Business, schools combine for cool learning experience
May 9, 2006

Next fall, one of the most unusual, innovative ideas in American grade-school education will be implemented citywide to narrow a serious knowledge gap in two key subject areas: how to cope with society, and how to look at the world around us.

Virtually all of the more than 30,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in Chicago's public and private schools are scheduled to participate in a new course conducted through a remarkable partnership of the Chicago Board of Education and private business.

The key partner and driving force of the program isn't part of any conventional educational system at all, but a private company founded predominantly by individual Chicago investors and dedicated to explaining to kids early what our urban economy is all about, and what they might choose to do with their lives.

Through the new concept of "total immersion education," the curriculum plunges fourth-graders into the nature sciences, the environment, ecology and career opportunities in every path from botanist to forest ranger to geologist to zoologist.

Then it immerses fifth-graders into "Exchange City," a model metropolis that enables kids to take real-life roles in acting as mayor for a day, or fire chief or banker or TV cameraman or store owner -- all of whom interact in a simulated downtown environment.

These scenarios are being created by an educational company called Experiencia World, which developed the curriculum, staffed a faculty training team and built a brand new facility in a vintage North Side building at 770 N. Halsted.

With its headquarters on the seventh floor, Experiencia converted the entire 25,000 square feet of the fifth and sixth floors into a hands-on "immersion learning center" that will host 200 kids per day.

The fifth floor has become a nature preserve called Earthworks, replete with a simulated forest habitat, wetlands, animal haven, botanical park, forest ranger station and facilities to enable exploration of 30 different science careers.

After 40 hours of preparation work in their own grade school classrooms with special materials and teacher training provided by Experiencia, the students, teachers and even parents take a one-day field trip to the Halsted center for an interactive learning experience.

At the same time, the sixth-floor "Exchange City" will host fifth-graders, culminating 40 hours of classroom preparation in civics, social studies, business and economic fundamentals and personal finance.

They and their parents will spend a full day in roles as vendors, government officials and professional services, learning how a city and economy operate. They'll even earn a play-money salary and be able to spend it, lend it, or invest it. They'll learn about checking accounts and what savings and interest mean.

And they'll publish their own daily newspaper from a model newsroom.

"Education is too vital to be left to depend purely on charity and government," says Experiencia Chairman Howard Tullman. "We've got to begin reversing a serious apathy among America's youngsters, and kindle a real thirst for knowledge."

In endorsing and supporting the program, Chicago Public School Superintendent Arne Duncan says, "I can't think of a better way to make learning truly fun for our kids than to have them play mayor, police chief, bank teller or judge or forest ranger. It will give them a genuine sense of how they fit into society."

Chicago Federal Reserve Bank President Michael Moskow, an Experiencia board member, adds, "Money-smart kids grow up to be money-smart adults, but we've got a long way to go. We must fight widespread misconceptions and impart understanding about economic life, stocks, bonds and even credit-card finance charges."

Symbolizing the depth and spirit of partnership provided by dozens of sponsoring Chicago businesses is LaSalle Bank CEO Norm Bobins, who is leading the charge.

Standing between the elegant-though-make-believe Ionic pillars of his model bank in Exchange City last week, Bobins emphasized, "We learn best by not just reading but doing -- and doing it in a real life setting. This fresh approach will make education exciting again."

Ted Pincus is a finance professor at DePaul and an independent communications consultant and journalist.