By Claire Walla
Have you ever wondered about the conductivity of a plucked guitar string? Or whether you can pressurize a watermelon?
Maybe guitar strings and watermelon don’t peak your interest, but if you had a similarly obscure fascination, you’d be able to explore it out at the Hayground School — if, of course, you’re between the ages of seven and 12.
Located on a small parcel of land on Mitchell’s Lane in Bridgehampton, the Hayground School is a progressive private school founded on the educational pillars of philosopher / educator John Dewey for children up to age 12. Bundling students into learning groups that are a little more open-ended than annual grades, all students are dispersed among four clusters — early childhood, emerging readers (ages five to seven), middle groups (ages seven to 12) and the apprenticeship program (all ages). Departing from traditional modes of teaching, the school leaves room in its lesson plans for spontaneity and experimentation.
This is where guitar strings and watermelons fit in.
Teacher Mark Mobius is the school’s scientist-in-residence, typically a two-year position that has been granted on three occasions since Hayground’s opening in 1996 to professional scientists with previous experience in a particular field. These scientists tap into their own knowledge and experience to organize project-based curricula for the middle year students.
Due in large part to the poor economy in recent years, Hayground faculty member Arjun Achuthan said the school had seen a drop in enrollment and a decrease in funding. Because of this, the scientist-in-residence position hasn’t been a constant fixture at the school.
However, school administrators were happy to reintroduce the program last year thanks to a $300,000 grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, and the school will be able to sustain Mobius’ position again this year due to a continuing grant of $275,000, which the Hayground learned of earlier this month.
It’s because of this program, Mobius said, that he’s even teaching at all.
“I wouldn’t want to teach in a public school, it’s too regimented for me,” Mobius said. “[At the Hayground School] the kids come up with cool ideas and we can follow up on that. We’re able to change our plans quite often.”
Mobius, who was raised on Shelter Island and whose previous work revolved primarily around environmental consulting, is also able to bring his own skills and interests to the classroom. In addition to supporting student experiments, he has taken the kids into the field to study tree-core samples to determine the growth rates of several varieties of trees on the East End. He also had the students studying the granular composition of sand in three different seashore locations of Long Beach and Sagg Main: by the water, in the middle of the shoreline and near the dunes. After collecting samples, the students sifted the sand and weighed the contents, ultimately finding the granules closest to the water to be finer.
“It was more of a discovery than a conclusion,” he said of the students’ results, adding that the class used the project to talk about the properties of wave energy.
In the spring, students will delve into the topic of sustainability by raising chickens and learning the ins and outs of foraging. Eventually, they will be entering the wilds of Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island to roam about in search of edibles.
With a bit of input from some professionals in the field, the kids will draw their own field guides for the area, Mobius added.
What Mobius appreciates most about the program is the flexibility. It allows him to use science as a tool to encourage the students’ own curiosities and interests.
“It’s not indoctrination at all,” he said, adding that his job is to emphasize the scientific process, rather than the end result. The mechanics of going out into the field, collecting samples, doing experiments and comparing results are what’s most important, he added.
That, and fostering an enthusiasm for learning.
As for the watermelon, “I suspect what will happen is that [the student] won’t be able to pressurize fruit,” Mobius said. “But I’m not going to discouraging him from trying.”