Dakota Lawson wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
She knows about the cells that make up the human body. She’s done experiments showing reaction rates between molecules at a university lab. Dakota can name bones and knows the difference between states of matter.
Dakota is only 7 years old and in the second grade. She’s a student in Amie Canter’s second- and third-grade class at the Merit School in Stafford and through Canter’s curriculum, has been able to explore the profession that appeals to her.
“I really like that we do experiments,” she said. “My older brother goes to another school and I tell him all about what we are doing. He doesn’t get to experiment like we do.”
Next, Dakota wants to learn about magnetism.
Canter’s class, called Advanced Concepts for a Better Future, takes accelerated students and helps them delve deep into the subject matter.
Last year, the concept was government, and students met with mayors, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, watched the Virginia General Assembly in session, met local representatives and went to the White House.
“You should have seen them,” Canter said. “Meeting the governor, you would think they were at a rock concert. They were so excited.”
This past school year, students wanted to learn about being doctors, so they dissected sharks, talked with doctors at Mary Washington Hospital and learned chemistry with professors at the University of Mary Washington. In the classroom, students have their own lab coats.
Next year, the class will focus on global studies. That means studying mythology, comparative religion, diplomacy and the culinary styles of different nations. On one of their field trips, they plan to visit an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, D.C.
“It helps them focus and drives their interests,” Canter said. “It helps them determine what path they might take later in life.”
Canter wants to bring her curriculum to a larger audience. She is offering free training for local teachers this summer, is presenting her paper at the London International Conference on Education this December and wants Virginia’s Department of Education to consider offering her training in an official capacity.
She said her program has the potential to bring high-quality education to all elementary school students, creating long-term benefits.
She said programs like private school vouchers are short-term solutions that put public schools at a disadvantage and fail to benefit all students. Altering the way public school officials think about education is ambitious but will pay dividends later, she said.
To do that, Canter assesses students individually and helps them work toward their personal goals.
She knows that’s made possible by her small class size of less than 15 students. Canter has worked in public schools in North Carolina and said she felt limited by not being allowed to deviate from the state’s Standards of Learning baseline.
She felt that moving to a private school setting was necessary to boost her ideas for advanced teaching.
Some of her other students are also focusing on careers. Gavin Wheeler wants to be a zoologist after learning about medicine.
Marlee Howell want to be a chemistry professor after studying with UMW’s assistant professor of chemistry Leanna Giancarlo.
Giancarlo and Canter met about two years ago, when Canter reached out to see if anyone would “do science” with students. They have worked together four times now, teaching advanced concepts to second and third graders.
Giancarlo said teaching students about advanced concepts should start young, when their minds are still open to learning science. She said she’s seen interest drop off in middle school for many children, so sparking a love of science early is important.
With Canter’s students, Giancarlo has performed experiments on inter-molecular reaction rates and a polymer creation lab that was Harry Potter-themed.
The students are also reading Harry Potter books and learning Latin. Giancarlo said she was impressed not only with their interest in science, but the connection they made between Latin and character names in the Harry Potter series, some of which hearken back to the dead language.
“They are forming these amazing critical thinking skills,” she said.
Giancarlo saw that as well during an exercise in which she asked the students to imitate the three forms of matter.
She said they were thoughtful enough to organize themselves in a tight group when pretending to be a solid but wiggling a little because atoms are always in movement. When they imitated a liquid, they moved farther apart. And as a gas, they zipped around the room.
“When kids learn science at a young age, they see all the things they can do with it and realize its a way to ask your own questions,” she said.
Giancarlo said students in Canter’s class are advancing faster than others she’s worked with in a standard curriculum. She does think Canter’s concepts could work with larger groups of students.
As a student in traditional public school system in Florida, Canter said she thought teaching methods could be improved. So she came up with her own classroom style tha focuses on more than just curriculum.
She encourages students to make class rules that they are more likely to follow because they had a hand in creating them. They also earn points for rewards, giving them something to work toward.
“I want to be a part of a movement in education that says it’s OK to be different,” she said.