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Curious Minds - WCATY Impact

WCATY Impact

As WCATY students worked through Week 2 of their fall online Academy classes, WCATY Co-Director Rebecca Vonesh sat down with Curious Minds to discuss two of the concepts at the heart of the courses they are taking: “expertise” and “learning goals.”


Curious Minds: WCATY online classes place a lot of emphasis on helping students develop “expertise.” What exactly does that mean and why is it important?


RV: We know that motivation is key to developing talent, and so to help motivate our students WCATY’s curriculum is based on a model that helps them develop the kind of high-level “expertise,” or competency and proficiency, that typically is exemplified by professionals in various fields. To do that, our courses include activities that ask students to confront the same philosophical questions and authentic problems faced by, say, professional historians or designers or engineers. We’ve found students love this kind of genuine, context-specific learning—which gives them a chance to interact with their environment—much more than rote learning.


Curious Minds: And how is a student’s level of expertise measured in an online Academy class?

RV: At WACATY, it’s all about “growth.” I love this quote, and wish I knew the source: “Whatever the new beginning is for you right now, allow yourself to be swept away by the sweet freedom that comes with it. Growth is around the corner.” 

Read more: WCATY's Rebecca Vonesh on "Expertise" and "Learning Goals"


From hundreds of engaging discussions and real-world academic experiences, to non-stop residential activities and bonding dorm time, WCATY’s Summer 2014 was an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. 

Our 2014 Summer Program enrollment grew by 5 percent over 2013, drawing 357 students from 13 states and four countries. What’s more, 89 percent said they would like to participate again next year! 

WCATY’s three residential academic camps—the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), the Summer Transitional Enrichment Program (STEP), and the Young Students Summer Program (YSSP)—offered 29 different classes. And in exit interviews, students shared sentiments such as “this camp truly changes lives,” and “I have been inspired by the potential I’ve seen in myself and in so many other people here.” Another student told us, “I love WCATY because it offers a real challenge.”

Thanks to a scholarship fund of $109,945, a total of 73 students attended a WCATY Summer Program on a full or partial scholarship. Said one scholarship student, “I would like to give back to WCATY someday by donating to WCATY so other youths who enjoy learning can have a great intellectual and social experience there.”

According to exit survey data, 98 percent of students rated the program they attended “Excellent” or “Good.” A total of 93 percent said they became more knowledgeable as a result of the program, and 90 percent said they achieved their main goals and enjoyed being in an academically challenging environment.

Participants included 138 students new to WCATY and 16 WCATY alumni who returned as either instructional or residential assistants.

Ola Skyba is a co-director of WCATY.


Running WCATY’s six-week, summer enrichment camp marathon is not new to me. After all, this was my fourth summer as either the program’s head resident assistant or the site coordinator. Looking back at my previous summers, I can define them in certain ways: “That was the year of the record-breaking heat,” or “That was the summer of non-stop campus construction.” With the conclusion of the 2014 summer, I am able to reflect back on my personal summer experience once again. From my viewpoint, 2014 was the “summer of student engagement.”

Even before summer began, the WCATY Student Council had helped reshape elements of our summer program policies and designed the camp posters. Student Council members also were deeply involved in planning the first, annual WCATY Alumni Event, held on June 27, in the Upper Carson Gulley Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. There, WCATY alumni, community members, instructors, staff members, and students attending the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) gathered for an evening of food, chatter, and laughter. The purpose: to help them all reconnect with WCATY in support of its newest generation of students. Highlights of the event included the Lip Sync Contest, which never disappoints. This past year was no different; of special note was the rendition of “I Will Survive,” performed by a group of commuter students! 

Read more: The Summer of Student Engagement

The innovative format of WCATY Academy courses combines online and in-person instruction in a blended curriculum that targets the solving of intellectual dilemmas. The online portion can host a seemingly infinite array of instructional and collaborative activities, such as class discussions, polls, collaborative group projects, wikis, research activities, and various assessment strategies. Anyone who has experienced an Academy course knows how multi-layered and nuanced the online portion of the class can be.

Both WCATY instructors and students spend a considerable amount of time assessing student learning—essentially the “output” of the course—throughout each nine-week session. For example, instructors provide regular, individualized feedback through forum responses, private messages, and graded assignments. Students are asked to assemble portfolios of their best work.

But how do we assess the “input” of a complicated online instructional venture? It’s an especially challenging task in that one cannot simply “walk through” and observe online instruction in the same way one observes instruction taking place in a traditional classroom. Within WCATY we are working to develop tools to better assess the online instructional environment; such tools both leverage existing research on digital learning and respond to the unique needs of WCATY teachers and students.

Read more: Assessing Online Learning Environments

WCATY online Academy courses are often structured around fictional storylines involving core conflicts, an approach that gives students the opportunity to solve problems integral to specific professional identities.

For example, students might explore traditional Language Arts content related to communication by investigating the questions robotics experts tackle, including: How does one develop a robot that responds to emotional communication?

Given WCATY’s goal of helping students achieve expert-level skills, its courses feature curriculum acknowledging the complexity in the real world. Whether a lab scientist, schoolteacher, or doctor, professionals absorb knowledge to answer questions and solve problems—problems that do not necessarily fit into traditional subject-area boxes. They involve a variety of content areas and require a variety of skills. They are integrated. Therefore, a robotics-themed course might need to incorporate elements of math, computer science, engineering, and sociology.

Course designers first select a topic (e.g., robotics) from student-generated suggestion lists, and identify a professional persona (e.g., robotics expert) through which the course’s content (e.g., communication) can be explored in an interesting way. They then identify various problems typically addressed by that professional, including an overarching central problem around which the course is structured. In this case, the central problem might explore the elements involved in verbal communication beyond the actual words uttered, providing opportunities for reading and writing activities that include dissonant perspectives and meet a variety of student needs.

Read more: How to Build Complicating Problems