West Contra Costa's Canyon Elementary fires up STEM learning
By Lou Fancher
It's hard to imagine the tiny Canyon Elementary School nestled amid the Redwood trees in west Contra Costa County -- on average 15 miles as the crow flies from the closest larger cities -- making much of a splash in the digital world of coders.
The K-8 school that constitutes the entire Canyon District and serves just 72 students prides itself on a small, dedicated staff, mixed-age classrooms, integrated arts and environmental experiences and critical thinking.
Long the bastion of independence stemming from the area's secluded geography and history of protecting itself from intrusion, it's easy to dismiss the power of the school's tiny-versus-titanic traditions.
But plans to rejuvenate the institution's STEM curriculum by following a man who sees a future that requires global vision, is laying the foundation for fundamental change. Photographer and innovative thinker Elihu Blotnick and new Principal Lucia Sullivan, who arrived in September with experience from more than two decades as an educator in Boston-area schools, say a pilot program and a fired-up STEM task force hold promise for addressing digital learning in novel ways.
They assert Canyon's small size makes the school nimble and the ideal incubator for new approaches to teaching students how to use and understand current and future technology.
In a principal's message to Canyon families, Sullivan writes, "When I was hired, it was made clear there was a strong desire for a more robust science program at Canyon School. We have a vibrant, highly educated community with many parents working in STEM fields. In an attempt to harness that energy and all available resources, I would like to convene a STEM task force."
The task force is to identify resources and enrichment programs that align Canyon's overall goals -- fluid numeracy and literacy, high-level critical analysis -- with their technological plans.
"The STEM push is related to economic insecurity in the country," Sullivan says. "Inequality and middle-class parents (who are) anxious about their kids' future is the origin of the whole push. Coding's one valuable tool and we're excited to have a more robust program."
Blotnick, whose history with the school dates back to 1970, is working to launch a program that integrates digital understanding, visual language and art as storytelling. Communicated through coding, the goal is to extend educational boundaries beyond the physical limits of the school and district. Ultimately, Blotnick hopes to expand the one-school prototype nationwide.
"We have two sets of visual building blocks: the native tools of our common language, expressed in pictures; and the simple metaphors that allow us to understand and handle the invisible codes now guiding our tools, toys, and daily habits," Blotnick says.
Blotnick describes what he variously calls "Canyon Curriculum" or "World Windows" or "Metech" as "code visualized in pictures presented in terms of principles." Photoshop's dots and pixels, Illustrator's vector curves, and the 5,000 or more steps it may take to code five seconds of a CGI film can be simplified and summarized by concepts that unite science, math, engineering, technology, art and literature.
"The primary goal is to make it visual, which relates the subjects so that even the parts that are looser, at the edges, relate," he said. If you want to control the future, you have to understand this: digital manipulation is part of our everyday lives."
Even so, Blotnick's intention is for students to find meaning and "test the testers" by thinking critically, as has been the Canyon tradition.
Sullivan says the program is pending implementation, along with robotics courses and other STEM opportunities the task force is exploring for 2016. In just four months at the school, she's found that the small community offers an impressive array of resources.
"Parents of students come out on Saturdays and dig trenches and move boulders. Others with technical know-how reinforce the creek wall. Some bring science, technology, politics and world experience and knowledge. They're sophisticated and just happen to live in or want their children to be educated in a rustic community."
Canyon draws students from all over the Bay Area, and has a waiting list Sullivan says is "in the hundreds."