Open Connections

  • 2020 02 syl
The Teen Years at Open Connections

The Teen Years at Open Connections: Examining the program hallmarks of Group Tutorial IV and Shaping Your Life - tracing how they work together to help OC teens craft the lives the want.

As outlined in Rick Sleutaris’s article in the Spring issue of the Open Connections Magazine, OC graduates should have strong intrapersonal skills, effective communication skills, and practical problem solving/ implementation skills. The ultimate goal being to launch them into the world, to live lives “full of purpose and fulfillment.”(1) 


This article sets out to show how OC strives to develop these skills in our teen population in the Group Tutorial IV (GTIV) and Shaping Your Life (SYL) Programs. The primary ways that we seek to help young people get ready for college or professional/adult life during their teen years is through five key program hallmarks that build from GTIV (13-14 yrs) to SYL (15-18 yrs). The hallmarks are: youth-chosen projects; large-scale group projects; applied academics; teen issues and life skills; and ownership and personal responsibility. 


Youth-Chosen Projects 

The first hallmark of the teen experience at OC is the opportunity to pursue projects of personal interest while developing research, writing, and public speaking skills. The GTIV components that encompass these are the Comprehensive Project and the Science Expo. In the Comprehensive Project, youth craft a research question, develop a debatable thesis statement, draft a research paper, use a diverse set of resources including proprietary library sources, and apply MLA standards to properly cite their research. All the while, they receive peer and Facilitator feedback to help hone their argument and develop their academic writing skills. Once the paper is completed, youth translate their project into a TED-style talk. After rehearsing and perfecting their “idea worth sharing,” they perform and record their talks for their peers. The recordings are then used for self-reflection—another tool for developing intrapersonal skills. 


In the Science Expo component, the youth work with a partner after brainstorming ideas, identifying with whom they may share a common topic for collaboration (2). They then conduct background research, generate a research question, and form a hypothesis. The teens are asked to think flexibly and creatively in order to generate an eight-week experiment that is measurable and scientifically rigorous. Often, the experimental process requires a lot of problem solving, inherent in conducting original scientific research. This is especially true for groups who incorporate original design elements in their experiments. Once experimentation has been completed, the youth analyze their data, generate graphs, and make conclusions. They learn how to write proper scientific abstracts, present their work on a professional-looking tri-fold board, and prepare remarks to share at the Science Expo in May. The culminating Science Expo is a great opportunity for the teens to practice their public speaking skills and interact with a very diverse audience, from young OC youth to grandparents.


SYL youth also have the opportunity to pursue projects of their choosing. Their annual research project is the Symposium in which they write a research paper that defends a thesis of great personal significance to them. Then, they adapt their learning and conclusions into a 15-minute presentation, supported by slideshows. The SYL Symposium project is the finale of a sequence of youth-chosen projects and presentations at OC that begin with Mini Peer Facilitations in Group Tutorial I (ages 7-8 years) and continue through all subsequent programming. The Symposium project culminates in an evening Symposium that takes place each year in March. During this event, a small group of SYL members present their Symposium topics to the OC community and general public, followed by a time of Q&A. Participating in the evening Symposium is a huge accomplishment for the teens as they work on the project for much of the program year and truly become experts on their topics. Although SYL members only participate in the evening Symposium once (usually in their second or third year), they write Symposium papers and do smaller scale presentations for their peers in the other two years they are in the program.


The final example of the youth-chosen project from SYL is the Independent Project. Some youth design science experiments such as testing how plants grow by using different fertilizers. Others engage in building projects in the woodshop like learning to use a wood lathe to shape wooden chess pieces and cups. Some teens develop skills in the Makerspace to create 3D models and prototypes of figures and cars, laser etch artwork into wood/plexiglass, or solder DIY instrument kits. Others may choose different Real Work projects that serve their passions. Young people begin these projects by assessing the resources that they need (knowledge, materials, time, etc.) and then continue to reflect on the process throughout. As projects are finished, youth create tri-fold boards that outline the phases of the work and then make a presentation to their group, explaining the process and outcome of their projects. Regardless of the project or the program, the self-directed nature of these projects promotes lasting learning.


Large-Scale Group Projects

The second hallmark of these two programs is the large-scale group projects that require collaboration and Process Consciousness (3). The GTIV group typically works on one each year. This year it was designing and implementing all aspects of an Escape Room that was opened to participants during OC’s Community Day in December. The SYL’s annual large-scale group project is an overnight trip which is fully planned and funded by the teens. Both of these large-scale projects require a tremendous amount of planning, collaboration, Flexible Thinking, problem solving, Process Conscious language, and use of Balanced Responses (4) in order to succeed. The GTIV youths’ annual project, the fruits of which are enjoyed by the OC community, prepares them for the rigors of the fundraising efforts that are necessary to make the overnight SYL trip possible. These experiences are often the ones that create the strongest bonds between the group members.


Applied Academics

The third hallmark of the GTIV and SYL programs is what we call applied academics, that is, the way OC approaches traditional academics in experiential ways, rooted in meaningful knowledge.



In mathematics, we seek to help the youth experience math in a way that highlights the interplay between the concrete and the abstract, words and symbols, and theory and practice.


In GTIV, we use several methodologies in order to accomplish this goal. We have developed a series of twenty math boxes, most of which contain a hands-on component to help youth build their skills. These include using wooden Cuisenaire rods to solve algebra and geometry problems, fraction wheels and equivalency cubes to increase fluency with fraction, decimal, and percentages, and compasses and protractors to understand relationships between angles and geometric figures. We also present youth with real world word problems so they learn how to represent these challenges using mathematical language. By being presented with open-ended problems instead of canned math worksheets, the youth develop the ability to think flexibly, recognizing that many problems have more than one way to solve them.


Once the teens move on to SYL, they have opportunities to practice their math skills through small group offerings that cover a wide range of topics and skill development. These six-week offerings include work in algebra, geometry, statistics, probability, linear algebra and set theory, to name a few areas. Math is also interwoven into real world problem solving such as deriving polynomial functions to describe the movement of a ball being launched from a ramp, using plumb lines and protractors to ensure that wooden beams are at proper angles while building a tree platform or using Google spreadsheets or solving matrices to determine how to rank order NCAA basketball teams for the annual March Madness tournament. Regardless of the program, GTIV, SYL or any other OC program, the goal is to offer developmentally appropriate mathematics with exposure to, and opportunities for, mastery of concepts.


Lab Sciences

In GTIV, youth are exposed to lab experiences in a variety of scientific disciplines in order to learn and develop the tools and mindset for precision thinking and analysis. For example, the youth use the triple beam balance, metric rulers, graduated cylinders, pipettes, and thermometers in order to measure mass, length, volume and temperature using the metric system—the language of science; they learn how to accurately measure and draw minute details of organisms under the microscope; or they design templates in order to build a structurally sound gingerbread house that can withstand shaking on an earthquake table. In another example, they conduct a longitudinal study of the earth’s rotation and revolution using a compass and sun shadow stick. The goal is that by practicing a specific set of skills in GTIV, the youth are then ready for more open-ended lab projects in SYL.


Typically, SYL labs start with a question and then it is left up to the youth to design an experiment to answer that question. This requires the teens to pull from their bank of knowledge and expertise, often in collaboration with others, capitalizing on each other’s strengths and ideas. Questions have included:

“ If given a series of metal strips, which one conducts heat the fastest?”

“What is the effect of light color on photosynthetic rate?”

“ Where do you place a cup so that a metal ball will land in it if it is rolled down a chute?”

“What factors influence the periodicity of a pendulum?”

The youth are then expected to organize their thoughts in a lab report, recording their precise design strategy through procedures and diagrams, presenting their data in graphical form, and making conclusions. Often in labs SYL youth are expected to go into greater depth than their GTIV counterparts. For example, in GTIV, youth are exposed to mineralogy by learning how to calculate the mineral densities. In SYL, youth delve into much greater detail, observing mineral fluorescence under short-wave and long-wave UV light, testing the hardness and streak color, determining the 3D geometry, and learning vocabulary terms to describe the cleavage, crystal growing habit, and unique optical and chemical properties. In the process, the youth learn to be keen observers of the world around them and more sophisticated in their ability to describe and classify it into useful organizational constructs.



The GTIV and SYL programs both expose the teens to great writers and a variety of literature representing different time periods and points of view. The GTIV group focuses on longer works by reading a book together in the fall and studying a Shakespeare play in the spring. The SYL group incorporates more variety of literature, focusing on poetry, short stories, and scenes from Shakespeare plays. In both programs, the goal is to offer open-ended questions that allow for robust discussion, as well as using performance to experience Shakespeare in three dimensions. In addition to literature, the youth in both programs engage in a variety of writing activities from creative writing to editing for common grammar misuses. Whether it is a poem or research paper, the youth are encouraged to think about writing as a means of communication and that the tools of grammar and revision are necessary to be fully understood.


Social Studies are also included in the youth’s exploration of the humanities. Both programs give special attention to US government and civics. When there are primary and presidential elections, we allow for added focus on candidates, key issues, and the democratic process. In SYL, world geography is an added component to the youth’s exploration of the humanities. Lastly, both programs use current events to discuss global and humanitarian issues. This provides the teens with perspectives and situations that are different from their own and teaches them about the world beyond their communities.


Teen Issues and Life Skills

The fourth hallmark of the OC’s programming for teens is the opportunity to address the unique development that takes place during the teen years. The GTIV and SYL programs each host annual speakers who are professionals in their fields. The guests speak about reproductive health, mental health, drugs and alcohol, and other issues that affect teens. During these sessions, the youth are able to ask questions in a confidential manner. The goal of these visits is to make sure OC teens are informed so that they can make healthy life choices.


In SYL, there is special emphasis placed on life skills that are helpful to develop as the teens transition into adults. We do this by hosting career panels and mock interviews. These opportunities allow the young people to interact with professionals in a variety of job fields, and practice their interview skills in a friendly, low-stress environment. Other life skills that we have incorporated include learning about renting an apartment, building a resume, and completing taxes.


Ownership and Personal Responsibility

The fifth and final hallmark of the teen programming at OC is ownership and personal responsibility. Beginning in GTIV, there is a shift towards having the young people manage their involvement at OC. This means that youth communicate directly with Facilitators via email, keep track of their deadlines, and take greater control of their role in the group. In GTIV, the teens also begin to participate in their parent conferences, by attending part of the meeting. This is another step they take in owning their educational path.


When youth reach SYL, they are expected to participate in an autonomous way. They set academic goals for themselves that serve as the basis of the discussion in their conferences, for which they are present the entire time. By the time youth are in the SYL program, we really want them to be taking the reigns of their education, their choices, and their lives.



Through the five hallmarks of youth-chosen projects, large-scale group projects, applied academics, teen issues and life skills, ownership and personal responsibility, the Group Tutorial IV and Shaping Your Life programs seek to equip teens at OC with skills that will serve them well after they leave OC. When they graduate, we want each youth to be firmly established in who they are, to know what they want for their lives, and have the resources to pursue the lives they want.


1 - OC’s Mission Statement: “Our mission is to help young people and adults develop the tools needed to create the life they want, full of purpose and fulfillment.

2 - For example, this year, we have a group that designed mazes on a laser cutter in the Makerspace Lab in order to test ant behavior. Another group designed and extruded plastic bullet heads on the 3D printer to test how far they could travel. A third is building wooden cases for plant seedlings to see how they affect plant growth.

3 - Process Consciousness is paying close attention to the way we interact in order to increase the probability of meeting everyone’s needs while fulfilling our goals.

4 - Balanced Response is an approach to providing feedback. You first identify 3 positive attributes of the situation and then respond with suggestions phrased in the form of “How to…,” thus allowing both parties to transition into building a solution together.




Originally published in the Summer Issue of the OPEN CONNECTIONS MAGAZINE

Written by the Facilitators of the OC Teens: Kelly Dowd, Mike Hilbert, Lucy Tyson and Sue Wenger.