Sol Learning Institute brings hands-on learning to Nevada County youth | TheUnion.com
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Sol Learning Institute brings hands-on learning to Nevada County youth

Victoria Penate
Staff Writer

Teacher and educator development professional Travis Duckworth opened the Sol Learning Institute last month, beginning its first term teaching local high schoolers about sustainability through hands-on learning.

The enrichment program, which takes place on a Nevada City property owned by Duckworth, focuses on architecture, economics, and sustainability in agriculture. These are all taught through project-based modules within the larger project of learning to grow food, build and power homes, and develop entrepreneurship in the context of starting a homestead from scratch.

The program is led primarily by Duckworth, although he has organized visits from experts for instruction on certain topics. Last month, these included local farmers who led students in the worm composting process one week in early September, and in cheesemaking the next. Other topics covered so far have included building framing, rubble trench foundations, and water and energy sourcing.

Duckworth previously taught science and sustainability for two years at the Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning. He said this position, as well as prior experience as a math teacher in Texas, gives him some insight into the value of project-based learning — and the limits to working within a rigid educational environment.

“In this case, because this (program) is more of an enrichment and not dictated by specific annual standards … the projects are really dictated by the idea that, if you step onto a blank slate — a blank piece of land — where do you begin, and where do you go from there?” said Duckworth. He said the advantages of hosting the program on his own property, rather than collaborating with a local school or other farm, are that he can plan for more in-depth projects knowing they won’t need to be “packed up” at any point, and the property can serve as a demonstration site for members of the community to visit.

For its first term, the high school workshop is operating in a 12-person cohort two days per week, a schedule Duckworth said has worked well so far as the students primarily attend their respective high schools in a distance learning format. He said that, as local districts plan transitions to hybrid instructional models, scheduling for Sol Learning will remain flexible in order to best work alongside the students’ formal schooling.

“There’s a really innate human desire to play a role in your community, whether that’s your global community or your local community,” he said, explaining that this desire has guided him both in adapting curriculum and scheduling in real time to meet students’ needs, and in pursuing accessibility for the program.

“I really do want to see this inside of public schools, but for the time being, this (format) makes sense,” he said, emphasizing that, although this program is considered private education, his aim is for it to become increasingly accessible to local youth regardless of background or ability to pay tuition. He said some of the program’s current students are enrolled at a reduced or fully waived tuition rate, made possible by scholarship funds contributed by Duckworth and other members of the community.

“As you get kids doing something with such relevance, you see their confidence grow, you see them evolve as human beings, you see them feel like they can tackle anything thrown their way,” said Duckworth.

Victoria Penate is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at vpenate@theunion.com.


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