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Friday, March 11, 2011

Building Bridges

This Blog entry juxtaposes a recent success story at Heatly with the public's need to perceive education as a bridge between the past to the future. The first part of the this evening's entry is lifted from our district website and may be familiar to visitors of that news source. It appears in italics.

"Six physics students from Heatly School recently participated in the 2011 Model Bridge Competition and (a Heatly learner) went home with first prize. The contest was held at the Albany Marriott Hotel as part of the Capital District’s 31st Anniversary Celebration of National Engineers Week. More than 100 high school students entered the competition.

Students worked during and after school to build model truss-type or arch-type bridges using only balsa wood and carpenter's glue. Each model was judged on its aesthetics (appearance and quality of construction) and then weighed and loaded to failure by a testing machine. Cash prizes and certificates were awarded for first, second, and third place in three categories: efficiency, load capacity and aesthetics.

A Heatly learner) took home first prize in the load capacity category. This win builds on last year's success when two students took home second place in the load capacity category.

The model bridge contest, which has been a tradition at the Capital District celebration for more than 25 years, is sponsored by the Foundation for Engineering Education, the Mohawk-Hudson Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Eastern New York Chapter of the Association for Bridge Construction and Design. Activities associated with National Engineers Week are designed to raise awareness of the contributions that engineers make to our daily lives

Education is similar to bridge building. Learning a skill or concept allows you to be transported across an otherwise insurmountable challenge to arrive at a new location. Picture one side of a deep ravine to represent what you know. The ravine itself symbolizes the unknown or a vexing problem or an issue. The bridge is designed to overcome the challenge by teaching the concept or skill necessary to arrive at the other side of the ravine. That destination reflects newly acquired knowledge or skills.

Famous Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget offered a simplistic explanation of learning when he stated that our mind is at an equilibrium until we are confronted with the unknown or a new proposition. The inability to understand the unfamiliar causes disequilibrium. That intellectual disruption is not resolved until we are able to restructure our thinking, mitigate the discrepancy, and inculcate the experience into a new mental framework - and equilibrium returns.

Education, in particular public schools since they willingly accommodate any member of society, (as opposed to charter schools and private schools that can exercise selective measures in who enrolls in their schools) represents a platform for transforming individuals. The experience can stimulate enduring change to those who avail themselves of the opportunity to expand their perspectives and stretch possibilities. Public education retains the vestige of that rags to riches theme embedded in our cultural narrative - the prospect that anyone can accomplish great things and become a difference maker if they apply themselves and take advantage of the accessible benefits. Public schools aim to democratize knowledge by appealing to people of all walks of life, many of whom would lack hope were it not for the opportunity to attend public school.

Just like the award winning bridge constructed by Heatly's champion builder, education rests upon the strength of triangles that more efficiently bear weight and stress than other geometric designs. The three sides of the triangle of education involve human capital, a meaningful mission, and appropriate resources.

Our bridge will be severely tested this budget season on its ability to bear loads, just like the competition with the participants from Heatly. The stress will come from the area of resource allocation. The significant reduction in state aid (22% less money from the state than last year) will challenge our capacity to meet with success with less than adequate financial resources. We certainly hope that our political representatives can discover the means to restore aid to schools so we can transport learners across whatever gaps they have between the known and unknown, between the present and the future, and between who they are and who they can become.

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