Robotics among new courses for RHS

What do robots, public speaking and human geography have in common? They could all be a part of the high school’s curriculum next year, part of an effort to give upperclassmen more choices and better prepare them for the future.

Department chairs, assistant principals and teachers rallied together to present the four proposed courses to the Board of Education on Monday night and now will wait to see which, if not all, get approved before by the board the budget process begins in 2014.

“These are the type of courses that are absolutely necessary,” said board member Richard Steinhart. “We’re talking about building robots in our school — this makes us trendsetters.”

Assistant principal Jarret Pepe presented the proposed Robotics 101 course along with technology teacher Tim Sykes and claimed that a lot of colleges have a similar course at the entry level of their engineering department.

Mr. Sykes added that Ridgefield would be the first school in their District Reference Group to offer such a course and that it would give students an advantage when applying to college.

He said the course would be available to a “wide variety of students,”  from grade nine through 12. The course would be rigorous, meant for students looking to get into the fields of engineering, software development or programming.

Some board members wondered that if only one section of the semester-long elective would be enough, indicating they already were on board to pass the course when it comes time to vote.

“Student enrollment and interest will really determine the number of sections offered — we’ll be happy to start with one and see where it goes,” Mr. Pepe said.

In his rationale for the course, Mr. Pepe explained over the past several years, robotics has become a focus within the engineering fields and has gained popularity as a career.

“The use of robotics is expected to increase in the near future, ranging from robots used from manufacturing to experimental robotics for medical, military, and automotive industries,” he wrote to the board.

He added the potential “wide range of careers” in robotics engineering include: space exploration, agriculture, manufacturing, research and development, and power-plant maintenance — as well as the fields of surgery and nanotechnology, which have increased in their demand for technicians proficient in robotics.

“The course incorporates a combination of mechanics, electronics and problem-solving, using real world applications,” he concluded. “Activities mirror similar practices used by engineers and technicians.”

Robotics wasn’t the only trend-setting course being proposed for next year’s curriculum.

Larry Friedman, head of the Social Studies department, pitched the course AP Human Geography along with faculty member Jessica Postlethwaite, who has taught the course before in Texas and at Western Connecticut State University as an independent study.

This advanced placement course would be offered to juniors and seniors.

“We’ve noticed that our kids are really interested in trying AP level social studies courses such as AP Politics, AP Psychology and AP Economics,” Mr. Friedman explained. “This will give them another option on that list and will give them the opportunity to become geographically literate, which is a skill they’ll need if they want to be successful global leaders.

“Human geography is like lacrosse was back in the day — only accessible in certain pockets of the country. But it’s going to sprout out significantly in the coming years and get popular really soon,” he said. “There was a time that the course didn’t exist and now 13 schools in the state have it and almost 100,000 AP exams were filled out last year.”

Citing the 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress, Mr. Friedman said only 20% of high school seniors are proficient or better when it comes to geography.

He said the course would build on already existing global history curriculum, while preparing students “to take an active and informed role in our increasingly globalized society” through the analysis of local, national and global issues.

“With its focus on current events and the development of 21st Century technology and skills, this course is well-aligned with the requirements of the Common Core Standards, and utilizes a curriculum that is relevant, rigorous, multi-disciplinary and recognized by universities across the nation,” he said.

Board Chairman Austin Drukker asked what type of student would want to take the course and what degree or career could they pursue after taking it.

Ms. Postlehwaite replied that students looking to get into political science, agriculture, and international business would be the ones she expects to sign up. However, she added that the course was open to a wide variety of students as it will cover topics such as geographic skill development, population and migration, cultural patterns, ecology, geology, political organization, urbanization, and industrialization.

“We’re serving a group of students that haven’t been served yet, and may not even know what they’re missing out on,” she added. “This is very applicable stuff with all the recent world disasters in Japan, Indonesia, and Haiti, as well as most recently in the Philippines.

“This is the type of course that will prepare them to be the decision makers of tomorrow by learning and studying about what is going on around them in the world today.”

With assistant principal Bob Slavinsky, Patricia Boutilier, head of the English Department, presented two upper-level English courses — The Art of Public Speaking and English IV: The Human Condition.

She said public speaking is one of the four language art skills stressed in the state’s common core and that there was a noticeable absence in the high school’s curriculum in developing that specific skill.

She added that the half-year elective would be offered to juniors and seniors and would be adjoined with the department’s other half-year elective, Film Criticism and Analysis, with the focus on preparing students for “real world applications” like job interviews, presentations and speeches.

“We think that it’s important to make public presentations available at all levels and we want to encourage that this skill is developed in our schools and help foster interest in this subject,” Ms. Boutilier said. “It’s beneficial to students in both grades because they can hone this skill, as well as listening skills, before they enter college and life after it.”

Several board members mentioned that “a good amount of adults” struggle with speaking in public and favored having a course that focused on delivering speeches and studying certain rhetorical devices.

As for the course focusing on the human condition, Ms. Boutilier said it would give seniors another choice when selecting their final, upper-level English course, while also providing students another full-year course as opposed to two elective courses that are taken one semester at a time.

The proposed class would benefit the English department’s restructuring away from its current model of nine full-year courses and 11 half-year electives, which has become unbalanced in recent years.

“We’ve found there’s a lot of kids interested in taking a full year of English in their senior year,” she said. “And I think a lot of that comes from the fact they go on their internships at the end of the year so for that second semester, if it’s a half-year elective course, then a lot of the material is crammed over a small period of time.

Besides AP English and UConn English, which are both full-year, college-level courses, the high school currently offers seven full-time English classes — three honors, four college prep — to seniors.


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