We’re excited to share this short video about Innovation Lab students and their projects. Thank you to Fjolla, Kathryn, Emily, and Alex for narrating and to all students for their hard work this year.
This week, we’d like to share excerpts from our students’ blogs and some photos from class. We encourage you to follow the links to their full post and leave them a comment. The list of sophomore and junior blogs can be found here.
Jody B. on Growth Mindset:
The current academic procedure does not call for improvement, it calls for “mastery” on a specific topic. My generation was taught on a systematic approach to teaching children as much as they can, as fast as they can. After a unit has passed and a grade has been placed on a unit test, regardless of the final grade and the extent of knowledge, the student must press on to keep up with the class. Furthermore, in terms of the grading process, I maintain a fixed mindset. If I receive a bad grade, my thought is not what I did wrong, but what other assignments will be used to improve my average.
This is the problem.
Isabella on being an outsider in the art community:
Within the art community, everyone seems to have a distinctive art style and they know what path they want to take with their art. I have yet to fully grasp my style, I don’t understand what genre of art I prefer either. I used to feel as though I was just cherry-picking the features from art I liked and including it in my own. In the art community, so many people are trying to improve and equally as many are trying to teach others how to do so. It’s a community that runs on the philosophy that everyone can create art and everyone can be included, yet I still felt like an outsider.
Nicole W. on Bernoulli’s equation:
After deriving Bernoulli’s equation, applying what I know about kinetic energy, potential energy, Newton’s equations, Work, Conservation of Energy I wondered how can this apply the real world?
As I was reading past the assigned text to understand Bernoulli’s equation, I was able to discover how Bernoulli’s equation is applied to the everyday world by reading more of “Openstax College Physics”.
What I found most interesting was how the equation applied to what happens when a speeding car passes a truck on the highway, how an airplane flies, and how a sailboat sails into the wind.
Shiv V. on building towers from paper and pasta:
It took three days of hands-on projects and an abnormally large amount of effort to come to the realization that building towers, is never simply just building towers. While I was aware that certain elements of resilience, cooperation, and logic were needed to successfully complete the tasks, it did not occur to me that certain dynamics and principles that went into specifically building the towers could be applied to future academic work in Innovation Lab.
Alex C., “Outsiders”:
It amuses me how whenever your label is changed in high school it makes you a whole new person though most people never notice it. Looking at all these other tables with groups of friends laughing loudly, sometimes to the point of tears, I start thinking what other people have observed me laughing while with my friends. Perhaps I am not the only outside observer, who knows.
Kathryn P.’s reflection on learning:
In a traditional classroom, students can zone out a teacher’s lecturing if they are tired that day. On the other hand, in Innovation Lab, a student is responsible for finding answers to problems as they arise during the process of completing projects. Teachers play a different role in the classroom, as they are more advisers than lecturers. This way, students are in charge of their own learning. I find that I am more engaged with my learning and more curious about different subjects we are studying.
At 7:32 this morning, I emailed Pierce, a junior, this photo of his project:
Pierce, 7:38: NOOOOOO
Me, 9:29: Google what the issue is with droopy plants?
Pierce, 10:34: It was not enough watering. Found the problem with the sprinklers. Will explain when I next see you.
Not the type of conversation you might expect between a teacher and Honors Precalculus student. Wait, Precalculus?
I described our first STEM project – DIY Aeroponics – to visitors from St. Joseph High School (Trumbull, CT) on Thursday morning. Aeroponic growing is a method of suspending plants in the air and spraying them with a nutrient-rich solution in lieu of planting them in soil. This method is already economically advantageous enough that there are hydroponic farms sprouting up around the United States. We decided to try small-scale aeroponics with our students. The visiting assistant principal was interested, but skeptical. She described her own math classes, which weren’t much different than the ones she observes as an admin at her school. “I always asked when I was ever going to use this, and I still don’t know.”
In mid-August, I started growing tomatoes in my 900 square-foot apartment. On the upstairs floor of the loft, there is an awkward space where a tenant might put a desk. Instead, I have a 27-gallon reservoir pumping filtered tap water through sprinklers which spray the root systems of my plants, which started from seeds and the tallest parts of which are two feet tall.
I’ve spent time collecting data about my plants and looking for patterns. Much like good writing, pattern recognition is easily identifiable in students, but hard for them to improve. Data on its own is difficult to interpet; instead, we often graph it and look for a relationship. Talented math students can easily differentiate one curve from another, even if parts may seem similar.
When I researched how to grow tomatoes indoors, I paid particular attention to what I needed to do to the water. Different plants grow in different soil, so the water additives need to mimic the nutrients your plants would absorb outside. If the pH of the water indoors fluctuates too much, the plants cannot absorb the potassium, nitrates, and other ions from the reservoir.
In the 24 hours after my first few weekly water changes, I found that the pH was rising well above the 6.5 maximum recommended for tomatoes. Why? It seems that the ten gallons I was using should have been twenty. Here’s a more recent graph:
It took twice as long for me to hit 6.5 and it stabilized shortly after. Still high, but better. My hypothesis is that pH correlates directly to how much nutrient solution is in the water; as the plants absorb what they need, the pH rises. I could verify this by testing the levels of, for example, potassium ions in the water. I also might need to just add more plant food.
Those “natural exponent” graphs and those crazy A, B, and C values? Weeks of required material in Precalculus. So are trigonometric graphs:
The temperature of the water in the reservoir rises and falls with the temperature of my apartment. However, temperature should decrease exponentially, like your coffee: quickly at first, and then more slowly as it approaches room temperature. So why isn’t it? I still haven’t figure this out yet.
The visiting team from Trumbull told us that they were impressed with the way our students articulated the purpose of their work. They asked where we came up with the ideas for these projects. We get this question often.
Part of it is interest; honestly, Dana and I thought it would be fun to try and that we would find math in the physics of fluid dynamics (how fluids move) and optics (the study of light). I thought other data would come from tracking the height of the plants or the pattern at which the leaves grow. Based on the data presented here, there are even better options.
I began growing tomatoes inside as work. I’ve since grown quite attached to them and I care enough to figure out how they work. If Pierce is any indication, the students will, too.
More photos of my aeroponic tomato plants:
We are all familiar with the race – the rat race, the treadmill, the conveyor belt, the carousel – of life. Whichever metaphor fits best, we often find ourselves scrambling to get to the next activity, the next hurdle, or the next milestone. We pay lip service to the phrases so recognizable that they can seem cliche: finding work/life balance or stopping to smell the roses. These days it can be difficult to find a rose garden. Life can be exhausting to adults and students alike.
But sometimes these metaphors don’t just reflect life, they create it. If you feel like it’s a rat race, it can become one. And what’s more, it can be contagious in a small community. Sometimes students exude stress and the residue is left behind on tables, in discussions and in the air. The effects can be palpable or subtle and pervasive. For some, it ramps up the anxiety, while others buckle down, and still others can be paralyzed and unable to accomplish their goals.
One month into the year, students have brushed off the cobwebs from their summer inertia and have re-established habits for success. Or at least they should have. Sometimes the first few weeks end up cementing habits that need to be broken. But most of the sophomores and juniors are now immersed in the rigor and are in the process of internalizing the standards and expectations of the program.
But what about the stress? In InLab, we talk about productive stress and unproductive stress. The former can provide focus and drive, the latter can derail. It looks like a productivity bell curve and according to what is known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law,” performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress) but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases.
In an article in The Harvard Business Review, author Francesca Gino writes, “There’s more [to the productivity curve]: The shape of the curve varies based on the complexity and familiarity of the task. Different tasks require different levels of arousal for optimal performance, research has found. For example, difficult or unfamiliar tasks require lower levels of arousal to facilitate concentration; by contrast, you may better perform tasks demanding stamina or persistence with higher levels of arousal to induce and increase motivation.”
Perhaps the familiarity of the program is why some of our productive juniors feel that they are managing their stress more effectively this year, while some of the sophomores are still riding the excitement of the novelty of InLab. But all students can get mired in unproductive stress at some point.
Research shows that there are as many recommendations for managing stress as there are types of stressed students. The first quarter of the year is an optimal time to experiment with management techniques so that you can implement and repeat the successful ones. While we do explicitly talk about and teach effective mindsets and management, students can stack the deck in their favor by practicing some good habits.
Here’s a list of some of the advice that has helped students in the past:
Establishing Routines and Maintaining Flexibility: Good habits take practice and repetition, and establishing effective routines can help. Where, when, and how you manage and complete your work can bolster your success. There are many aspects of your work production that are within your control, but you also need to be flexible and to embrace unexpected opportunities and challenges.
Monotasking and Chunking: Sometimes InLab can seem like it has a new language, but monotasking is the opposite of multitasking. Effective multitasking is a myth. You do not perform better at the last minute, in the middle of the night, under duress, or while multitasking. Try serial monotasking: have clear one-at-a-time steps to completing taskings and chunk work into manageable sizes. From the time you allot to the deadlines you impose, create smaller pieces to accomplish more. As Lao Tzu said, it begins with a single step.
Make Stress Work for You: Sometimes the most stressful situations are the ones we impose on ourselves when we are motivated by fear. Remember that you need to create several prototypes before you follow through on your design. In all things, there are enormous benefits to drafting or prototyping; it’s good to risk being wrong.
Be Kind to Yourself and Others: I have been known to ask students why they can be so kind to their friends and not to themselves. Exercise empathy and compassion with yourself. Learning new things and in a new way can be challenging, and sometimes growth is uncomfortable. Be gentle with yourself. But remember to be compassionate and empathetic with your classmates as well. Be mindful of how you make suggestions and keep the collaboration cooperative instead of competitive.
Mindfulness and Redirection: Taking time out to pause and be present can help to circumvent the deleterious effects of stress. I would encourage to try it in 3 step: awareness of the stress, determining the meaning behind why you feel stressed, then redirecting the stress response to improve productivity behind that meaning. Even the blog the juniors wrote the other week can help; in your mind revisit your sanctuary and practice those breathing techniques.
After a full year of Innovation Lab, it is apparent that the classic metaphor no longer applies; the rat race might not become a cake walk, but then again, I don’t think it should. Perhaps it’s time to have students define their own metaphor to capture the meaningful work – intellectually, emotionally, academically, personally, meaningful work – that we do every day.
A few years back, a colleague and I had the idea to explore local issues through the lens of history. The plan was to comb through Greenwich archives and offer insight into the major issues facing the town by bringing the past to light. We had a brainstorming session, came up with a bunch of ideas for articles, then, as often happens with big undertakings, our determination wavered. I ended up writing one of the articles, a piece about race in Greenwich based on research from Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project (which you can read here) and then shelved the idea.
But ideas don’t ever really disappear—they disperse, spread out, bounce around your head until something brand new takes shape. From my brief foray as Town Historian (self-appointed), I learned a valuable lesson about the power of local history. There’s something exciting about tackling issues in your own backyard. With so many news outlets, it’s hard to find a truly original story. But ironically, when you limit your parameters—use a microscope, not a telescope—an entirely new realm of possibilities emerges.
For their project on the Progressive Era, students in Innovation Lab are doing their own version of “muckraking,” a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt for the journalists who worked tirelessly to expose the major issues facing America at the turn of the twentieth century. These brave journalists tackled issues ranging from the unsanitary conditions of our meat factories to the corrupt business practices of monopolies.
Students have looked to local newspapers for inspiration and found some of the most pressing issues facing Greenwich. After choosing their topics, students have researched their issues, met a real live muckraker (check out the article Leslie Yager wrote after her visit to our class), contacted experts to interview, learned how to use software to make their documentary, and of course, studied the historical context of the muckrakers in order to understand how the reformers of the past confronted similar issues.
Students’ topics differ greatly, reflecting each group’s unique interests. One group is exposing the lack of regulations and oversight of local animal breeders. Another group has decided to tackle the achievement gap in Connecticut. Meanwhile, in the same classroom, other students are shining a light on wealth inequality, food insecurity, challenges facing local wildlife populations, drug abuse, and censorship in schools.
Each group is taking a microscope to their topic, seeking truth about America by closely examining one aspect of their local community. Although their topics may seem disconnected, they’re each united by the goal of the muckrakers—to investigate, educate, and persuade their audience. Luckily, they have the example of history to help them in their quest for answers.
Taking this time traveling approach to history has made me realize that sometimes the only way to see the past clearly is to look for parallels in our immediate surroundings. Only then does the past make sense; only then does the kaleidoscope of our history start to form a picture we recognize.
According to research, the effects of creating strong community for our students is positive and far reaching, but for some reason this gets complicated for many large schools. Within Innovation Lab our philosophy and our scheduling make it a bit easier. For the past couple of weeks our teachers focused on reacquainting our juniors and introducing our sophomores to our educational beliefs. Students also learned how to work more effectively as a cohesive unit in STEM and Humanities. Most tenth graders met for the first time; our juniors melded from two cohorts into one.
Now that students established a rhythm with their classmates, it was time that we come together as an Innovation Lab community. We had noticed that within Design Studio, even after several weeks of sitting in the same space, sophs and juniors were not commingling much. The hub of Innovation Lab, this common area last year held a certain life force that you could feel but could not explain. This year it seemed we had lost our mojo.
At our last teacher meeting we decided to take action. We felt part of the change stemmed from an improper introduction among our two grade levels. To remedy this situation a pizza mixer was planned and executed yesterday in the GHS Media Center. It included pairing younger and older students strategically into buddy groups, fun brain teaser games, cookie prizes donated by Doc Goldin, “people” bingo, and (of course) Pizza Post pizza.
When third lunch wave began our junior students stood around in clumps waiting as timid sophomores entered the room. I have to admit I was worried when our biggest boys seemed more interested in the pizza boxes than in finding their younger “buddies.” Courtney Hawes had a stroke of brilliance. “No one eats pizza,” she declared, “until you find your buddy.” That certainly got the ball rolling.
Within minutes of getting pizza and finding seats, our juniors became the leaders that we trained them to be. As I walked around the room I overheard them prompting conversation, offering advice, making connections, and just having fun. By the time the brain teasers rolled out and the cookie bags popped open, Innovation Lab was no longer two cohorts but one community.
The power of this community transcends the warm fuzzy feeling you get inside when you belong. It moves mountains for us every day. It gives me, a veteran teacher, the strength to listen–really listen–as younger colleagues offer constructive criticism about a Humanities project I created after several weeks of toil. It moves Mike Belanger to help Courtney Hawes teach our Eleventh Grade Humanities class when I need to be at home nursing a sick infant. The students enjoyed having him there so much that if I were a teacher with less self esteem I may have quit my job. It urged Flora, one of my students, to offer her aid unsolicited when I struggled to help another student download her “noodletools” bibliography onto Googledocs.
Community means we are all in this together. Because of this no one is afraid to take chances. Everyone knows there will be someone on whom to lean when it becomes necessary.
It remains to be seen whether or not our pizza mixer will truly change the culture in Design Studio. We teachers are optimistic. If it does not work, we will meet and create a new strategy. If that fails we will try another. It is not only students who benefit from our belief in growth mindset. The InLab community is all the safety net we need to keep moving forward.
Mrs. Miles would hold discussions on the ethical decisions that Beowulf would make when hunting down Grendel, Chaucer’s commentary on his view of his “modern day” Britain, and would have us try to apply Swift’s solutions with a “Modest Proposal” to current issues. She would hold two great exhibitions each year, a Medieval Banquet in the late fall and a Victorian Tea in the late spring. We would dress up and many of us would fall into roles, read stories written in the style of Chaucer at the Banquet, or poetry heavy laden with Keats’ imagery and emotion at the Tea. She assigned me and two friends to role of the Lord’s fools which, I admit, was probably to let us be silly without us getting in everyone else’s way. What she did was release the Jabberwocky.
My fellow jesters scripted several skits, taught ourselves improv, memorized a few historical poems (Including the Jabberwocky, which I still remember today, slithy toves and all), and I even taught myself to juggle. Simply because that what what a medieval jester did. For not one minute did we step out of character the entire night, including when we were forced to serve the guests the “rat-tail soup” (which was leek soup and quite good… and we got everyone to have some). The preparations that went into that exhibition stick with me and those friends to this day (The other two are married to each other now). What I never realized was that they were “presentations of learning”. Many years later, I would sit in Innovation Lab and see the students excel beyond our subtle prompts and minimal direct instruction and it reminded me of this wonderful women who inspired me to step beyond the curriculum to make something academic into something wonderful.
I now am learning to juggle again. Not for the purpose of keeping three object cycling through predicable projectile motion, but rather I’m trying to toss in curriculum content, projects and demonstration of mastery. The ever inquisitive juniors are exploring ethical impact on civic responsibility and the ability to make decisions that will last beyond the immediate problem, and the dynamic energy of the sophomores is directed toward learning on how to work together and dig through media to try to discern facts about current day issues. The excitement of their learning is mixed with the frustration of problem solving as they sort their way through these wonderful projects that will lead to a public exhibition. But getting to that end goal is the where the magic happens.
I’m still throwing the proverbial balls into the air and hoping I catch them only to toss them back into the cycle. It’s Sunday night and I just returned from Home Depot with a jeep full of PVC and vinyl fencing that is to be joined with a large Amazon order of water distribution systems that will turn a part of STEM room into an indoor aeroponic garden. A project designed to balance the ethical responsibility that we have to feed the world with the viability of it with respect to energy, cost and space. I know the sophomores are starting their air, soil and water project and its representation of major environmental issues. And that is only in STEM. The Humanities projects are equally fascinating and I look forward to seeing those progress in the upcoming weeks. Its amazing to see how these projects all come together in the Innovation Lab experience and provide our students with new way to look at their education and providing them with fantastic opportunities. The students, as well as their teachers, will learn to juggle all of their hard work and enthusiasm, so as to make their time here, not only worthwhile, but also a show piece.
Conventional wisdom has it (and rightly so…) that if you want to be successful in any endeavor you must “begin with the end in mind.” We intuitively understand that having a clear mental picture of what you are striving toward will maintain clarity of purpose and provide motivation, especially when the going gets rough. If you read last week’s blog post, you already know that Innovation Lab began its 2016-2017 school year with the triumphant conclusion of five months of work by two students. Sofia and Kathryn presented their documentary “Nanoporous Graphene: A Filter For the Future” (video below) to a packed house at the Bruce Museum Seaside Center.
The screening of the documentary was then followed by a Question and Answer Session (video below), during which Kathryn and Sofia fielded a variety of insightful and complex questions from the particularly engaged and curious audience.
Members of the press were also on hand to take photos and interview the filmmakers. The result? A front page article in the print version of the Greenwich Time, as well as several online articles, including these from the Greenwich Time, the Greenwich Sentinel, and the Associated Press.
For Sofia and Kathryn the day was a huge victory, a public exhibition of high caliber work that demonstrated their mastery of high level scientific research seeking to solve a global problem. In the hours immediately before the screening, they were undoubtedly nervous. They wrestled with last minute technical glitches and experienced the frustration of not having time to squeeze in one last minor editing tweak. But then the moment had arrived, the audience was ready and they went for it. And scored big.
Personal victories aside, the work also serves as a powerful and tangible example of the “end” that Innovation Lab is going for each and every day. Project-based learning at its finest weaves together deep purpose, complex conceptual knowledge, and professional skills – all of which are demonstrated publicly. I hope that as our year progresses our students (both new and returning), faculty, parents, and community will look back to this beginning as a source of inspiration, an affirmation that our work has value and can truly have a profound impact.
I myself suspect that Kathryn and Sofia’s journey has in many ways only just begun. Perhaps without realizing it, they have entered a completely different academic and intellectual world that seems quite thrilled to have them it. My evidence for this belief? An email the pair received in the days after the screening from Dr. Cohen-Tanugi, the MIT scientist whose work they detailed in their film, congratulating them on their stellar work, urging them to stay in touch, and which he signed using his first name, indicating a level of collegiality and respect for them that I find very telling.
On their last day of summer, Kathryn and Sofia came to school to work on a project from a class they finished over two months ago. In February, they started researching methods of removing the salt from saltwater. When they didn’t have the nanoporous graphene to build a prototype (MIT doesn’t have theirs yet, either), they decided to create a documentary about how the process works. Now, they are ready to present their summary on Sunday at 2 PM at Bruce Museum’s Seaside Center. Kathryn and Sofia are still passionate about their work, even though their grade for it was set in June. “It doesn’t matter that I already got a grade for the class,” Sofia told me in between edits. “I put so much time into this research and I want to show people why it’s important.”
The next day, the new Innovation Lab sophomores competed in teams to design and build the tallest paper tower. It’s a task a first-grader can do, and that’s the point: when the academic difficulty of the task is removed, you can more effectively assess the ability to work as a group. We stressed process over product; learning about iteration and team communication is more valuable than victory from a taped-together tower. Arguably, the teams with nothing to show learned the most about prototyping. After time expired and the class record was no longer up for grabs, another group kept going. They ended up with the tallest two-sheet tower I’ve ever seen (106 cm).
The juxtaposition of these two experiences is fascinating. Rewards of grades or a prize dwarfed by personal satisfaction. Isn’t that a more sustainable way to learn?
After exiting security at the Milwaukee airport a few years ago, I was tickled pink by the sign: Recombobulation Area. What a wonderful idea to set aside a space – and time – to gather your things together, reduce confusion, and reorient yourself. If only…
If only the end of the academic year had a place or a space or time set aside, but the frenetic pace and inherent juggling makes it virtually impossible to step away from the conveyor belt. Last minute submissions of late work, extra help sessions, exam grading, recommendation requests, and deadlines make most teachers feel like they are running the gauntlet rather than wrapping up the year.
If only the Innovation Lab were immune to such things! We, too, have juggled and fretted and raced and assessed. Each of us has stacks of papers that we carry around like an albatross. But this post is not a litany of things yet to do; as a community, we have so much to celebrate. Last week’s Presentations of Learning were powerful reminders that our students are reflective learners who are eager to continue to grow, and have internalized the language of learning. They embody the famous John Dewey quotation, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” It will become a hallmark of our culture.
This week celebrates more than one type of performance assessment embedded in our culture with the culmination of the National History Day competition. We couldn’t be more proud of all of our students’ work this year, and the opportunity to exhibit their scholarship to a global audience is unparalleled. “This contest represents the national finals for affiliate level contests held in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Central America, China, Korea, and South Asia. Each year, more than 600,000 students around the world. ‘Less than 1% of all entries make it to the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest,” said National History Day® Executive Director Dr. Cathy Gorn. “The level of research and presentation of the students at this level is astounding. They truly represent the best and brightest minds of the next generation.’” Flora, Katherine, Juliana, and Nicole were consummate professionals and inspirational ambassadors for our program and state; they earned both 6th Overall and Outstanding Entry for Connecticut out of more than 600,000 students worldwide!
Back at home, students had the challenging opportunity to demonstrate their growth and skill development through department-standard exams. There is value in learning how to demonstrate knowledge and understanding, and just as we taught students how to reflect and talk about their growth, we helped them develop the skills to write about their knowledge through exams. Our 10th grade scholars have learned to demonstrate success in a wide variety of performance assessments, and it’s a skill that will enable them to be successful beyond our community. In the days leading up to each task, you could hear the buzz of shared knowledge and that special language of review: redux reaction! unseen passage analysis! Trickle-down economics! logarithms! The shared experience of reviewing and taking exams bonds students; exams are just one more way that they are able to exhibit their learning.
As our inaugural year winds down, we, teachers, reflect on our experience as well. The year-end is always a bittersweet time; I never feel as if I have done enough, helped enough, challenged and taught and championed and supported enough. I am often reminded of Maya Angelou’s famous line: “When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action.”
If only we knew the impact.
But this year, we have a remarkable opportunity for which I am grateful… we will join our students further down the river, and we will continue together again next year. That is enough.