USM’s Tower Project turned 5 years old this spring. We take a look at where the program has been, and where it’s going.
The Tower Project at University School of Milwaukee embraces a simple but very powerful idea: that students direct their own learning, based on their own interests. When it was implemented in the 2015–16 school year, teachers knew they were launching a unique program. Today, it’s clear that the program is here to stay.
Tower Project utilizes experiential learning, which is a cyclical process of research, application, and reflection. It gives students autonomy and choice, encourages risk-taking, and provides flexibility. USM’s program is unique in that students in all three divisions (grades 4, 8, and 12) participate in these capstone experiences. “The project is their opportunity to tell me what they feel is important for them to learn,” said Laura Blanchet, 4th grade teacher and one of four Tower Project mavericks (original founders of USM’s program.) “And that ownership is what drives this project for the kids. That’s why I think we see such success in their projects, because the students want to invest time and effort into them.”
“The students are the experts in the room,” said Kate Gay, Upper School English teacher and also a maverick. “They might be surrounded by adults but they know way more than anybody else. They can answer questions with poise and just be the expert. It’s a really cool experience for kids to have that much confidence and that much background on a topic that doesn’t fit in any curricular box.”
The experience is valuable for students, and one that serves them well after they leave USM. For her Tower Project, Anne Havlik ’17 built a solar-powered computer that fit in a backpack, combining portability with a renewable power source for use in areas where reliable power is unavailable. It was an ambitious project, one that required her to navigate many hurdles, setbacks, and redesigns, but ultimately, she successfully completed it. Today she is a biology and neuroscience double major at the University of Chicago, where she still relies on the skills gained from her Tower Project. “I was interviewing for a position as a research assistant in a computational neuroscience lab, and my Tower Project is one of the things I talked about in my interview,” she said. “Tower Project is the best example of project-based learning because it shows, if you have persistence, you can actually achieve something that’s maybe outside your skill set and makes you uncomfortable at first. I’ve built several computers for my laboratory, just by using the knowledge that I gained through my project. The Tower Project is one of the highlights of my time at USM, for sure.”
A key component of the success of the Tower Project is the volunteer project mentors who are paired with students to provide guidance, feedback, and serve as a sounding board. They commit many volunteer hours each year to their mentees, establishing relationships and helping them find outside resources when necessary. “The power of mentorship is really important, which is something I learned through the Tower Project,” said Havlik. “You need a good mentor who you can trust and communicate openly with. That’s something that I use even today in college.”
Since its launch five years ago, the Tower Project program has largely remained unchanged, save for a few small tweaks. As the program’s leaders look toward the next five years and beyond, they hope to expand it outside of USM’s walls. “One thing we’d like to see happen is getting Tower Project out in the community more, having more mentors from outside of USM, and having the projects being presented out in the Milwaukee community, not just in the school,” said Gay. “We’d like to start leveraging the expertise of our alumni network, too. The more we can get students in contact with these experts in their fields, the better.”
Many thanks to the following teachers who originally implemented Tower Projects at USM: Laura Blanchet, Kate Gay, Rebecca Schwartz, and Dr. Laurie Walczak.