Two weeks ago, Adam and I had the privilege of touring the A. J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering through the Upstate Alliance’s Coffee and Conversations program. Let me just say, as someone new to the Greenville community and professional network, these events provide me with ample opportunities to meet fellow professionals in the area and to both experience and learn about some fascinating facilities in the greater Greenville area. If you have not attended one of these programs, it is definitely not an opportunity that you should pass up!
All that being said, touring A.J. Whittenberg actually made me wish I was back in elementary school. To put this in perspective, as a newly graduated college student, there is not a lot that could make me desire more hours and days spent in a classroom. However, the truly unique atmosphere and curriculum that A.J. Whittenberg provides for its students certainly piqued my interest.
Upon arrival, we were informed that A. J. Whittenberg was an engineering elementary school, which was not something I had ever heard of. Conjuring up images of young geniuses hard at work within the school walls, I immediately began to feel as if my elementary school academic upbringing had become something of the past. As the tour progressed I learned that, no, the children were not making scientific or mechanical breakthroughs, but rather that the curriculum was much more hands on and oriented to an engineering approach to learning. It is the first school in South Carolina with a school wide engineering curriculum, and is the most technologically advanced school in Greenville County. Equipped with learning labs where students take part in hands on learning exercises, such as building Lego robots or creating protected egg drop contraptions, it is not difficult to see how this atmosphere can inspire young minds and stimulate the desire to learn.
Apart from the atmosphere, there were three main things that stuck with me after the tour. First, A. J. Whittenberg will be pursuing a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification in order to instill within students a better understanding of recycling and energy/water conservation and why it is so important. This is an understanding that I believe is becoming increasingly important for younger generations to grow up actively acknowledging. Secondly, A. J. Whittenberg provides its students, once they have reached a given grade level, with a computer tablet. Before receiving their tablet, a guardian for each student must come in for a training session, as I am sure you can imagine the children actively make sure that their parents attend such sessions, in order to receive their new learning device. I found this surprising because I don’t even trust my twenty year old brother with my tablet, let alone an elementary school age student. At the same time, however, one would guess that such action inspires a relationship or trust between the school and the student and vice versa creating an even strong learning relationship and respect for school property. The final stand out observation I came away with centered around the cafeteria. A. J. Whittenberg uses a family style approach to meal time within their walls, students gather around long tables and dine together. Encouraging students not to bring lunch to school, A. J. Whittenberg is also applying a new approach to the meals being consumed. A healthier route is being taken with the food prepared, as students are encouraged to try new dishes, such as tofu, and being taught that a colorful plate is a healthy plate. School chefs have learned quickly that while the food needs to be healthy, it also needs to taste good, because the students at A. J. are not afraid to tell them when it does not.
The A. J. Whittenberg faculty encourages local community members to get involved in the curriculum, happy to allow volunteers to come in and help lead lab sessions or grab lunch in the cafeteria to experience the fresh perspective this unique school is bringing to the academic environment. If you have not yet been to A. J. Whittenberg, I encourage you to take a tour or volunteer, it is easy to see that such a new approach to academics will have a dramatic effect on how young minds in the area are both learning and thinking.