Barry Gragg, Head of Science, Fosters Creative Inquiry in the Classroom and Beyond

The bedrock of any Dwight classroom is inquiry-based learning. For Head of our Science Department, Barry Gragg, teaching is all about sparking creative inquiry and facilitating collaborative learning among students of all ages.

The bedrock of any Dwight classroom is inquiry-based learning. For Head of our Science Department, Barry Gragg, teaching is all about sparking creative inquiry and facilitating collaborative learning among students of all ages. We sat down with Mr. Gragg — who has taught at Dwight for almost 20 years — to find out how he guides students to find their own answers to questions, and how he continues to bring science to life in the classroom.

Where did your love for science come from and what about it excites you?

When I was quite young, my older siblings would challenge me to answer physics and math questions that they were working on in high school. Cleaning dishes in the kitchen sink became a study in the effect of gravity and atmospheric pressure. A walk in the forest was an investigation into fungal communities and the annual cycle of accumulation and breakdown of leaf litter. Science was a living immersion experience for me and remains the lens through which I interpret the world.

What drew you to education?

I was motivated to become an educator upon hearing the beautiful questions posed by my own children. I wanted to learn how best to guide children to find their own answers.

These days, there is so much good information available that the challenge becomes one of directing students to the appropriate resources, often online. I will never forget the day that a student was researching the environmental pros and cons of using ethanol from corn as a fuel. He was astonished to find total disagreement among various sources. He had thought that he was simply looking for solid facts, but he discovered that there is such a thing as controversy in science. I was happy to reassure him that this would always be the case.

What is your educational philosophy?

I have observed that learning requires a balance of mastering basic skills and opportunities for creative inquiry. The quest for that balance has shaped my philosophy. I encourage teachers in our department to reflect on their own learning experiences, to remember what has motivated them, and what to avoid in our classrooms. An introductory taste of hands-on experience generates curiosity and enables students to make sense of theory. Imagine trying to memorize guitar chords without having held a guitar!

Creative inquiry is possible in the Diploma Program (DP), even when teachers have a published syllabus and an external exam. For example, to begin our unit on electricity in eleventh grade physics, I challenge students to read a couple of pages in the text and then calculate the number of excess electrons on a charged balloon.

They inflate two balloons and hang them from threads from a hook in the ceiling. After charging the balloons with fur, the charged balloons repel each other, but the students cannot approach the balloons or they will stick to their clothes. Each group of two students must devise a way to measure accurately the separation of the hanging balloons while standing on the other side of the lab. They are given free reign to use any equipment we have. Every group comes up with a different strategy, explains it to the class, and then sets it up and takes the measurement. They think up effective strategies that have never occurred to me. It's great fun and it works!

What do you like about teaching in an IB School and at Dwight in particular?

The IB continuum of learning, beginning at a young age with the IB Primary Years Program (PYP) through the Middle Years Program (MYP) and Diploma Program (DP), represents a continuous path through which the balance of open inquiry, skills development, and the acquisition of knowledge can be sought. The IB is a remarkable program and it addresses the challenges that students must confront as they learn and progress to the point of mastering college-level material in just a few short years. Throughout the process, the IB maintains an emphasis on independent thinking and an appreciation for the perspective of others.

At Dwight in particular, we have a dynamic, hands-on leadership team that listens to feedback and supports the direction in which students and educators alike can take the school. This makes teaching at Dwight extra gratifying.

What makes Dwight's science department special for students?

Unlike most schools, we incorporate collaborative learning among the Lower, Middle, and Upper grades. Fifth graders study the brain and then come to the biology lab to do a sheep brain dissection with Upper School biology students. Third graders collaborate with senior DP Higher Level physics students studying astrophysics. Recently, third graders created a month-long moon journal, in which they drew a sketch of the position of the moon on each clear day in the cycle. Then, they visited seniors to show their findings and gave a very effective explanation of the moon's orbit and phases. These cross-grade experiences promote a greater sense of community, as well as enhanced learning.

We also have an annual star-gazing party for Lower School students in which I bring Dwight's high-powered telescope to our rooftop, enabling them to see the stars and Earth's moon. I tell third graders the same thing I tell my seniors: "I know enough about astronomy and astrophysics to talk nonstop for weeks and weeks, but I will likely not know the answers to all of your excellent questions!" I'm eager to show students that astronomical objects are breathtakingly beautiful and that they are real. The awestruck reactions of students — and parents — are rewarding for me year after year.

And from a faculty perspective?

I endeavor to make my department a special place to work by supporting the collegiality and cooperation within our faculty. Just as the teacher sets the emotional tone in the classroom, the head of department can work to set a functional emotional tone among faculty. This translates directly into an atmosphere in which students feel valued and supported, which is a fundamental basis for learning.

The teachers function as a cohesive network — classroom doors are open in the Science Department. Each of us has our own area of academic expertise, and we are constantly interacting and sharing information and experiences with each other. We sample each other's teaching strategies in the classrooms, and can thus learn as educators like bees in a thriving hive.

Just recently, fourth grade teachers met to plan a unit on Earth's resources with our resident geologist who teaches seventh grade Earth Science and with our Environmental Systems teacher in the Upper School. I am excited to see what they come up with!

Our science faculty members also collaborate with our colleagues in the math department. Comparing notes and approaches comes naturally. Integrating math into science, and vice versa, works well and is very motivating for students!

How has teaching science changed over the past two decades?

There have been many changes. Scientific knowledge has grown; some leading theories have been overturned by new data, while some zany notions have been solidly confirmed. The IB incorporates current science into the syllabus with every revision, so teachers need to keep on top of the latest developments.

The greatest change, of course, has been in the area of technology. The advent of dozens of sensors interfacing with student computers has opened up a whole new world for student inquiry. The ability of teachers and students to instantly search a worldwide database was science fiction when I began teaching!

With access to so much information online, we have to teach students to be vigilant in evaluating the source and quality of information found on the Internet and to assess it critically with a scientist's eye.

Tell us about your work with students beyond the classroom.

Over the last few years, I have guided two of my students, Sam Russell '13 and Daniil Frants '17, in the development and patenting of a small educational device for studying nuclear decay and relativity. I'm delighted that funding for the patent was secured through Daniil's work in Dwight's Spark Tank, but I shall let him tell that story! I am pleased and proud that the project has progressed to the point that teachers any where will be able to utilize it in their classrooms in the future.

What's your personal spark of genius?

I am able to work with my head and my hands simultaneously to solve problems and create.

What is a little-known fact about you?

Most of the current teachers and students at Dwight don't know that both of my sons, Drew '07 and Piper '09, attended Dwight from the PYP through to graduation. Both developed music as their spark of genius and both are now working in the digital technology field.

We're so delighted that the Gragg family has long been part of Dwight's family!

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