A few years ago, Math Department Chair Ed Brown, who directs Gill St. Bernard’s longstanding unit program, attended a conference about experiential learning trips for schools. While there, he was astounded to find that many of his peers still had much to learn about critical topics for student travel, such as safety and security. “I took away from the conference even more confidence in our unit program,” he said. “We’ve been at this a long time and many topics that still seemed fuzzy to our peer schools are areas that we have dealt with for many years now,” he said. While he is quick to dismiss the idea that he has become an experiential-learning guru, Brown does acknowledge that Gill has an edge when it comes to implementing these programs. “Gill has been at this for 45 years, and all the procedures are in place,” he explains. “We’ve gained a lot of practical experience and institutional knowledge. It’s hard to compare our program to those offered by other schools because there’s nothing else like it.”
The two-week unit that Gill runs today has evolved since the program began in the early 1970s, but the focus has remained on experiential learning, in-depth study, community service and incorporating travel into academic education. In the 70s, students immersed themselves in a single academic subject for five to seven weeks. At the conclusion of the school year, students would have delved into six or seven subjects. Interestingly, the course load hasn’t changed since then, simply the format. The rationale behind the scheduling was that it allowed faculty members to readily incorporate field trips, guest speakers, travel and work-study opportunities into the curriculum. It also allowed the students to really immerse themselves in areas of particular interest and create independent study courses under the guidance of faculty members.
As the school grew and adopted a more traditional course format, the unit evolved into its current two-week iteration, held at the conclusion of each academic year. Although students are often quick to cite travel—especially to exotic destinations—as one of the program’s hallmarks, the unit is grounded in academic study. A recent trip to Iceland, for example, focused on alternative energy. Before the trip, a Nobel-Prize-winning professor from Lehigh University visited campus to talk about climate change and students toured a wind farm and a nuclear power plant. In Iceland, the students also visited “hot spots” and geothermal power stations as part of an exploration into the country’s energy infrastructure.
When asked about the Iceland trip, Brown reflected, “Students hear they are going to Iceland and say ‘How cool!’ and we tell parents that to them it feels as though they are allowed to watch as much TV as they want but we know that it will be a steady diet of the history and learning channels.” He adds, “The objective is to make learning fun and explore topics that students are interested in.”
Often, students end up choosing a college, a major or a career based on a unit experience. After an excursion to China, the late Tom Kelly ’87 went to work in the pharmaceutical industry, eventually becoming vice president for Sanofi-Aventis Asia. Kelly was so affected by the trip, that Sanofi-Aventis, with the help of Kelly's family, endowed the China unit in his memory, ensuring that it run at least every three years. A three-year cycle means that any interested student will have the opportunity to go during his or her time in the Upper School. When Kelly was a student, Gill already had considerable experience running the China unit; in fact, they were the first school in the United States to send students to China in the early 70s, after relations opened between the two countries.
Highlights of more recent unit trips include the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory at the Institute for Advanced Study, staying at Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, building a home in Guatemala for a family in need, touring Google in Silicon Valley and teaching a Head Start class in some of the state’s urban centers.