by Austin Giles
“The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing one’s own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else. Not only does education continue when schooling ends, but it is not confined to what may be studied in adult education courses. The world is an incomparable classroom, and life is a memorable teacher for those who aren’t afraid of her,” said influential writer and renowned adult educator, Malcolm Knowles.
At Whatcom Community College, Knowles’s described “burden”, is shifting into the hands of students who are willing to go above and beyond the confines of the classroom. Many of them are driven by the passion they have invested in their subjects, while others are pursuing newly discovered points of interest.
The learning contract program offers students the opportunity to create their own course and curriculum and drive themselves to meet their independently established goals.
“One of the most unique contracts was a student who built a teepee and lived in it for two months while doing a study on Plains Indians,” said Beth Tyne, coordinator of the learning contract program. Other favorites of Tyne’s include a student building a double bass and another who studied the geology of the Grand Canyon while on a river rafting expedition.
Anything is on the table for students who wish to create their own course. The first step in the process is deciding not only your subject matter but if you are an independent learner.
“The students who are most successful are those who have a strong interest in the subject they are studying, enjoy a more independent learning environment and can manage their time efficiently,” said Tyne.
She takes the ideas of students and helps them work out their course and contract. Tyne also makes referrals to help students acquire a qualified mentor to guide them through their studies.
Alex Garcia-Silva created his own class, Principals of Permaculture, dealing with living environments and agricultural systems that work in correspondence with nature.
His resume is already heavy with experience, as a member of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network looking for people willing to trade labor for experience and knowledge. Garcia-Silva has worked on several farms through the organization and independently. A favorite in his studies so far was visiting Bullocks Farm on Orcas Islands which he said, is considered the finest permaculture site in North America.
“Taking the trip . . . was very inspirational,” said Garcia-Silva, he especially liked seeing the practices he’d been reading about, demonstrated in real life.
“This has solidified my desire to continue down this path now that I’ve seen the power of such a design,” he added. Garcia-Silva now has hopes of establishing a food forest or compost garden on Whatcom’s campus so that he may “turn this project into something more than just simple knowledge.”
If there is a student seeking an extra credit or a class that isn’t offered, they can create one of their own and reap the benefits. Tyne describes the greatest benefit of all is “the experience of taking more control of one’s own learning, because once a person has that confidence in themselves as an independent learner, so many worlds open up.”
“I decided to do a learning contract because no one offers a natural products isolation class or seminar at WCC, so I created my own,” said Phil Tatman, a student in a Chemistry honors learning contract. “I am growing the mold Penicillium Chrysogenum, and then attempting to extract and crystallize the antibiotic penicillin.”
He describes his background in chemistry as “limited’ from an academic perspective. In the past, Tatman completed the general chemistry series and is currently enrolled in organic chemistry. Natural product isolation in the context of his project is typically something graduate students would be interested in for research; equivalent courses are around the 500 level, said Tatman.
For him, the hardest part of his learning contract was teaching himself enough organic chemistry and biochemistry to know where to start. “I have spent more hours on Wikipedia and chem forums than I care to comment on,” said Tatman. “However, the reading I have done in my personal time has inspired me to attempt to push ahead.”
He has been researching this project since last spring and had to create all of his own lab methods. Since that portion was so time consuming, Tatman has only recently been able to commence the physical application his project. Currently, he has grown all of his penicillin and has isolated one of his samples into water.
“Having the ability to isolate a natural product from cells is a very desired skill to have from a research perspective – It has led to the discovery of many antibiotics which have saved millions of lives,” said Tatman. “By creating my own project, I have been able to apply my knowledge of chemistry to a realistic application. What is the point of taking classes if I will never use the knowledge?”
“Don’t think that this is easy or a good way to get easy credit,” said Mattias Evangelista, a student currently enrolled in his own class of skiing and film production. “Take advantage of all the benefits but don’t slack off.”
Having lived in Glacier, near Mt. Baker his entire life, Evangelista has been skiing since the age of 2. “My dad actually took me up when I was 2 weeks old in his jacket,” said Evangelista. He describes skiing as the single most inspiring and important thing in his life.
Recently, along with his brother, Evangelista started a film and t-shirt company called North Cascade Productions, documenting the “ski scene” of the Northwest. Now with the guidance of qualified mentors, he is learning more about his craft while gaining credit for Film 190.
“All of these things were my main motivation behind designing my own class,” said Evangelista. “I’m really very excited about this because I’m now taking a class that fits easily into my schedule and is based on something that I love to do.”