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Rewarding Students with Experiences, Not Grades

By Andreas Economou
Rewarding Students with Experiences, Not Grades

Have you ever wondered how many students attend high school each year? What about how many of these children will make an impact in the future? Right now, our teachers may be teaching the next Einstein, or Curie, or G.R.R. Martin and we may not even realize it.
How often do we hear the stories about how these great men and women were deemed as “average” or unremarkable during their early education years? What if we, as educators, could find a way to unleash these students’ often hidden potential before they leave high school?
The pool of talent that is hiding in plain sight within any given school probably cannot be properly measured or fully appreciated given our current standardized approaches and traditional means of assessment.
What I have seen in the last few years teaching high school science at the American International School in Cyprus (AISC) is that this potential may materialize when students are allowed to tackle complex issues outside the scope of the curriculum.
Surprisingly, this often occurs in the absence of grades or any system of measurement, for that matter. As long as our efforts pique student curiosity and our projects and expectations for their outcomes are connected with real-life issues, students will engage.
Are grades really a necessary incentive or driver?
This year, students at AISC performed admirably in a number of global competitions, even though there was not a clear “prize” in the form of a grade at the end. The participating students were well aware that their work was not necessarily going to be rated, graded, or possibly even acknowledged in a competition of a global scale, but they engaged regardless. Isn’t that an expression of lifelong learning at its best?
Over the last few years, I have been running the AISC Scientific Research Club as an after-school activity at our high school for anyone who expresses interest. We take great pride in the fact that we are an inclusive international school providing enriched experiences for all students, regardless of their background.
The Research Club was initially formed to provide a framework within which a group of AISC IB chemistry students could work on a proposal for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP) competition in 2016. These students were not awarded any extra credit for participating and did not get any preferential treatment in terms of their academic standing or performance metrics in their science classes.
Remarkably, these students identified a local Cyprus issue that was not well-studied or understood and designed a process that would allow them to analyze it before designing a proposal to solve the issue. Specifically, the group researched the effects of sunscreens as sea water pollutants. They designed a process that would allow them to measure the presence of sunscreen pollutants and then proposed a way of reducing their ill effects.
The results were then defended orally before a panel of experts from Cyprus universities, research facilities, and like industries. For their work, they achieved an honorable mention.
Our students’ success generated momentum across our school, inspiring more students to participate in similar competitions. Honorable mentions were achieved again in the SJWP in both 2017 and 2019. AISC was shortlisted among the 30 most influential proposals in the CERN BeamLine for school competitions in 2018. In 2019, a student proposal on use of microorganisms as bioindicators of quality in water systems was rewarded with the gold medal by the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Beyond the recognition of the high-level research produced by these students, it is important to emphasize that those involved were drawn from various high school grade levels and had different cultural backgrounds. There was also a mixed representation of both male and female students involved.
Likely, the most important aspect of these projects is that people, regardless of their gender, age, or ethnicity, when working together with shared passion for a common cause, can make the world a better place.
If schools do not teach this simple ideal, then who will? I’m proud to be working at a school that values these principles.
Andreas Economou is Grade 10 and IB Chemistry Teacher at the American International School in Cyprus.

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