Are the new AT courses for you?

Course selection is here, and this year there are brand new (Advanced Topic) AT classes being offered. 

Advanced Topic courses go much more in depth in a subject than an AP course would, and many students say the best part is no college exam. SAS will be developing at least 10 Advanced Topic (AT) courses by 2019-20 to provide more relevant learning options and to ensure greater focus on 21st century, individualized learning, and to better prepare students for their future aspirations.  

Chart of 21st Century Learning goals. Creative Commons License

The transition from AP classes to AT is best exemplified by Scarsdale High School in Westchester County  New York. A few articles from the New York Times describe the school’s transition and the way it impacted its students.

For instance, art students have been newly liberated to draw large-scale works rather than adhere to the College Board’s 18-by-24-inch parameters. Physics students now study string theory — a hot topic in some college courses that is absent from the Advanced Placement exam. And the advanced government class takes a three-day field trip to conduct primary research at Harvard’s Kennedy School, something teachers say would have been impossible with the intense Advanced Placement schedule.”  – Winnie Hu, “Scarsdale Adjusts to Life Without Advanced Placement Courses” New York Times 

Martha Began, co-teacher with Steve Early for AT Tropical Environment/APES, explained the benefit of AT courses. “Sometimes the curriculum constrains the kid to a roped approach to learning, and there is more to learning and there are more topics that we can learn deeply without having to have the pressure of an external exam.”

AT Tropical Ecology/APES – the new AT course that Ms. Began plans to teach alongside Mr. Early –  is a year-long course that focuses on the study of ecology and environmental science. This course offers lots of fieldwork experience that is not normally in an APES class. Because of the combined class, there will be an optional AP exam for environmental science near the end of the year.

“The ability to use mangroves, coral reefs, and tropical rainforests that other kids in America don’t have is amazing for us here in our region, and we’re going to capitalize on that in an advanced topic way to try to study at a college level in something that is regional and really go deep,” Ms. Began said.

Another new AT course offered next year is AT Writing Seminar, which is a year-long intensive creative writing course that was collaboratively developed and endorsed by Professor Deborah Appleman from Carleton College and Professor Robin Hemley from Yale NUS in 2016. It is open to juniors and seniors.  

“I chose [AT Writing Seminar] because it was actually something I’m interested in and it offers something that the AP’s for English didn’t,” rising junior Elizabeth Saeger said. “The APs are mostly analytical versus this one, which is more focused on the actual writing aspect, which is what I really wanted to get out of the class.”

Another option is AT Chinese Language History, which provides students with the opportunity to learn Chinese history while simultaneously developing their language skills. Unlike previous Chinese language classes, this one focuses on students researching, analyzing, and creating their own conclusions about specific areas of Chinese history and culture – and the whole course is taught in Chinese. This is a year-long course open for grades 11-12.

Sophomore Emily Wu studies for her AP World Test. In an AT course there are no external exams, so it saves students from all the cramming. Photo by Alyssa Renert

The fourth addition to the school curriculum is the year-long AT Performing Arts course, which is open only to seniors. Students can work within one of the areas of dance, drama, vocal instrument, or instrumental music and work on projects that further their knowledge in that area. The music area deepens students’ skills as music analysts, theorists, and historians. The dance area focuses on development of a performance, and in-depth reflection. The drama area requires students to create a piece of original theatre. Unlike any other advanced performing arts classes, this one is individualized for students to create their own projects for a portfolio for their final exam. This class, however, will not replace the existing higher level courses, such as SAS Singers or Dance Performance.

“The teachers all felt like they could get together and create an advanced topic performing arts course where students can dive more in what is more relevant to them so that they can be more successful. So they decided to put together this advanced topic in performing arts,” explained Center of Innovation Coordinator Dennis Steigerwald, who has helped to implement the new AT program.

The last AT course being offered next year is AT Kinesiology, a PE course. This course focuses on teaching basic anatomy and introduces key aspects of exercise physiology, biomechanics and motor behavior. This is a semester-long course and is open to students in grades 11-12.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 8.36.18 AM
Princeton AP U.S History study guide. Like Scarsdale, SAS plans to have more sophisticated and creative curriculums rather than mountains of memorization. Photo by Alyssa Renert

“When you look at the students who graduate from SAS, a reasonable percentage go into the medical field. We offer biotechnology, but that’s not an advanced topic course, so we are now offering an Advanced Topic Kinesiology course, which is a university level course wrapped around the science of biology, the movement of kinesiology, and ultimately end up with a project that is university level,” Mr. Steigerwald said.

All of these new AT courses are weighted like an AP course with a 0.5 GPA weighting, since all of the teachers work with a professor to make sure they are university level courses. The students will be expected in most AT classes to provide evidence of their learning in projects such as  performances or creating portfolios throughout the year rather than one big written exam at the end. And sometimes the portfolios can be recognised by universities as high level work and can be given university credit for them.

“I think students who are ready for a rigorous learning experience, students who feel that the content and the skills they will learn will be relevant to what they’re interested in, should take these classes. They shouldn’t expect a massive high pressure mock and exam during the AP exam times, which I think is a benefit,” Mr. Steigerwald said.

If you are interested in taking any of these five new AT courses, talk to your counselor to see if it’s right for you.

Author: Alyssa Renert

This is Alyssa’s first year reporting for The Eye. She moved to SAS in 8th grade from Beijing and is now in 10th grade. She has lived all over the world. Alyssa loves to write as well as travel. She wants to make her last year at SAS interesting and exciting. Alyssa can be contacted at

One thought

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s