One of the driving questions of Fiacre Bienvenu’s career as a scholar of politics emerged when he was just 14 years old. He and his family were Tutsi, an ethnic minority group in Rwanda who faced discrimination under the Hutu-led regime. Between April and July of 1994, between 500,000-662,000 Tutsi were killed suddenly, brutally, and en masse by Hutu gangs. Bienvenu lost several members of his immediate family.
With his mother and his siblings, he managed to escape to a humanitarian camp run by U.N. peacekeeping forces, but the event would remain a formative trauma with difficult, irresolvable questions at its center.
After decades spent studying political theory, teaching at the college level, and working for NGOs, Bienvenu still doesn’t have a satisfactory answer. But he does have a unique appreciation for irresolvable social and political problems – the kind for which no one explanation will ever be sufficient. Africa is defined by such complexities, and they are at the center of Advanced African Politics, a first-year offering at Ransom Everglades.
“The way an African thinks, imagines, and conceives of the world is actually built from complexity,” Bienvenu said. “There is a lot of material for our intellectually curious students to understand that.”
Advanced African Politics represents a new kind of humanities course in several ways. First of all, like Advanced American Studies, it is a completely home-grown, year-long, 500-level seminar – not based on any AP, nor even based on any particular college course.
It is the product of Bienvenu’s own knowledge and experience of the region, as well as his political science expertise. It is also the first politics course in RE history that focuses exclusively on Africa, a continent often flattened and disregarded by Western media and political scholarship.
“Africa is not this peripheral place which we tend to think of in a more caricatured way, as the museum of misery in the great chain of human evolution and change,” Bienvenu said. “There’s actually agency to the people of Africa.”
Early projects in the course are allowing students to confront those misconceptions head-on – first by conducting interviews in which they gauge what the average American knows and thinks about Africa, and then by exploring the many ways in which what we tend to think of as “Western” history was shaped by African influence.
They will debate difficult questions. They will study contemporary African film. And they will also have the freedom to delve into their own research interests. To Bienvenu, the promise of the course is not just intellectual but, in a sense, strategic. By the 2050s, “one in four people who inhabit our world will be an African,” and no one will be able to disregard the continent’s geopolitical significance. To arm our students with a lifelong curiosity about Africa is to invest in their ability to be part of that conversation.
Knowing a species, inside and out
If misconceptions about Africa are common, so, too, are misconceptions about sharks. Last October, the popular Instagram account @OnlyinDade posted a video of a hammerhead shark circling two unsuspecting beachgoers swimming in the water off South Beach. “Ignorance is bliss,” the caption read.
But to RE’s resident shark scientists Kristine Stump and Heather Marshall, true ignorance lurks in content precisely like that post – content sensationalizing the dangers of sharks as nefarious human-eaters that we should avoid at any cost.
“I think that people don’t understand that there is absolutely no shark species on the planet that purposefully includes humans as part of their diet,” explained Stump, a six-year faculty member at RE who earned her PhD in Marine Biology and Fisheries from the University of Miami. “People are always like, ‘My God, if I see a shark, what do I do?’ Take a picture. They have all five senses that we do, plus a couple extra. They know you’re there way before you do. If you see one, you’re lucky enough that it has come close enough to just check you out.”
From Stump’s and Marshall’s vantage point, if students walk away from their new course, Biology and Ecology of Sharks, simply armed with the ability to “Well, actually…” the anti-shark fearmongerers who fill @OnlyinDade comment sections, they will consider the course a success.
But they also have much higher aspirations. The course, a 300-level, one-semester STEM elective that is running for the first time this year, promises to give students a uniquely comprehensive understanding of some of the most intriguing creatures who live in RE’s (literal) backyard. Before coming to RE, Stump did her graduate work in shark ecology; Marshall, a friend and collaborator who did her own graduate work at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, studied shark anatomy and physiology. The new course combines both approaches, giving students a bifocal view of sharks themselves and the dangers they face.
“We’ll talk about their reproduction, their growth, and then we’ll start getting into the topics that I focus on, like nursery habitats and migration patterns,” Stump explained. “We will even meld the two approaches together: how can you use physiological data and movement data to make better management decisions and policies?”
The course builds off the success of Marine Field Research, a hugely popular STEM elective that has been co-taught by Stump, Kelly Jackson and Brooke Gintert – all of whom hold doctorates in marine biology or adjacent fields. Like that course, which has now been shortened to one semester to invite even more student participation, Biology and Ecology of Sharks has a practical and experiential focus. Students will go out on the boat frequently, encountering, observing and even tagging sharks.
“We’ll also be sharing with them what it means to be a marine scientist and to be in the shark research field. When planning on working with sharks, how do you go about finding them and capturing them? What are some of the tags we use to go with the sampling we do?” Marshall said.
Stump and Marshall can think of no other for-credit high school course on the Eastern seaboard that focuses on sharks in this way. It is an academic experience afforded by a unique confluence of factors: RE’s location on Biscayne Bay, the access to the water facilitated by RE Dockmaster Dave Sanderson and also, of course, the fact that RE has two card-carrying shark scientists on its faculty.
“RE is just in such a unique position to offer this type of course,” said Marshall. “I think it’s a chance for our students to delve a little bit deeper in a way they haven’t had access to before.”
Predicting the future, one algorithm at a time
How does Netflix know that you’re probably going to watch a gratuitous true-crime documentary? How does your iPhone know that you took a photo of Aunt Cecilia? How exactly did ChatGPT figure out how to write a song about cake in the style of Rufus Wainwright? The answer is machine learning – a form of computation that essentially runs the world these days, for better or worse.
Four years ago, STEM teacher Luis Felipe created the Applied Data Science course at RE, a yearlong STEM elective in which students use programming tools to sort, parse and make sense of large datasets. Advanced Machine Learning is the new follow-up, now in its second year, for students who have already taken that course: an intense, project-based foray into the predictive powers of modern algorithms.
“Predictive” is the key word. In his other role as RE’s new Institutional Research Coordinator, responsible for analyzing a huge variety of datasets for the school, Felipe doesn’t actually use machine learning at all. Data science involves parsing the data we already have. Machine learning involves training an algorithm to predict new data points – “unknown” data points that nevertheless follow recognizable patterns.
The course starts with foundational concepts and some classic machine learning problems. One example: How might we use a machine learning algorithm to predict if someone survived the Titanic
, based on data points like class, gender and age?
“I think it’s skills, but I don’t want ‘skills’ to be limited to, ‘Can I add or subtract? Can I write an argument in an essay?’ I think it’s bigger than that. [These courses] don’t fit neatly into these very traditional disciplines. They’re about developing habits of mind from many perspectives.”
Associate Head of School John A. King Jr.
Students then pursue projects in any field that strikes their interest. Last year, students created algorithms that could predict heart disease, create “more comprehensive college rankings,” and even lend some order to the chaos of the stock market. Elliott Gross ’24 created an algorithm that can predict the stability of super-heavy elements – an impactful project at the intersection of machine learning and physics that he is planning to present at conferences.
No more quizzes and tests: The projects are big, open-ended, and entirely student-driven. “I teach you the tools, you pick the area where you want to research,” Felipe said. “I think that it’s probably more similar to an English course or history course than to a physics course in that regard. I can’t say to them, ‘Hey, you have a week for this.’ These are complex projects.”
The course demands that they think beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Five percent of the grade asks them to put their projects into a portfolio that they can use for future opportunities: jobs, fellowships, competitive internships, college projects. Students in Advanced Machine Learning get another five percent for “extracurricular engagement”: demonstrating that they’ve used the tools elsewhere.
“You want an A+ in this class? You will not get it without applying machine learning to another class that you are taking, or collaborating with a student, or using it in an entrepreneurial competition or your Bowden Fellowship,” Felipe said. “I want you to grow in the direction that you want to.”
Telling stories in digital worlds
It all starts with a cube: a six-sided cube with intricate designs on each side. Look at it through a phone camera, though, and each side turns into something else: a 3D model vignette, crafted to represent a scene or a moment from a person’s life. As you spin the cube around and move from one vignette to another, each side becomes a piece of the larger story of the person who made it – Ransom Everglades middle schoolers tasked with representing who they are in a new, nonlinear medium.
That’s the first project in Pedro Silva’s Virtual Reality course, a middle school computer science elective running for the second time this year. If the phrase “Virtual Reality course” conjures images of an entire classroom of students outfitted with futuristic headsets, rest assured: this class is that. In any given class period, you might find them strapped into sleek, white Meta Quest 2s, testing and sharing experiences that they’ve created – or testing and sharing augmented reality projects, like the Merge Cube, that enhance the physical world through a phone screen.
But the course is also much more than just an opportunity for students to play around with interesting tech. Silva has made it into a lab for experimental storytelling – a space where they can explore the potential of these technologies to represent the world, or the self, in new and meaningful ways.
“How do you express yourself or tell your story in ways that you are not used to? How do you combine traditional media into new media? How can you make text interactive – or even a song interactive? Certain media are strong at conveying certain things. You’re not restricted to one in this class. Pick the story you want to tell, and pick the medium that fits,” Silva said.
Silva’s philosophy is rooted in his background. Before he was a computer scientist, he was a creative writer with an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Like many writers with an interest in technology, he found himself gravitating toward the work of Janet H. Murray, a pioneering scholar in the field of digital humanities who runs an experimental storytelling lab at Georgia Tech. Soon enough, Silva joined Murray’s lab himself, working toward a PhD in new media and contributing to projects at the vanguard of digital expression, including a new form of interactive video that can take the story in different directions based on the input of the viewer.
When Silva joined the RE community, he took on an unprecedented task: bringing the digital humanities to the middle school – and along with it, some of the wild energy of Murray’s lab. Students spend some time in the headset, but they spend the majority of their time making things for the headset using digital tools, like a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque theme park ride that brings the user through 3D dioramas based on books they’ve read in other courses.
For Silva, the stakes are high. Our students live profoundly digital lives already. VR keeps evolving, and Silva thinks some form of it will come to dominate daily experience.
“I think virtual reality is going to be the social media of 15 years from now,” he said. “I feel like my mission as a computer scientist is to try to pull them a little bit back from technology [to understand] how it’s a wonderful solution to a lot of problems, but also the cause of many others.”
In 15 years, creating worlds in VR may not be as novel as it is in 2023. But for now, it brings students into a wide-open possibility space.
“The medium is evolving. It’s an awesome, Wild West, experimental place out there,” Silva said.
What habits of mind will serve students as they march into the 21st century’s chaotic and uncharted middle? That’s the question these courses have been designed to answer as they bring students into “new intellectual spaces,” with the support and guidance of educators whose enthusiasm matches their expertise.
“I think that when we couple interests with skills, we get to achieve what we know our kids need,” Rodriguez reflected. “It’s about what they get to achieve.”