B.C.’s first science and business high school to open this fall

Abbotsford’s Rick Hansen secondary aims to prime students for specialized careers

Rick Hansen secondary school in Abbotsford will become B.C.’s first science and business secondary school, starting in September.

The new instructional model will use problem-based learning to focus on career opportunities in business, science and medicine. Classes at the Grade 9 to 12 secondary school will no longer be structured into neat 60-minute blocks by subject, but will be taught in an interdisciplinary manner by a team of teachers, said Abbotsford’s superintendent of schools, Kevin Godden.

“The parents and the kids told us that they ... want the school to be more engaging and to create connections with the business community, with post-secondary schools, and do authentic work,” Godden said. “This is going to be the crucible for us as to how we make education more engaging and more meaningful for the 21st-century learner.”

The move is intended to attract students and is spurred by the move to transform B.C.’s education system to become more innovative, flexible and personalized.

Rita Irwin, a professor of art education and associate dean of teacher education at the University of British Columbia, said she thinks it’s a fantastic idea.

“We’re giving learners more responsibility for setting the direction of some of the questions they have and how they might set out to answer them,” Irwin said. “It makes a huge shift from students who are passive learners to students who are far more engaged in their learning.

“If we start with the question and the ideas, and we go searching for how to develop them, the learning becomes more relevant, more responsive, more critical, more engaging, more empowering. It does all those things.”

Last month, as part of the updated B.C. Education Plan, the province announced that selected schools in B.C. would become “innovation schools” that will serve as testing grounds for the type of personalized, flexible learning that the B.C. education system is moving toward. Each innovation school will be matched up with a post-secondary institution that will work to evaluate the changes.

Godden said as soon as the criteria are released, he would be the first to put up his hand to make Rick Hansen secondary an innovation school.

The Ministry of Education is not aware of any other schools in B.C. that are like this, said ministry spokesman Scott Sutherland, adding that the selection process for innovation schools will be announced soon.

Other schools are breaking down the walls between courses, such as Thomas Haney secondary in Maple Ridge, which has an open timetable, or at Templeton secondary, where science, math and robotics are combined in one program. But Rick Hansen secondary appears to be the first where an entire school will embark on a combined curriculum.

All incoming Grade 9 students this fall will be placed in a cohort, within which they will study math, science, English and digital literacy over one semester that is focused on problem-based learning, said principal Dave de Wit.

“With this approach, students learn through experience,” de Wit said. “They learn by trying things, by solving problems presented to them. And they do so in teams and across multiple disciplines, which is more reflective of what they’ll be faced with in their careers. It’s very engaging for students, and very practical.”

A team of teachers will integrate the subjects and teach in an interdisciplinary manner.

The next semester, students will take physical education, social studies, a language and an elective. Those courses will be taught in the traditional method. As the Grade 9s continue at the school, the program will grow with them, eventually dividing up into separate science and business streams for the senior years, de Wit said.

The plan emerged from a team effort by the school board, senior management, teachers, parents, students, and even Rick Hansen himself, de Wit said.

When asked how it might work to study English from a science or business perspective, de Wit said it might be that a particular novel the students read has a focus on something happening in the world of science or business.

Another example would be studying climate change and instead of writing an exam, students could write a persuasive essay arguing their point, using their understandings from both science and English, de Wit said.

To start the semester, there will still be bells dividing class time, but by the end of the semester, de Wit said the bells would be eliminated as the classes become more integrated.

Godden acknowledged that many schools are moving toward a similar structure, but he said he doesn’t know of any entire schools in the province that are focused on science and business.

“There are small pockets around the province that are doing this in different ways. I won’t pretend that Abbotsford school district is the only one. This is one of the few whole school efforts that you will see,” Godden said. “This is the only (whole school change) that I’m aware of.”

The school has seen its enrolment decline during the past several years, so the district decided to try something new, Godden said.

The new school will be open to all students, but those who live in the area will get first priority. Students who live in the district but who don’t want to focus on science and business will be able to attend another school, Godden said, adding that he doesn’t expect that to happen.

“I think we’re actually going to be attracting students. This style of learning and the ability for kids to personalize their education and solve real world problems, I think is going to become very attractive to kids,” de Wit said.


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