Vail Mountain School Intraterm program explores the globe in a world of learning | VailDaily.com

Vail Mountain School Intraterm program explores the globe in a world of learning

Will Brendza
Special to the Daily

VAIL — The most profound learning often happens through hands-on experiences, when students are immersed in problem solving. This concept is the cornerstone of Vail Mountain School's Intraterm program.

Started in 2012, Intraterm is a term-between-terms — between fall and spring semesters — that offers students the chance to step outside the typical classroom and dive into a diverse range of subjects.

Schoolwide immersion

It began as an experimental opportunity only for 10th graders, but quickly expanded to the entire VMS upper school. This year, the program grew to the entire school, kindergarten through 12th grades.

"It has grown not only in numbers and grade levels, but also in breadth and depth," said Julie Schlossinger, VMS lower school director.

That breadth and depth created a variety of Intraterm opportunities, from three-day courses in classrooms and around the Vail Valley, to 10-day international immersions. Many courses use a student-centered, project-based approach, where students confront real-world problems.

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"We believe that any child has the potential to change the world if they can connect with and cultivate their passion," said Kabe ErkenBrack, VMS middle school director.

"Our goal with Intraterm is to provide opportunities for students to dig deep into something they love, or discover something new, and spend a week learning everything about it. By starting this in middle school, or even lower school, we hope to plant seeds that may grow into something bigger — a summer job or internship, a connection with a mentor, course of study or a senior project, a college major or a career."

Oceans of answers

Kindergarten through fifth-grade students worked in cross-age groups over five days to explore topics related to oceans. Among the questions they grappled with: "What can be done to keep houses and beaches safe from erosion?" and "What is causing ocean mammals and fish to disappear?"

Among the projects: miniature wave tanks to experiment with different ways of fortifying beaches; vinegar and baking soda volcanoes to learn about plate tectonics in the Pacific; and a massive coral reef mural to gain a better understanding of these shared undersea habitats and how they are changing.

"Intraterm puts the students in charge of their learning," said Kristin Douthitt, the incoming director of the VMS Lower School who spearheaded the Lower School program. "It engages them in creative thought processes and allows them the time to reflect and think critically about solutions."

This year, middle-schoolers engaged in a three-day "flavors and fragrance" chemistry experiment. They examined the chemical reasons why things taste and smell the way they do.

Others learned backcountry snow skills with the Vail Ski Patrol, and another group drove to Denver to explore perspectives through art, history and music.

There was even a three-day peace summit, where kids tried to solve the world's foremost international issues through John Hunter's "World Peace Game."

ErkenBrack helped facilitate the World Peace Game. Kids became leaders of different countries or world organizations and then played out real-world scenarios, such as the World Bank getting hacked or refugees moving from one country to another.

"The goal is for each country to resolve their conflicts and finish with more money than they started," ErkenBrack said.

In the end, they did, solving nearly two dozen problems inspired by current global issues, ErkenBrack said.

"This is project-based learning at its best." ErkenBrack said. "This week was amazing, and I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by students and teachers who are so willing to step out of their comfort zones, take risks and try something new and innovative."

Worlds of learning

The VMS upper school offers the broadest, longest and most adventurous Intraterm opportunities, ranging from a 10-day international study of diversity, ethnicity and identity in the Yunnan province of China, to an eight-day Spanish language immersion in Costa Rica and a Hawaiian cultural and historical exploration. This year, upper school students also took part in the school's first-ever trip to Africa, where they learned about Islamic culture in Morocco.

"I loved the entire trip," said Nellie Smith, a VMS 11th-grader who went on the Hawaii Intraterm. "I was able to become friends with new people and have a new experience that I wouldn't have had without the guidance of our teacher, Ms. Cope Tait."

Maggie Pavlik, VMS upper school director, said the courses allow teachers to watch their students grow, learn, change, relate to their peers, demonstrate curiosity and leave their comfort zones. And at the same time, the students get to see their teachers doing the same types of things.

"Students return from some of these experiences with a changed view of the world and of themselves and their place in the world." Pavlik said.