A third-grade student sits with a tortoise at the Minnesota Zoo. Heilicher third graders visit the Minnesota Zoo and participate in it's ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge to develop enrichment for the animals.
By Dr. Dan Ahlstrom
With the stress and uncertainty triggered by the Israel-Hamas war, which follows the unprecedented disruptions of the pandemic, the world’s fragility is evident. Amid these global concerns, we strive not only to offer top-tier education, but also to serve as a beacon of stability and compassion, always prioritizing the comprehensive well-being of our students and their families.
It’s well-known that the pandemic caused a massive disruption to education, with school closures impacting 95% of students globally and resulting in significant learning losses, particularly in math. At Heilicher, our return to in-person learning helped mitigate these losses, supported by our emphasis on STEM resources and strong school-family partnerships.
However, the emotional and social impacts are still evident. Harvard research suggests that online learning affected children’s social and emotional development, with varying effects across different age groups. Younger students missed out on basic social lessons, while older ones showed increased anxiety and a need for more support in developing executive function skills.
The transition back to in-person classes at Heilicher was challenging, highlighting the need for resilience and adaptability in the face of new pressures that came with a return to full schedules and activities. The social interactions that an in-person school experience offers simply can’t be replaced when kids are isolated. Heilicher students in all grades have struggled with inadequate social skills.
Along with understanding the learning, social, and emotional gaps, the team at Heilicher began working to identify the best ways to recover from them. We’ve taken proactive steps to offer experiences and services that will serve our students well. And we think these steps will help them deal with new challenges too.
We refreshed our Student and Teacher Resource Team offerings — shifting from an exclusive focus on academics to also incorporating social-emotional components. And we’ve elected to lean heavily into experiential learning to offer tactile experiences that can enrich students’ lives.
We believe that experiential learning could be the best response to counteract the effects of recent lockdowns and the stress of world events that are directly or indirectly impacting families. By moving beyond traditional classroom settings and engaging students in the wider world with experiential learning, we aim to effectively combat the consequences of these last few years. Our approach includes a diverse array of activities such as a hiking club, service learning, the Minnesota Zoo ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge, woodworking, and student-led town halls. These hands-on experiences provide exposure to a broad spectrum of subjects, from environmental awareness and health to self-governance and teamwork.
The benefits of experiential learning are numerous. It develops the capacity to adapt to new situations and challenges. It engages the creative and problem-solving parts of the brain and enriches the learning experience. And it provides a safe space to make mistakes and find solutions.
As we aim to bridge the learning deficits from remote education while still in an uncertain and stressful time, we understand the delicate equilibrium between providing extra instruction and the potential of burdening students with excessive work. There’s a limit to how much new content children can absorb. The practical nature of experiential learning offers a method to integrate new concepts in a way that is natural and manageable for our students, facilitating organic learning. Heilicher’s goal is to offer experiences where students can become authentically engaged in their education.
As educators, I think our biggest takeaway has been the importance of connecting with students. We believe the best way to help close their gaps is by coming up with creative ways to engage them in the classroom — whether that classroom is in the building or out in a forest.
As head of school, I’m committed to fostering genuine engagement with education by integrating real-world experiences. I believe that getting out and doing things in the world makes that happen. I welcome your thoughts — and creative suggestions — for ways to inspire and engage our students.