New charter public school shows power of hands-on learning

April 23, 2015

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Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning (SAEL) opened this year in Northern California with 9th and 10th grade students and is demonstrating the power of project-based, hands-on learning.

"We build community partnerships that help curriculum come alive with real, hands-on work," said Erica Crane, SAEL principal.

Students at SAEL have access to real-world learning opportunities through community partnerships with organizations like the Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT). Students learn outside the classroom, participating in fieldwork to gather data, analyze and learn. In fact, the students are not the only ones that benefit - students share their data with partner organizations.

This spring, 9th grade students are working with BYLT to perform regular fieldwork at Mathis Pond, where the only freshwater turtle in California resides. Students are helping with the land trust's action plan by performing water quality testing, building turtle basking areas, cleaning up the pond, and improving trail accessibility.

"The work around water conservation, protecting the species of interest, and accessibility to the pond can all be connected back to standards in our 9th grade classes," Crane said.

The fieldwork is an example of how real-world learning is interdisciplinary and helps students to make connections. In science class, students engage in water testing and analysis of the data. Students read about water rights and controversies in English class through non-fiction literature. In technology class, students create public service announcements about Mathis Pond to raise awareness in the community. For the physical education/adventure component, students study the Leave No Trace principles and human impact on trails.

SAEL is the result of parent and community demand for an Expeditionary Learning (EL) opportunity at the high school level. Based on the success of Grass Valley Charter School, a K-8 EL mentor school, parents wanted the same experience for their children at the high school level. SAEL opened this school year with 9th and 10th grades and will add a grade over the next two years to serve 9-12 grade students.

Part of the growing national network of Expeditionary Learning schools, SAEL is one of 165 Expeditionary Learning schools in 31 states and DC, serving more than 45,000 students nationwide.