By Moira McKinnon & Darcy Coffta
The Berwick Academy Innovation Pursuit (IP) program has been transformative, changing the nature of academic exploration on the Hilltop and creating dynamic opportunities for our students, even after graduation. Since 2008, Upper School Librarian Darcy Coffta also has served as the director of innovation, shepherding students through the design and implementation of their IPs.
This year, nearly 100 students across the Middle and Upper Schools worked individually or in teams on self-designed projects that embraced elements of 21st-century learning. This included in-depth research and design, critical thinking, verbal and written communication, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. As these students enter their college search, their IPs stand as strong differentiators in the college application process.
“Innovation Pursuits allow students to develop the skills and demonstrate the personal characteristics that colleges value highly,” says Director of College Counseling Moira McKinnon. “IPs have allowed our students to distinguish themselves from thousands of other qualified college applicants.”
Great credit is due to Berwick’s librarians, who laid the groundwork for the IP program. “The academic literature we studied indicated that, when students are empowered to have some choice over what they are studying,” says Coffta, “it translates into a more authentic experience. The learning is deeper and more meaningful when students are active participants in their education. This is the basis of our IP framework.”
Coffta works with each student to develop ideas, then matches each with a mentor who has expertise in his or her chosen field. Mentors come from Berwick’s teaching faculty, support and administrative staff, parents, alumni, and connections to area businesses.
Students publish their ongoing research in the form of an open-access web presence and present to a panel of judges at the Innovation Celebration each spring. At the celebration, students share the creative element of their work that is a component of every IP, such as an original interpretation, prototype, or finished piece. It is a reflection of the diversity of projects undertaken that these elements have included an operatic performance, a fingerprinting display, an atmospheric weather balloon, oral history projects, and a small-scale nuclear fusion reactor.
Though much of the emphasis is on the final product, Coffta says, “We leave room for mistakes. To teach resilience and perseverance, one of the most important skills a student can learn from an IP is how to fail and recover quickly. We encourage our students to share their failures as a learning tool. The Innovation Center is a safe place, where failures are embraced, shared, and used to make the outcome even better.”
Similarly, the IP program evolves in much in the same way as it grows and improves.
“We strive to be thoughtful and deliberate in our approach,” Coffta notes, “yet flexible and aware of how the program can move in a positive direction.”
To that end, and to further support the growth of innovative learning, Jackson Library underwent a significant renovation last summer. In a design guided by a committee made up of faculty and students, the library now houses the Inspiration Commons, which includes a Fabrication Studio with a 3D printer, CNC router, laser cutter, sewing center, and a variety of handheld tools. Additionally, students use the resources in the Digital Design Classroom for computer-aided design (CAD), video production, digital photography, electronic music production and sound design, animation, and web design. The Hub is also a central meeting space for collaborating, communicating, and publicly sharing ideas.
“Our new library is designed for the intellectually curious and has become the creative center of campus,” Coffta says.
Recent IP program enhancements include opportunities to intern or job shadow with professionals in a student’s field of inquiry. Additionally, a grant application process allows students to apply for financial support for project supplies. These elements provide students with real-world skills that they will need to be successful both in college and in their professional lives.
Colleges have taken note, and they like what they see. One indication of why the IP program resonates in admissions offices comes from Debra Johns, associate director of admissions at Yale. She shares that, when she reads an application, she looks for proof that, among other elements, a student is able to “be creative, learn and think independently, be confident with herself as a student no matter where she is on the continuum of understanding, take academic risks, use research and its techniques in learning, be balanced and find that learning can happen in the most unusual of places, and understand the interdisciplinary nature of world.”
In their essays, interviews, and counselor recommendations, IP students demonstrate these qualities in abundance. Georgia Barlow ’14, is now at Tulane University, studying both international development and political economy. Georgia completed three IPs while in the Upper School. The first explored the connection between hunger and education in the developing world; the second dealt with women and education; and the third focused on social justice in the modern world. She was accepted to Tulane as a Newcomb Scholar, and received a significant scholarship, in large part based on the work she completed through BIC.
“I loved my time working with the Berwick Innovation Center, and it absolutely prepared me for college more than simply taking the regular courses,” says Barlow. “The intellectual curiosity that it encourages creates learning that expands beyond school and sets students up to question the world around them. Being able to say that you were part of the IP program sets you apart and shows colleges that you are an active learner and an active participant in the world around you. BIC gives students another dimension of learning that they will carry with them beyond their years at Berwick, because it fosters creative learning and provides a lens for students to see the world through that is extremely beneficial.”
That lens applies no matter the focus of the IP, or what course of study students choose to pursue. The colleges they attend are as diverse as their academic passions. Recent IP graduates have matriculated, among other institutions, to Stanford University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Swarthmore College, Smith College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Unity College, Brown University, and the California Institute of Technology. Ben Thut ’15, is a rising junior at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. He first explored his love of music production in an innovation project with Chip Harding, one of Berwick’s outstanding music faculty. The resulting portfolio helped him earn a spot at a highly selective NYU summer music program, and from there he successfully applied to Clive Davis, one of 60 students admitted from a pool of 400 applicants.
“Many highly selective colleges estimate that 80 to 90 percent of their applicants are qualified to do the work, yet they only have room for a fraction of those students,” says McKinnon. “Based on grades and scores alone, Berwick’s talented students might be overlooked. Yet their IPs and the writing, thinking, and creative problem-solving skills they acquire as they pursue them, allow them to rise to the top.”