Albright College’s Science Research Institute gaining international attention.

Adele Schade never expected this; she never imagined getting this far this fast.

It’s not something she pictured back in 2015 when she launched the Science Research Institute at Conrad Weiser High School, a program where students got a chance to dive headfirst into their own, in-depth scientific projects. And even when the institute moved to Albright College in early 2020, she wasn’t dreaming of being where she is today.

“I never saw it going to the international level, and especially not this fast,” Schade said, smiling as she sat in a conference room in Albright’s Teel Hall.

But that’s exactly what has happened.

Schade was part of a team from Albright that was recently invited to an event at the United Nations, where the science institute’s Total Experience Learning initiative was a featured project.

The experience was just part of a quickly growing national and international reputation for the science institute and its mission to change the way classrooms operate.

Total Experience Learning

The whole idea behind Total Experience Learning is to get students involved in their own education, to allow them to use their own creativity and innovation to shape their school days.

And to do that, students must get a chance to have authentic learning experiences where they can conduct their own research and hone their literacy, communication and entrepreneurial skills.

Schade has been working to perfect that style of education since her time teaching at Conrad Weiser.

Her students, through the high school’s version of the research institute, dove into topics like trying to find an herbal alternative to Prozac, cancer research, searching for ways to combat the invasive spotted lanternfly or creating advanced bandages that dissolve into wounds.

The institute eventually expanded past the borders of the Conrad Weiser School District and officially went countywide when Schade moved to Albright in February 2020. The college version of the institute offers all sorts of programs and other opportunities to students in grades five through 12.

It has also begun offering training in Total Experience Learning to local teachers as a way to provide new, exciting opportunities for students.

“If you really want to reach students, you have to look to the teachers,” Schade said.

And reach them they have. Schade said that 170 Berks teachers have been trained in Total Experience Learning, and every training program the institute holds fills up in the blink of an eye.

Albright President Dr. Jacquelyn S. Fetrow said the warm response to Total Experience Learning stems from the way it is returning classrooms to the hands of teachers.

“Good teaching matters, and somehow in this country we’ve forgotten that,” she said. “We decided, when No Child Left Behind came in, that we were going to teach to the test. And teachers didn’t want to teach anymore.”

Total Experience Learning completely changes the classroom dynamic, Fetrow said, noting that it returns the focus to teaching kids how to learn instead of just memorizing facts and formulas.

“I see the opportunity for students and teachers to find the joy in education again,” Fetrow said.

So far, the returns on Total Experience Learning are positive.

While data had only just begun rolling in, Fetrow said classrooms using the mode of education have shown significant increases in reading and math scores as well as less time for students spent in English as a second language courses. One school even saw a decrease in tardiness.

“If we just change the way we manage a classroom and support teachers we can see the results,” Fetrow said.

Just as importantly, teachers using Total Experience Learning have reported higher job satisfaction.

“We have teachers saying they’ve changed how their classroom runs and now they feel like they can teach again,” Fetrow said.

Growing quickly

Ever since the move to Albright, the institute’s growth has exploded.

The college provides after-school programs as well as a monthlong summer program. It hosts a weekly get-together for teachers to chat about their experiences with Total Experience Learning.

And work has begun on a brand-new, $90 million facility for the institute on Albright’s campus. The project will turn Albright’s Camp Building into a state-of-the-art science center and home base for Total Experience Learning.

A conceptual rendering of the new Albright Science Research Institute facility. (Courtesy of Albright College)
A conceptual rendering of the new Albright Science Research Institute facility. (Courtesy of Albright College)

Topping it all off is the expansion of the Total Experience Learning training initiative.

Local teachers and school districts have embraced the idea, taking the concept and running with it, Schade said. And that has brought attention from outside the county’s borders.

“If I had to put a feeling on it, it’s pride in the teachers,” she said. “It’s really a bottom-up movement, it’s a classroom of teachers and students figuring things out.

“And now, building on what Berks teachers have been doing, that’s the reason we’re enjoying this success. Berks teachers are putting this on the map.”

Educators from across Pennsylvania have been inquiring about the initiative as well as similar ones from across the U.S. and world. And the recent recognition from the United Nations has only increased interest in what the institute is doing.

International Year of Glass

The institute’s involvement with the United Nations came about through its use of a specific material in some of its student research projects — bioactive glass.

Bioactive glass can be used to make devices that are implanted in the human body. They degrade and dissolve in body fluids and can act as a vehicle for ions that are beneficial for healing.

The material is just one example of the myriad ways glass can be used. And that diversity is why the U.N. decided to name 2022 the International Year of Glass.

2022 was the United Nations' International Year of Glass. (Courtesy of Albright College)
2022 was the United Nations’ International Year of Glass. (Courtesy of Albright College)

The U.N. dedicates each year to a certain subject — or, in most years, a few subjects — that it thinks deserves to be highlighted.

“Each year the U.N. has an international year of something,” Fetrow said. “It’s something the U.N. holds up as important to the world. There are celebrations in different countries, and it culminates with an exhibit at the U.N.”

Back in 2020 it was the International Year of Plant Health and International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, for example. The International Year of Quinoa was 2013, the International Year of Freshwater was 2003.

The U.N picked glass as the subject for 2022. While that may seem strange to the average person who thinks of glass as something used in window panes or kitchenware, those in the know realize the material is much, much more.

“What’s fascinating to me about this is hearing from all of the scientists and artists who utilize glass in 50 million ways you would never think of,” Fetrow said. “You can make glass with so many different chemicals. You can make glass do almost anything by changing its chemicals.”

The work that Science Research Institute students have done with bioactive glass drew the attention of the U.S. Year of Glass contingent. In particular, that through Total Experience Learning elementary, middle and high school students were doing hands-on research.

“The thing that made us unique is that we’re the only initiative focused on K-12 educators,” Schade said.

Fetrow said the material science isn’t typically taught to younger students or even those in high school. In fact, she said, much of that work only begins at the graduate school level.

Albright was invited to take part in a Year of Glass panel during a celebration in Washington in April, sharing details about the Total Experience Learning initiative and the unique opportunities it provides for students.

And in October, a group of educators from the U.S. and around the world — including Missouri, Ohio, the Philippines, Germany, Brazil and Croatia — came to Albright to get a more in-depth look at the initiative. They visited classrooms in the Gov. Mifflin and Wyomissing school districts and had a day of training with teachers from the Reading School District and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown.

“They saw trained teachers in action,” Schade said.

In December, Schade and Fetrow, along with Total Experience Learning executive board member Dr. Kathleen Richardson, headed to New York for the U.N.’s culminating event. There, a video about the Science Research Institute’s Total Experience Learning initiative was shown inside one of the U.N.’s chambers.

“Being in the chamber, that’s when it hit me,” Schade said. “We were sitting there with people from all over the world and Albright was up on the screen.”

Schade said Albright’s involvement with the U.N. has provided recognition and exposure for the Science Research Institute and provided the opportunity to make special connections. She said officials from the Philippines, for example, are eager to bring Total Experience Learning to their country as soon as this fall.

Fetrow said trying to figure out how to proceed with requests like that will be the next step for Albright. It will take some time to figure out the best way to export Total Experience Learning to those who want to bring it to their classrooms.

“We have the opportunity now to explore what it takes to take this model national and international,” she said. “We have to figure out out to maintain quality, if it makes financial sense. But the opportunity is there to spread this kind of education, and that will benefit the U.S. and the world.”

Fetrow said future expansion of the initiative will likely take place slowly, with the institute running pilot programs to work out the best ways to teach Total Experience Learning on a larger scale.

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