Students Learn By Getting Out of the Classroom

by Sindhu Tharayil

With the current vernacular of America's youth and a wide Cheshire cat-like grin, John Dillow, Director of Shipboard Programs at Living Classrooms Foundation (LCF), could easily be mistaken for one of his students. His effervescent energy and passion for his work are necessary ingredients in accomplishing LCF's goal of challenging and educating students, with special attention paid to at-risk youths, through interactive, hands-on learning programs.
Founded by G. Dennis O'Brien in 1985, LCF, a private nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, has grown to serve over 30,000 students a year through 35 different programs. Mr. O'Brien, who now sits on the LCF Board of Trustees, was a teacher at McDonogh School who, according to Mr. Dillow, "saw a need for kids to experience learning which is now known as experiential education."
It was Mr. O'Brien's dream and tireless funding efforts which gave way to the purchase of a tall ship, a pungee schooner called The Lady Maryland, and allowed students to begin shipboard education programs which focused on science, math, marine and navigational studies. Today, LCF uses three additional historic wooden boats in its programs: the Mildred Bell, an oyster buy boat; and two skipjacks, the Sigsbee and the Minnie V. The boats are moored by the lighthouse at Pier 5 on the Inner Harbor.
With its original on-the-water focus, LCF was originally known as The Lady Maryland Foundation, but due to the rapid programming growth and acquisition of additional facilities, the Foundation renamed itself Living Classrooms. Most of its $2 million annual operating budget comes in the form of grants. Other revenue sources include special events, client fees and private contributions.
According to Scott Raymond, managing director of LCF, "People are willing to contribute if you produce quality results, and after eleven years in this business, we've honed our skills to the point that we do a pretty good job."
What ever happened to the book-learning of yesteryear? Mr. Dillow states that teachers today must compete with movies and video games and must deal with such intrusions as guns in classrooms. Therefore, more creative and innovative teaching strategies are necessary to hold students' attention.
"If you look at the overall trends in education," he says, "you can see students in the classroom doing more hands-on type learning where they have to critically think, problem-solve and work in groups. They [students] learn more by doing."
LCF now operates most of its land programs at its complex of buildings at 802 South Caroline Street, in the Fell's Point area. In addition to the Maritime Institute building, LCF's new Weinberg Education Center is used by students for computer analysis projects and for laboratory testing to assess air and water quality.
LCF's Oyster Restoration Project allows students to assist in the preservation and rejuvenation of 200,000 oyster seeds while applying their math and science skills.
Not many people would associate llamas with education, but these pack animals are used to gain students' attention on the Emory Knoll Farm, an LCF site located in northern Harford County. In this rural setting, students learn about these gentle creatures, as well as about Native American history and environmental science.
Fresh Start offers job training for students who have been through the juvenile court system. Students who graduate from this rigorous nine-month manufacturing program are offered employment at TICO Enterprises, primarily a woodworking company formed by Fresh Start alumni. TICO Enterprises is now in transition and will develop into a broader-based company that will focus on job training skills in the construction field.
About 25 percent of LCF participants are involved in job training and school dropout prevention programs, while the remainder take part primarily in day programs that are designed with public schools in mind. Though students might be on site for only a day, their regular teachers will have led them through a six-week pre-trip curriculum, and they will have additional learning experiences based on the LCF program after they return to their schools.
The hands-on problem-solving approach appears to be working well. Mr. Raymond says that in a recent survey of classroom teachers, 96% respondents felt LCF's programs were "extremely successful" in helping students achieve better results on Maryland achievement tests.

For more information on the Living Classrooms Foundation, call (410) 685-0295.

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This story was published on March 5, 1997.