When it comes to integrating technology into the classroom, changes are happening quickly at Randolph-Macon Academy. The Middle School Innovation Lab took the school by storm this past year. Students took classes in coding, robotics, and “makers.” They learned basic programming concepts, how to build a web page, and how to build a robot, but more importantly, they learned how to think critically and creatively, in collaborative groups, to solve problems. And even more impressively, this went beyond those few classes, as teachers and students throughout the school used the space and the technology available within for cross-curricular projects.
“Apple carts,” loaded with MacBooks, were available in each academic building at the Middle School and the Upper School this past year. This coming fall, that will be taken one step further, as every student will be issued an Apple device. As a result, personal devices will not be needed or allowed in the classroom. This move will provide the students with the technology they need in the classroom, put everyone on an even playing field, and, even better, ensure that the teachers know what each student is doing on his or her device.
All of that is just the start for what Dr. Tess Hegedus, R-MA’s Dean of Instructional Leadership & Innovation, has planned for R-MA in the coming years.
Over the summer, the northern side of the second floor in Stan Fulton Hall is being transformed into an Innovation Wing. This wing previously held the art room, various computers for the yearbook class, and a Spanish classroom. By the time classes open this fall, it will be home to courses in flight/aeronautics, computer science, robotics, engineering, graphic design, and studio art, with simulation spaces and space for collaborative, experiential learning.
The most eye-catching addition in the Innovation Lab will undoubtedly be a flight simulator that is so sophisticated, student pilots can use it to log flight hours toward the private pilot certification and instrument training. The drone program will also be expanded; students will explore engineering, analyze meteorology, work with integrated levels of computer science and robotics, build models, and more. Of course, those are just the classes assigned to that space. As with the Middle School Innovation Lab, Hegedus expects that other teachers will bring their classes in to use the space.
The advancements in technology and the dedication of an entire wing towards a collaborative, creative approach to learning are a strong step towards where Hegedus wants R-MA to be. Over the next few years, the Academic Office will be putting into place “Pre-Professional Pathways” (PPP). These are carefully planned programs for students who have an interest in or affinity for a specific field. Students will select standard course offerings combined with specifically-aligned elective courses to develop a pathway toward deeper understanding. This purposeful course selection will allow students to tailor their high school degree in a specific direction, such as engineering or health sciences.
The start of the PPP will begin in ninth grade with a seminar-style career exploration course in which students explore their learning styles and take skills assessments and interest inventories. They will be exposed to a variety of guest speakers and possible career paths. From there, they would pursue internships aligned with their selected pathway as sophomores and juniors, to further explore areas of interest.
“We would look locally, nationally, and even internationally for these internship opportunities,” said Hegedus. “It will help us as a school connect better to our community, and to the world around us.”
The culmination of the program will come in the students’ senior year, as they develop a Capstone Project in which they research an issue, gather evidence, come up with a solution, and present it to the R-MA community. The project will help students develop research and communication skills culminating in a final portfolio made of their own ideas, helping set them apart in the college application process.
The ultimate goal is to offer at least five PPPs, but for now, Hegedus plans to start with two that capitalize on R-MA’s signature programs: Government Advocacy & Civic Leadership, and Aeronautics. “Our school is known for its leadership program, the Air Force Junior ROTC program,” she said. “We also have a flight program. Not many schools have that. Those two programs distinguish us from other schools, and it is in our best interest to capitalize on what we’re already doing well.”
In looking forward, Hegedus said part of the purpose of this focus is to help students learn about “recession-proof” careers. “Where is there always going to be a need?” she asked rhetorically. “Meds and eds. There is always going to be a need for health services and education.”
Hegedus said that the PPPs are intended for highly motivated students with specific interests, so she does not anticipate enrolling the entire student body in the Pathways.
“Essentially, if a student has a firm idea of what area he or she is interested in, and is motivated to get a jump start, so to speak, in that field, then we want them to align their electives in a purposeful way that will help prepare them for that career field,” Hegedus explained. “We don’t want them to take a smattering of classes just to fulfill credits.”
Yet Hegedus recognizes that not all students will be ready to select a PPP at the age of 14 or 15. Students who are unsure of their future career path, or who want to focus in career areas that are not part of a PPP, will still be well-served by R-MA’s college-prep academic program, which will continue to offer both a college-prep diploma and an advanced college-prep diploma. And they will still benefit from the existence of the PPPs due to the increased number of electives being offered on campus.
The Pre-Professional Pathways will not officially begin this fall. There are pieces that need to be put into place yet, not the least of which would be a Director of Experiential Learning to coordinate the career exploration, internships, and Capstone projects. In the meantime, R-MA’s academic program continues to propel forward, with new offerings in Graphics Design, Computer Science, Robotics, Economics, and AP Environmental Science. Students will find that their English classes will be adding an emphasis on research and writing as well, to support the stronger STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) program being developed.
“We are not just moving forward, we are flying forward, but in a purposeful way,” Hegedus said. “I am very excited about the teachers’ enthusiasm for what we’re putting into place. I think we all see it as a huge benefit for our students.”
R-MA President Brig Gen David C. Wesley, USAF, Retired, conveyed his enthusiasm for the plan, saying, “In her first few months, Dean Hegedus has propelled R-MA forward in these exciting, competitive ways. Though the techniques are new and dynamic, they fulfill the timeless promise the Academy has always kept: to help our graduates prepare to be successful in life. Even better, these new courses and the Pre-Professional Pathways will cultivate interest and motivate higher quality academic work for some of our students who have not yet found the right goal for their educational efforts. Best of all: her approach is making school work FUN! That, in my view, is a winning combination!”