Winterim Challenges Students to Learn in New Ways

Last summer, faculty members Amy Paulekas and Cassie Ruscz began thinking about how to design a new course focused on diversity, race, and identity for a new, online curriculum the school was developing called Winterim. Offered over a three-week period in December, Winterim is intended to give students an opportunity to break from the normal academic schedule to enroll in a class that is intensely focused on one big idea or question. Courses are designed by faculty and offered to students across grade levels, which means a freshman can just as easily enroll as a senior. Many Winterim courses are co-taught by teachers who are combining their expertise, and all culminate in a final project that allows students to put into practice what they learned over the term.

Ultimately, Paulekas and Ruscz decided their course would examine the issues of race, identity and gender through the lens of sports. “Sports is a kind of universal language. You can talk about a lot of things through sports,” said Paulekas, who teaches math and serves as Director of Studies. She also was captain of the Women’s Crew team at Colby College in Maine, and has coached Girls Varsity Basketball at The Frederick Gunn School for eight years, including four years as Head Coach.

Ruscz, who is Assistant Coach for Girls Varsity Basketball and Head Coach of Varsity Softball, brings to the course her experience as a standout on the NCAA Division III Softball Team at Tufts, where she was a two-time national champion All-American. The pair designed the course so that many of the discussions mirror newsworthy topics such as investigations into Black Lives Matter in the NBA and WNBA, equal pay for the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, and local Connecticut cases regarding transgender high school athletes. These topics are the focus of a new book, “Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy: The Evolution of Gender, Identity, and Race in Sports,” by Robin Ryle.

“It hits home for a lot of kids and we’re talking about what’s going on in their own realm,” Ruscz said, noting that one of the goals of the course is to help students become comfortable having conversations around these topics.

The class, which includes 16 students, boys and girls, freshmen to seniors, meet twice daily four days per week. Morning sessions are devoted to activities, discussions and student presentations on case studies. Following a mid-day break, students return to listen to guest speakers. “All are athletes and have experience in the sports realm,” Paulekas said. So far, the class has welcomed Luke Sowa ’15, who played football at UConn and Kansas State; former UConn Women’s Basketball player Kathleen Bantley, who is now a professor of criminal justice at Central State University; former UConn Men’s Basketball player Christian Foxen; and Laura Brenneman, who was a member of the U.S. team for the first-ever Women’s Baseball World Cup in 2004. (Her jersey is displayed in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Students learn about each speaker in advance and develop questions for each in preparation for their final project, which will involve interviewing someone they know about their experience in sports. 

From Code-Breaking to EMR Certification
Winterim classes began December 1 and will continue through December 18. All of the courses in the curriculum are designed to be interactive, incorporating group collaboration, teacher meetings, and independent study. Students in the Open Mic Night Course, taught by Ron Castonguay, Director of the Arts, and math teacher Kelsey Brush, are recording a dozen songs – one per class – that will be compiled into an LP. In Cryptography, taught by math teacher Austin Arkin, students are learning about historical and modern ciphers, and using those techniques to design an online escape room. Those enrolled in the Emergency Medical Responder course, taught by Science Department Chair Morgen Fisher ’03 and Teresita Magana of the World Languages faculty, will have the opportunity to pursue their EMR certification through the National Registry.

“They’re learning how to take a blood pressure using a sphygmomanometer and they’re using a stethoscope to learn how to listen to heartbeats and breath sounds all through the thorax. They have to take vitals on their family members,” Magana said, explaining that she and Fisher created a video to demonstrate those skills so students could start practicing on their own. “It looks easy, but it’s not,” she added.

Fisher, who is an EMT with the Washington Ambulance Association, said she had wanted to bring a course like this to The Frederick Gunn School for years, but was able to do so after completing her own certification as an EMR Instructor earlier this year. In the Winterim course, students have the added benefit of learning from Magana, who is a licensed medical doctor in Belize and taught a popular Pre-Med course as part of the science curriculum last year.

“It’s been a good pairing,” Fisher said, noting that it's rare for a medical doctor to teach an EMR/EMT course, and students benefit from having that additional perspective. “It’s a depth that they wouldn't necessarily get in a typical class. It’s so valuable.”   

In addition to recording 10 sets of vitals taken from family members, students in the class have been tasked with submitting videos showing how they take a patient’s blood pressure, pulse, and listen to lung or heart sounds using their stethoscopes so Fisher and Magana can provide feedback and see how well they are performing those skills. They are learning how to record a patient medical history, how to splint to a broken limb, how to perform a trauma assessment, which pressure points to compress to stop bleeding, and how to perform CPR, including verbalizing the steps for using an automated external defibrillator, or AED. 

Beyond these skills, Fisher said, the course is intended to give students a sense of how they can volunteer and give back in their own communities, and whether they have an interest in pursuing a medical career. At the midpoint of the class, at least two of the 15 students enrolled had taken steps toward completing their EMR certification. “And If they become an M.D., they at least have a sense of what the EMTs dropping the patient at the hospital’s door may have seen and understood,” Fisher said. 

Responsible Citizens
Over in Scientific Thinking in Real Life, co-taught by MaryAnn Haverstock, Director of IDEAS Lab, and science teacher Steve Bailey P’09, the goals are just as lofty. Students are learning how to think scientifically - and critically - about what they believe, using analysis of real-world issues related to the global pandemic. To date, the course has covered the misleading use of statistics, the different phases of clinical trials, p-hacking (or selective reporting), experimental design, and how conspiracy theories emerge.

To help students understand the causation and correlation, Bailey shared a map outlining the increase in COVID-19 cases across the U.S. Not surprisingly, the rates were more concentrated in highly populated urban areas. This was also true when he shared a second map, focused on the rate of 5G installation in the U.S. “They overlap each other – but what does that have to do with COVID? Nothing!” he said.

Students are using break-out sessions via Zoom for small group discussions, recording daily video reflections, publishing daily blog entries, and will create an interactive presentation using Loom on a research article of their choosing to demonstrate their understanding and conclusions from the course.

One of the goals of the class is for students to learn to question things, rather than taking them at face value. “To use an old expression, no one is going to be able to pull the wool over their eyes,” Haverstock said. “The other thing is, we want our kids to walk away from this as responsible citizens in their communities. We want them to do their own work scientifically, bring good data, good observations, and draw good concussions. There’s a process and a patience required. That’s what we want for them when they are both receiving and understanding scientific information. We want them to go out there and do it the right way.”

Clockwise from top left: Aubrey Barnes '22, Josh Novick '21, Molly Xiong '23 and Oliver Chen '24 in a break-out session from Day 6 of Scientific Thinking in Real Life; the photo was featured on Novick's blog.