Open Connections

  • terrific tuesday camper ramsey is a budding geologist
Opportunities for Discovery Abound: A Look at the Open Program

Each summer, the Open Program Facilitators spend time researching, planning and preparing for the program year ahead. This year in the Open Program, youth will have the chance to dig into science-related topics (among many other content areas). Open Program Facilitators have chosen a wide range of science-related offerings to include; famous scientists, flight, geology, anatomy, oceanography and outer space. 


Over the course of the past few years, Facilitators have offered a plethora of themes as we explored cultures, US history, PA history, natural sciences and math in everyday life. This past year we took a closer look into history and cultures, exploring life both in the past and the present, both locally and globally. I appreciated the excitement the youth displayed as they arrived each day wondering if we would be continuing a topic or moving forward to a new unit. As they opened the Open Program door they were transported to Nepal, or perhaps they stepped into life as a Native American. Although it was the Facilitators who took the time to do the initial research and preparation for the projects, decorations and activities, the youth also took a very active role in making these studies take off. Some weeks they arrived in costume (think soldiers or Native Americans). Other weeks, youth arrived with photos or books from their own travels to share with the group. A number of Open Program parents came in as Visiting Artists to share their own experiences that tied in with our various focus topics, and a bunch of OP youth took the reins of the facilitative role and brought in projects to lead and share with their peers. While the content of each of these focus areas was stimulating and engaging, it was the process of how we approached the activities, coupled with the young people’s thirst for new learning, that made each of these units a huge success. 


As we move into the studies of the sciences during the 2016-17 program year, youth will be exposed to new ideas, thoughts and concepts. By offering a large range of hands-on activities youth will discover new concepts and perhaps uncover a new interest or passion. As Facilitators, we will get to bear witness to their seemingly endless natural curiosity as they take these Facilitator-initiated activities and put their own spin onto them. It never 

ceases to amaze me how young people can approach the same activity and almost always take it in different directions; their imagination and creativity lead them to discoveries that we (as adults) might never have unfolded. Although Facilitators have specific ideas in mind when setting up for each unit, we are always flexible in the process. This flexibility is crucial in the learning process for the young people (and us!), because that is often where the “ah-ha!” moments take place. In keeping our activities and ideas open-ended, the true magic of natural learning unfolds, and we get to witness the wheels turning in each youth’s brain as they make new connections (both literally and figuratively). 


As I am writing this article (in July), I’m eager to share with you some of the planning that’s already well underway. During the studies of famous scientists, Facilitators will introduce a new scientist each day over a two week period. Here are a few of the scientists ready to be introduced: 

  • Jane Goodall, a British primate researcher known for her work among chimpanzees in Africa; 
  • Rachel Carson, an American biologist known for her writings on environmental pollution and natural history of the sea; 
  • Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist. He is probably best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system; 
  • Leonardo da Vinci, a world-renowned artist (the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper), mathematician, inventor and writer; 
  • Isaac Newton, a physicist and mathematician best known for the development of the principles of modern physics; 
  • Galileo Galilei, an astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher and mathematician. Highlights of his career included the construction of a telescope and supporting the Copernican theory (which supports a sun-centered solar system); 
  • Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer, mathematician, translator, artist and physicist. Copernicus was best known for being the first astronomer to offer the idea of a heliocentric solar system (a system in which the planets and planetary objects orbit the sun); 
  • Louis Pasteur, French chemist and microbiologist. Pasteur's accomplishments include the discoveries of vaccinations, pasteurization and proving 

As we delve into each of their biographies and explore hands-on activities related to their scientific work we will get a sense of the tremendously important role these individuals have played in shaping our scientific world. 


Looking ahead, we will also take a closer look at flight: how and why it works. We will talk about who invented flight and who was the first to fly. Youth will be exposed to the research of inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were the American brothers credited with inventing, building and flying the world’s first successful airplane. We will also take a look at Gustave Whitehead, an aviation pioneer who was believed to have flown the first plane more than 2 years before the Wright Brothers. No flight exploration would be complete without learning about the remarkable life of Amelia Earhart. Earhart was a female pilot known for holding the world altitude record when she flew her plane 14,000 feet on October 22, 1922. As we explore the science behind flight we will look at airplanes, helicopters, hot air balloons, parachutes, blimps, kites, gliders, birds and insects. Our direction for research will be determined by questions from the youth. Youth will be exposed to writing through stories and story dictation. Math will be incorporated through a plethora of activities including measuring distances and heights of hand-crafted flying machines. 


Shifting gears, we will explore geology, which is always an attention-getter in the Open Program. One of the Open Programmers’ favorite activities is chiseling rocks. Through the study of geology youth will have the opportunity to learn more about various types of rocks including gemstones, crystals and fossils. Youth will use magnifying glasses and microscopes to get an up-close look at the fascinating details of rocks. We will study Tectonic plates, erosion, structure of the earth, volcanoes and earthquakes. Youth will have an opportunity to learn more about petroglyphs (prehistoric rock carvings), Stonehenge, the stone age, cave art and clay. Clay is the most important mineral used in manufacturing and environmental industries. Clay has been used since the Stone Age, and youth will have the chance to collect their own clay in nature and learn how and where clay deposits form. 


During the studies of anatomy, youth will be exposed to a handful of the body systems to include the respiratory system, nervous system, circulatory system, muscular system, digestive system, reproductive system, etc. Through books, pictures and hands-on projects the OP youth will glean a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, human and animal anatomy. For those who like to dig in and see the real deal, we will have a number of dissection opportunities available. For those youth who aren’t keen on dissection but still quite curious about how our bodies are structured, they will have the opportunity to explore both human and animal x-rays to get a closer 

look at bone and muscle structure. Puzzles will be available for construction as a visual for placement of organs, muscles, tissues, etc. The body is a marvelous machine, and we cannot wait to explore it with the OP youth. 


Oceanography will take us on a deep dive to learn about our planet’s most unusual creatures as we take a look inside the ocean at marine life. We will discover how the marine ecosystem all works together. With over 70% of the earth covered in water, there are endless opportunities for us to ask questions and investigate. Some of our initial inquiries will include unearthing the answers to: “What is the water made of?” and “What life can survive in the water?” We are eager to see what questions the youth bring to the table! Maps will play a critical role in this unit to help us get a stronger sense of just how much water covers the earth, and where it is. We will uncover the mysteries of the ocean floor. Ever wonder how they measure the depth of the ocean? Curious about what lives at the various sea levels? We eagerly await the youth’s questions and inquiries as we collaborate to uncover some of the beautiful discoveries of oceanography. 


Ever dream of taking a trip to the moon? What about exploring space? Curious about Neil Armstrong, who was an American astronaut and the first man to step foot on the moon (Apollo 11 moonwalk in 1969)? To give the youth a sense of the time frame of each of these historical events youth will create a timeline to show the history of manned moon landings and unmanned moon landings. The planets, stars, moon and sun will be a big part of our discoveries and activities during the course of this unit. Youth will be able to explore a solar system hung around the program space and even make one of their own. During a project of creating spacecrafts, youth will have an opportunity to write stories related to a trip to space, and capture what they might like to do or see while on their journey. Additionally, we will experiment with rocket launching outside and see how high our rockets can make it. There are countless discoveries waiting to be made, and we cannot wait to welcome the young people back to join in on the fun! 


For those of you who are thinking, “But we thought the Open Program was designed to be youth-directed?”, please rest assured that there is ample time for youth to engage in self-directed play and discovery (both within the various units planned, as well as countless other spontaneous ideas and activities yet to be identified by the youth themselves). The goal behind Facilitator-initiated offerings is to give youth the chance to potentially be exposed to content areas that they may not even know exists: the whole “I don’t know what I don’t know” phenomena. As Facilitators, we view that it is our job (and what a fun one it is!) to expose the OP youth to a wide array of content and topic areas, as you never know what might spark a youth’s interest, or when suddenly a new passion may be born. While the content they are exposed to is varied, the process stays consistent. At Open Connections we engage in a wide variety of techniques to ensure that young people have the freedom to learn and create: 

  • Avoidance of questions with hidden agendas 
  • Emphasis on Real Work versus make-work 
  • Reliance on experiential, hands-on learning 
  • Development of Process Consciousness (how a process impacts on the quality of content/output, for better or for worse) 
  • Treatment of all people as colleagues (minus the struggles of hierarchies) 
  • Celebration of each other’s growth 
  • Offer of developmentally appropriate opportunities for young people to contribute to the growth of Open Connections 
  • Encouragement of the the use of imagination and wishfulness as components of Flexible Thinking 
  • Emphasis on collaboration and synergy (vs. competition and negativity) 
  • Treatment of adversity as opportunity 
  • Finding the resources to achieve goals 


Guided by these principles, we work diligently to create a learning environment that is free from pressure and is rich with pro-social interactions, and most importantly a safe and happy place for the youth. It is our experience that young people (really all people) learn best when they are in an environment that is free of pressure, competition, and emphasis on getting to the “right” answer. At Open Connections, things are not black or white. In fact, we celebrate living in a world of gray, where there aren’t right answers and wrong answers, rather just different and/or new ways of approaching activities or viewing experiences. We’re eager to embark on a stimulating year and we look forward to the adventures that lie ahead. Welcome to the 2016-17 Open Program year!