was so welcoming and accepting and supportive of my ideas and aspirations helped me to fully realize what I can do. I had time to edit and revise my work and my views; I had time to evolve in my thinking.
I envision future schools where students' education is driven by their passion, where students' curiosity rather than a curriculum is driving the content, and where students collaborate not just on the projects that the teachers design, but on their own projects as well. I hope that my successes can act as an example for what high school students can do when a school helps and facilitates a student's unusual interests and trajectories.