Building Understanding

Building Understanding
by Danny Stock

We wouldn’t dare begin an article for Georgetown Days by quoting an educational theorist like Jean Piaget, who said: “The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover.” A snoozer of a sentence like that and you, reader, might drift off to the photo captions—though let’s be honest, you’ve probably already read those. 

Far better to begin with a pair of 6th graders setting sail down a Middle School hallway on a Viking ship they crafted from cardboard. Or a junior proudly holding in the palm of his hand a tiny replica of the Circus Maximus in Rome. 

(Though if we did, hypothetically, dare to begin with Piaget— or John Dewey or Maria Montessori—it would be to offer living proof of the active-learning principles they championed: Whether constructing with LEGO®, cardboard, or clay, it all just clicks better when students are building it.)

It all just clicks better when students are building it.

Jake Teitelbaum ’30 shows his ancient Greek trireme

Jake Teitelbaum ’30 shows his ancient Greek trireme, a war galley with three banks of oars.

Ella McKenzie '30 presents her project on ancient Greek symbols

Ella McKenzie ’30 presents her project on ancient Greek symbols.


“At first you just learn stuff, which is interesting, but then you get to use that information to create something,” 4th grader Jake Teitelbaum said about the learn-then-build sequence in 4th-grade ancient civilizations study. “The feeling of being able to make that really cool thing from the parts that I have learned about is really fun.” 

As students studied ancient India, China, Greece, and the kingdoms of West Africa, they made models, three-dimensional maps, and dioramas. Their “living map” of Africa, for example, began only with general geographic features but soon grew, like a living thing, to include trade routes, salt mines, and other key locations that helped the continent’s medieval civilizations thrive. 


Sixth-grade Viking shipbuilders Parker Dunbar and Samuel Leveton raised the mast on their warship and invited classmates to climb aboard.

History students in 6th grade designed exhibits on Mesopotamia, the Malian Empire, the Vikings, the Romans, the Aztecs, and the Mayans for a fictional museum of ancient civilizations called the Mythsonian. 

Arav Bapna, Della Blum, Julia Nahon, and Nathan Mwenje teamed up to create a three-dimensional display of a village in ancient Mali that Mansa Musa, King of Kings, passed on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. The display featured a temple, a gold mine, and a camel caravan with gold spilling out of the saddlebags.

“It’s more engaging to build a whole village,” Della said. “And having multiple people in a group helped us collaborate and get more ideas.” 

“Or we could give each other feedback,”  Arav said. 

“We were able to offer help if someone needed something,” Nathan added.

Fellow 4th grader Zuri Wilson deeply researched ancient canals in India so she could authentically represent the scene in her diorama. 

“I brainstormed with some of my friends what we would put where,” Zuri said. “We needed to know a lot about the color of the river and what kinds of plants and trees existed in that area at that time. You have to know what to put where because you don’t want to make something that is not realistic. I think that is pretty cool.”

(L-R) Rafa Westelius, Brendan Chu, and Gavin Solomon with the Mesopotamian Tower of Babel

(L-R) Sixth graders Christian Jackson, Cia Carr, Maceo Lindsey, and Layla Squire with their Mythsonian Museum exhibition on Ancient Rome

(L-R) Welcome to ancient Mali! Diorama by 6th graders Julia Nahon, Arav Bapna, Della Blum, and Nathan Mwenje







Noah Shelton ’22 was intrigued by the polyspaston, an ancient treadwheel crane. ​​​

In Nicola McCutcheon’s High School Introduction to Latin Literature class, students worked with the digital engineering app Tinkercad to create 3-D replicas of Roman architectural marvels. 

“We had the freedom to get into whatever we found interesting,” said Simrin Reed ’22, who made an ancient aqueduct model. “As I looked into how to build [my model], I learned about so many themes and topics,” she explained. 

Maker-in-Residence Matthew Bachiochi, who runs the school’s Innovation Lab, said assignments like this open great possibilities for teaching and learning. 

“It’s fun for teachers to have ways of assessing students that aren’t only on a piece of paper,” said Bachiochi, who taught the students to design and print their 3-D structures. “Creating a board game or redesigning a monument they’ve been learning about can offer a fantastic way to think outside the pantheon of traditional assessments.”

Roman architectural marvels printed by students in High School Latin Literature. 

For Senior Leo Cooper, the assignment was a trip down memory lane. In 5th grade, Leo had used one of GDS’s (then novel) 3-D printers to make a tiny red temple. This year, he revisited the concept with a more complex appreciation of scale, symmetry, and precision. “I found it interesting that seven years later, I had tasked myself with improving the simple red temple I had printed in 5th grade,” Leo said.


Leo’s 3-D replica of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which once stood on Capitoline Hill in Rome, and the tiny red temple he created in 5th grade.

Mackenzie Williams ’23 said she was interested in the way the Temple of Vesta, one of the earliest and most sacred structures in the Roman Forum, related to gender dynamics and power structures.​​​​​

Roman architectural marvels printed by students in High School Latin Literature.

Inspired by the interdisciplinary modeling projects of their Latin Language peers, Yka de Castillo’s Spanish students studied and built 3-D models of indigenous homes. Speaking in Spanish, they described the Casas Flotantes of Lake Titicaca, the Hanok of Korea, plank houses of the Pacific Northwest, and other homes across four continents.

Building Understanding