School News

Play to Passion to Purpose
Posted 08/24/2017 09:03AM

This essay is an abridged version of the opening address Head of Middle School Marion Knoll gave to our Middle school parents and students.


At the end of this summer, I had the unique experience of providing logistical support for the first 12 days of the approximately month-long TenneSwim. A combination scientific research project and extreme endurance swim of the Tennessee River, the goals of the TenneSwim are to produce a comprehensive water quality analysis of the river and raise awareness about water issues in the Tennessee River watershed, while swimming the 652 miles of the Tennessee River in 20-mile segments. My husband, a 1978 alumnus of this school, is the project co-director of TenneSwim joining his friend and colleague from Germany, the swimmer, Andreas Fath. I spent my "vacation" handling logistics for the team.

During the time that I was with the TenneSwim, the question that we were often asked was "Why would anyone swim the entire Tennessee River?" Andreas' response was, "To raise awareness -- if I only tested water quality, would you be paying any attention?"

As I've reflected on this experience though, I've realized that the answer is more complicated. The answer to the question -- Why would one choose to swim the entire Tennessee River? -- can be found in a book I read recently by Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: Young People Who Will Change the World. Wagner investigates and discusses shared characteristics in the backgrounds of many young innovators such as Kirk Phelps, the product manager for Apple's first iPhone. Despite widely differing environments, one characteristic that Wagner identifies as a common thread is what he refers to as a "developmental arc of moving from childhood play, to adolescent passion, to adult purpose that seems to be fundamental in the development of intrinsic motivation" and in creating the capacity for innovation.

Fath grew up as a swimmer. He is now a chemist focused on water quality, and particularly the concentrations of microplastics in our surface water supplies. In Germany, he invented and patented a new type of water filter that actually uses recycled microplastics to filter pharmaceuticals and other harmful substances out of drinking water. Fath doesn't just identify problems; he finds ways to solve them. The TenneSwim is his second "swim for science." In 2014, he swam the 766 miles of the Rhine River in Germany. Fath has melded his passions for swimming and for water quality, that started as play earlier in his life, into a real purpose.... swimming for science.

This same developmental arc from play to passion to purpose could be seen in the life of Homer Hickam, as detailed in his memoir Rocket Boys, which I read this summer for my SAS Book Club reading. Hickam grew up in coal country in West Virginia. He and a group of friends, inspired by the launching of Sputnik, started building rockets in the late 1950s. At first they were just playing around and produced a rocket that flew 100 feet. Inspired by that success and encouraged by a teacher, they formed the Big Creek Missile Academy. The "rocket boys" taught themselves everything they needed to know with the help of teachers, books, and the mechanics in their town. In 1960, they took their rocket design to the National Science Fair, winning gold and silver medals for propulsion. At the end of their senior year of high school, the "rocket boys" built their final rocket together, the Auk XXXI, which flew to a height of 4 miles. Hickham went on to Virginia Tech to get a degree in Industrial Engineering, fought in the Vietnam War, worked for the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command, and eventually went to work for NASA. For Hickham, as for Fath, play became passion, and passion ultimately became purpose.

These experiences explain how we approach learning in the middle school at St. Andrew's-Sewanee. Like Fath and Hickham, our faculty are passionate about what they do. They love their subject matter, and they love working with young people. For them, passion has also become purpose.

At SAS, our goal is to be a part of this developmental arc from play to passion to purpose in the lives of each student in our school. We emphasize the student as worker. We don't talk about learning art or learning science: Each student is an artist and a scientist, a writer and a performer, an athlete, a mathematician, a singer, and a reader. We emphasize active learning and process over product; students learn by doing and our focus is on nurturing and developing intrinsic motivation throughout the learning process. The middle school curriculum is intentionally broad and well-rounded, exposing students to a wide variety of courses, disciplines, topics, and activities --- all with the goal of helping students identify areas of passion to pursue more deeply on their own.

Middle school students are poised at the boundary that Wagner identifies between childhood play and adolescent passion, and we embrace play as an important learning element. Whether building earthquake-resistant structures out of toothpicks and marshmallows to test on a bed of Jello, developing magic tricks to study inverse operations, or freely exploring the campus creeks, woods, and fields, students learn by doing and they learn through play, hopefully leading to passion and then to purpose.

Students, Your middle school years are special. They are perfect years for you to explore. If you haven't already begun to do so, we encourage you to begin to discover what you love and hone in on your own areas of passion. Be open to new learning experiences. It may not be water quality, swimming, or rockets, but our desire for you is that you discover something - or several things - that you deeply love and care about. To paraphrase Hickam in Rocket Boys, we know you'll discover that learning something, no matter how complex, isn't hard when you have a reason to know it.

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