Learning at Webb
The Alf Method
At Webb we focus on students and a simple principle – learning by doing. In the late 1920s, a young science teacher joined Webb and set about developing his passion for the study of life. Ray Alf became internationally renowned for engaging students in real science through paleontology. His passion for paleontology led to the development of the only accredited museum of paleontology on a school campus anywhere in the world. Today, his devotion to learning by doing is seen in the work of every academic department, afternoon activity, our field study and academic partnerships, and many other special school-wide programs at Webb. That’s the Alf Method.
Living and Learning at a West Coast Boarding School
An Innovative Curriculum
Webb’s 24/7 learning community engages students through directed discovery learning. Whether in the science lab or the humanities classroom, our faculty serve as learning coaches who guide students in an active learning environment that allows them not only to acquire a core body of knowledge but also teaches them how to inquire and investigate using the latest methods of scholars and researchers.
Our problem-based mathematics program moves students through advanced calculus, not through rote practice of skills in isolated units but by building problem solving skills as students together and with their teacher tackle real-life problems that often combine various branches of mathematics.
Our humanities program and faculty develop students’ abilities to construct arguments and mount evidence in classroom debates, and many students choose to build on this training by participating in interscholastic competitions as part of our debate team.
In Afternoon Activities, our robotics program fuses math and science as students work in a team to design and build an autonomous robot to compete in First Robotics Competitions, learning and employing key principles of engineering, teamwork and design.
Throughout the program, students are at the center of Webb’s academic program, actively engaged in designing their own education in classes that blend content, theory and activities to create rich, multi-disciplinary learning experiences.
Alf Method Tenets
Students physically engage in their learning through hands-on activities and creative enterprises.
Case study: Spanish 4 students ditch their desks to circle up on the floor for a discussion of environmental issues involving orangutans, using a collection of images as a springboard for a Q&A. “We are able to learn the language through conversation, activities and other interactive ways,” Catherine Chen ’23 said. “You need to actually think about how to respond in Spanish instead of simply repeating a phrase you’ve seen in a textbook.”
Students deepen their understanding by exploring a range of perspectives on issues.
Case study: Honors Ethics & Modern Global Affairs students gather information, sketch out arguments and coordinate presentations for an all-class debate. The action is tense, the arguments filled with data, the challenges biting. “It really tests my own understanding of my opinion and my character,” Maksym Graham ’23 said. “This allows me to strengthen my own opinions and use others’ perspectives to make me more understanding and more knowledgeable as a whole.”
Classes incorporate a blend of complementary topics and disciplines.
Case study: Biotechnology student groups use gene cloning techniques to insert a gene that conferred antibiotic resistance into a plasmid, a bit of DNA that can be used to add traits to host cells. The altered plasmid was used to transform bacteria cells, allowing them to grow even in the presence of the antibiotic. “When you actually get to design and carry out an experiment, it forces you to understand why you do each step and what is occurring on a microscopic level,” Bradyn Wishek ’22 said. “It makes it so much more engaging.”
Students work in small groups, combining strengths, teaching each other and learning to collaborate.
Case study: Students studying Gothic literature explore the psychological roots that spark elemental fears, reading novels that span a range of literary styles as well as analysis of the human psyche, critical essays and academic works. As a capstone, they work in groups to create short horror movies. “My peers and I teamed up to express our knowledge more creatively,” Jolina Zhao ’23 said. “We dove deeper into psychological horror and the effectiveness of little tweaks, such as camera angles and perspective. This approach, in contrast to an essay, made the material resonate a lot better.”
Classes aren’t just about finding the right answer, but about the paths taken and understanding the value of missteps.
Case study: Art Studio students dedicate two months to crafting 15 to 20 versions of a still life – using acrylics, drawing implements, in black and white, negative images, positive images and many more. Then, one day, they tear every piece apart to create a pair of collages. “You have to let go,” teacher Jackie Leishman said. “It takes a little bit of bravery to say, ‘I’m willing to cut into this and I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. I might ruin something that I love to get something else that I love.’ ”
Students are engaged in the design of their own education, asking questions and identifying problems with support from their teachers.
Case study: Victor Zhang ’22, who plans to become a mechanical engineer, obtained permission and support to design, build and test a go-kart during a free block. “The first-ever test of the go-kart ended in a massive failure,” Zhang said. “Not only has this journey been great for building my skills as a mechanic, but it also helped me realize that you move forward by making mistakes.” He rebuilt and retested, successfully designing a go-kart exceeded speeds of 35 mph.
Students engage in activities with real world impact and implications, including original research, creative activities and community service projects.
Case study: Webb students conduct field work as through the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, excavating fossils that spark original research. More than 50 papers co-authored by Webb students have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In the afternoons, students engage in fossil preparation and assist with museum operations.
“Students not only learn techniques for conservation of fossils – they learn these techniques from real experts in the field, on real fossils,” Museum Director Dr. Andy Farke said. “It’s not just a class assignment – the dinosaur bone they glue together will end up in a museum collection and may even be published in scientific literature.”
Classes blend content, theory and activities to create a learning experience, not just a presentation of information.
Case study: Perhaps the most long-standing of Webb’s academic partnerships is Webb’s computer science collaboration with Harvey Mudd College Professor Zachary Dodds. Students engage with computer science and computer programming as authors and designers of programs and software. “This class made me realize I like computer science and that this is something I want to do in the future,” Fiona Jiang ’22 said.
Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology
Perhaps nothing displays Webb’s distinctiveness more than the fact that every student at Webb is involved in our museum program — the only one of its kind in the world — The Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology.
All Webb students study paleontology during ninth-grade science. All students journey into the field on a fossil expedition — unearthing specimens for serious scientific study. Students here who develop a passion for this work can continue their study in paleontology through our honors and Advanced Studies museum research program. Students conduct original research (and often publish it in peer-reviewed journals) under the direction of our faculty paleontologists.
At Webb, we feel it is critical to provide opportunities for students to extend their education beyond our campus and classrooms through experiential programs and academic partnerships. We are pleased to offer students the chance to learn with faculty from Harvey Mudd College, Pomona College, UC Riverside, Western University of Health Science and others. Learn more
Each season, Webb students may choose from a host of Afternoon Activities to deepen their knowledge, build skills or express themselves. Official afternoon activities at Webb utilize the best of our on-campus resources, while also making use of our proximity to Los Angeles and the wilderness areas of Southern California.
Programs run the gamut from robotics to debate training, museum research to community service, yearbook to yoga, art studio to theater, literary magazine to a science fair research lab. Learn more
Symposium Days provide an opportunity to explore and celebrate intellectual curiosity beyond the classroom. By providing a forum for students and teachers to engage with new ideas that go beyond the traditional curriculum, we foster unbounded thinking across disciplines. Two such programs at Webb include the Men in the Arena for WSC students and Dies Mulieres for VWS students.
Men in the Arena offers students and teachers a variety of active and reflective workshops that promote positive images of masculinity while dispelling negative cultural stereotypes.
Dies Mulieres, “Day of the Women,” celebrates and explores the many facets of womanhood and the important issues facing women today. Most workshops are designed and presented by students, teachers, alumni and friends of Webb.