By Troy Pansoy and Trevor Wilson
In January 2018, during the second session of Expeditions, Summit Public School: Tahoma offered a new psychology option for students who were willing to change their focus mid-year.
We went to the new psychology class to learn more about what was being taught and why students were willing to switch to the new class halfway through the year. We were also interested in how the students were engaging in the class and whether they thought they would be able to apply what they were learning to their own lives. We interviewed Vaughan Wilkins, the psychology teacher, and some students; we also sat in on the class.
When we first got to the classroom to observe the class, we entered into complete silence as the students worked independently on their computers. It was so quiet that I was afraid to open the foil covering my sandwich. The silence continued for the rest of the work period.
We asked Mr. Wilkins what his greatest interests are for this class. He said the area that he is most focused on is “eco-psychology” or “being part of a healthy ecosystem.”
The kind of community that Mr. Wilkinson wants to build is a “supportive” one. He elaborated on this by saying, “I don’t want anybody to feel scared to share their ideas.”
On the first day I watched the class they did an activity where Mr. Wilkins made statements and students stood up if they agreed and remained sitting if they disagreed. This activity helped build community by creating a safe, non-verbal way to express your personal opinion.
The class includes times when Mr. Wilkins talks and teaches the whole class, times when the whole class participates in activities and times when the students work independently on their projects.
As I sat in and observed, I noted that the class was more than just reading about psychological experiments. Mr. Wilkins talked about interesting events and experiments that involve psychology. He grabbed the students’ attention with a story of a person who got a steel pipe through the top of his mouth and into his brain and survived, but his personality changed from the injury.
I learned that psychology is not just the study of how people behave in certain situations but also the study of biological implications of how our brains work. The students’ projects also focused more on those biological implications, specifically the effects of certain drugs on the brain.
What they did first is choose a drug that affects the brain, such as LSD or Methamphetamine. Next they researched the drug. They researched topics like its beginning, its effects on the brain and behavior and its medical uses.
The presentation about LSD was quite interesting. There was a part where they talked about how it causes mood changes and how a naturally occurring form of the chemical might have caused the witch hunts. After they talked about the witch hunts, they talked about the actual physical reactions humans have to LSD.
Mr. Wilkins has norms in his class; specifically, he wants his student to be “respectful.” How do his student feel about that? Do these norms leads to a healthy eco-psychology? Many of the student responses were quite positive.
Noah Rouleau, a Tahoma junior, said the class is “challenging and quiet, but I have friends.” He considers it to be a positive environment.
When we asked Rouleau whether the class was stressful he said “yes,” but he also said it is “stressful but I am learning a lot.” The fact that he enjoys the content enough to list it as a positive should speak for itself.
His actions reflect this positive environment. Rouleau worked diligently. At the end of the week, his hard work paid off when he made a good presentation.
We also interviewed Isaac Lemus, a Tahoma junior who had a similar response. When we asked if the class was stressful for him he said, “Not as much as I thought.”
When asked if he thought he’d be able to apply what he learned in this class to real life, Lemus responded, “If people asked me about the brain, I could easily tell them what I know.”
Tahoma freshman Amanda Ahn was still new to the class when we first interviewed her, so she had not done any activities yet. She was hopeful that this class would teach her a lot that she could apply to real-life situations.
When asked why she changed classes mid-year, she said, “I changed because my last class was chaotic and was really loud, therefore I couldn’t concentrate.”
When Ahn was doing her group project, she thought it was very easy. She really likes the class because it’s not stressful.
When I asked what her favorite thing about psychology was, I was shocked because her answer was, “What I like about psychology is the fact I can actually learn something.”
Like the other students, Ahn was doing her project about drugs. When asked what she was taking away from her project, she responded, “I’m going to be careful and be more cautious around drugs.”
After our interviews and shadowing in the new psychology Expeditions course, we feel that Mr. Wilkins has created a healthy eco-psychology, a community where the students are not overly stressed and are able to share their opinions and what they have learned in their projects.