Collaboration, Creativity, and the Connections Between Science and English

Fall 2021

By Brian Johnson and Alyssa Reyes

Three years ago, University Prep (UPrep), an independent school in Seattle, Washington, transformed its curriculum by adding intensives: three-week terms following the first and second semesters during which students take one class full time while earning the same credit as a one-semester class. Intensive classes allow students to focus on a single course of study, although the classes often include multiple subjects. Based on a similar model from the Hawken School in Cleveland, intensives emerged as one way that UPrep could prepare students for the 21st century workplace. Sixty-five percent of students entering primary school will work in jobs that don’t exist yet in the current workforce, according to The Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum.1 The learning done in intensives helps our students attain the knowledge, skills, and thinking dispositions needed to successfully navigate our quickly evolving world.

In the intensive class Deep Space Six, Science Fiction, Science Fact, which we co-taught this spring, we approached the theme of space from both a factual and a fictional standpoint. While students studied natural phenomena and occurrences in the solar system, they wrote stories and read selections from the realm of science fiction to see how writers have used the edges of human scientific knowledge to explore deeper themes. Our goal was to engage students, offer them joyous learning experiences, and help them practice essential academic skills, including collaboration, presentation, composition, and literary analysis.

In Deep Space Six, it was clear to us that our students stretched themselves in ways that aren’t possible during the traditional semester, when they are navigating six different classes that each meet twice a week. Not only is this intensive course a true collaboration between the science and English departments, but the students also learn the skills needed to collaborate with their classmates. These skills are important for their years ahead, both in school and in their future workplaces. While we might not know much about our students’ career paths, we do know that when individuals work together well, it’s easier to achieve a common goal.

This intensive is also a great vehicle for students to unleash their creativity while discovering that learning is not always siloed—that English and science are connected disciplines.

Learning the Skills of Collaboration

Learning collaborative skills is an ongoing process and a main focus of Deep Space Six. Throughout the intensive, we aim to help students identify, articulate, and apply various group work skills, like creating community norms to promote an inclusive group environment. Often, students begin class with a question to discuss with their partner that introduces them to the content that will be covered for the day. Throughout various projects, students are learning how to work together to plan, design, and implement various outcomes.

For example, during the Jupiter’s moons settlement project, students learned how to work through disagreements respectfully while collaborating in groups of three or four to create a settlement on one of this planet’s moons. Students conducted research to gain a greater understanding of their moon (such as its atmosphere and geological features) and used this information to create a model of their settlement. Next, they went through the process of researching, brainstorming, creating a blueprint, and then, finally, making a model. When disagreements came up, students reviewed their community norms, listened to each perspective of their groupmates, and then proposed possible solutions. Some of the best settlements have started out with a disagreement here or there!

Sixth grade student Miya said she definitely had to use collaboration skills for the Jupiter’s moons settlement project. “Using these skills made the project easier and fun to do. I really liked how we were able to apply our knowledge of Io [one of Jupiter’s moons] to make a really cool model!” said Miya. “I learned that when I am collaborating with other students, I have to be very patient and flexible, since we all have different ideas and opinions. These skills will help me a lot in future classes, because being flexible and patient with other students will be much more efficient and fun in collaborative activities.”

Another sixth grade student learned that work needed to be split up, so group members worked
on different parts of the project at the same time. “When we did that, the work was done twice as fast, and we didn’t have to worry about running out of time,” said Benjamin. “I also learned that when collaborating, you really have to communicate with your partner—so both of you know what you are doing. Now we know how to split up the work and communicate well for future group work."

Over the course of the intensive, we read several science fiction poems together, which is a niche type of poetry. The students then collaborated in small and large groups to compose their own science fiction poems. We challenged them to craft poems that made sense. Some might think, “Well, of course the poems had to make sense.” But remember, this is sixth grade. They’re still learning how to collaborate effectively and to set aside an idea they might have for the greater good of the group. Like any skill, this must be practiced. Sixth grade student Norton realized that listening is vital. “I learned to always be open to other people’s ideas, even if you think your ideas are better. I think that listening to other ideas is always an essential part of any class and can help bring a group together,” he said.

Miya realized, that, for her, working in a group for a large project is much easier than working alone. “I also learned that when working in a group, you should keep the group organized and listen to everyone’s thoughts. Keeping this in mind will make other group projects in the future a lot easier for me,” she said.

Creative Projects Show Connections Between English and Science

One of our main goals during the English portion of Deep Space Six is to encourage student creativity (especially after a challenging pandemic-style school year). Allowing the students leeway and creative license means that they can drive their own learning and take a project where they would like it to go. For example, after reading several poems and short stories and learning about the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program, the students were prompted to design their own aliens. We asked them, “What would we find if extraterrestrial/non-human life did exist in the universe?” Because the question was so broad, the students were able to focus on the science and science fiction elements that interested them most. Some students chose to focus on the small details of their alien, while others spent time focusing on a backstory that explained how their alien came to exist.

The three-week intensive class gives students a chance to learn that English and science can be—and are—related. Teachers need time to show these connections, and the intensive schedule allows for that time. What we found to be a healthy challenge for our students was to use the concepts they were learning about in science in their short fiction pieces. Each student had to demonstrate their understanding of science fiction, and the elements of science fiction, by composing a short piece of fiction. They used their new science knowledge to ensure that there was real science in their science fiction and to demonstrate their understanding of the elements of science fiction writing.

Also, because we focused on the science in the science fiction, each student improved their understanding of the writing process. By the end of Deep Space Six, the sixth graders understood that writing—even science fiction—requires careful research. Students realized that to write quality science fiction stories, they needed to include real science. “I remember that during the intensive, Mr. Johnson talked about how Frankenstein helped create the idea that electricity could possibly revive dead tissue. I learned that science commonly inspires authors to write sci-fi and sometimes fantasy,” one student shared.

The time and freedom that the intensive structure provides allowed for deep creativity, teamwork, and discovery, and inspired students to make the connection between English and science. Students finished Deep Space 6 with the skills, confidence, and critical thought needed to tackle future group-based work in school and beyond.

Notes

  1. World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs Report 2020 (Geneva, Switzerland: 2020); online at https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs_2020.pdf.
Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson ([email protected]) is an English teacher at University Prep in Seattle, Washington.
 

Alyssa Reyes

Alyssa Reyes ([email protected]) is a science teacher at University Prep in Seattle, Washington.