Innovation Lab Video

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.

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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.


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Light Bulbs

“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.” –Kenneth Burke on intellectual exchange, 1941

Whenever I teach writing, I use Burke’s dinner party metaphor to help students understand that their ideas, arguments, and research are part of a larger conversation. Although I should probably update the metaphor to somehow reference Snapchat or Facebook, something about his description–whether it’s his use of the second-person or how he captures something so profound and universal in such a short passage–just gets me.

Now that the first year of Innovation Lab is drawing to a close, I thought I’d offer my own Kenneth Burke-style reflection on the creative process. Over the past two years, we’ve worked hard to bring our vision to life, and now that it’s June, it feels somewhat bittersweet. As most of my students know–okay, as all of my students know, considering how often I talk about it–I’m a writer. And when I finish a book, there’s always part of me that feels sad. My characters go off on their own, no longer subject to the whims of my fingertips. The story starts to feel somewhere between a dream and a memory, fiercely true, but fleeting nonetheless. Worst of all, a new villain presents itself, this time in the form of a blank page.

But this process–the closing of one chapter and the beginning of a new one–is fundamental to creativity and a huge part of what we do in Innovation Lab. Our students have embarked on many creative journeys throughout the year. Some have brought them to a new plateau of intellectual understanding. Others have helped them discover a passion or interest they didn’t know they had before. Still others have forced them to turn around, take the long trek down the mountain and start over.

But every journey in Innovation Lab has started with a single idea, that “light bulb” moment that can illuminate a subject, the world, and even parts of yourself.

Below is a piece about what happens when that light suddenly gets turned on, including the obstacles, the triumphs, and the bittersweet realization that every journey must come to an end before a new one can begin.

You have an idea. A light bulb appears above your head, the same kind you’d see in a cartoon. You let it hang there for a bit while you watch TV, read a book, try to figure out how to put together that desk you bought from IKEA. A few hours later, when the lightbulb has grown even brighter, you realize you can no longer ignore it.

You turn the TV off, close the book, let the half-finished desk sit in the corner of the room like a discarded creation of Dr. Frankenstein. You talk to your friends, enlist their help, discuss plans to bring your idea to life. They tell you it will never work. One friend says she saw an article about something similar in the New York Times. Another asks you when you’re going to finally put that desk together.

You ignore them. You focus on those other voices, the people who raised their eyebrows a bit in curiosity, the teacher who told you to keep going, your grandmother who said you’re going to be famous someday–even though she’s been saying that since you were still in diapers.

Hours turn into days, days into weeks, and before you know it, you’ve been working on bringing your vision to life for almost a year. The bulb has dimmed, grown brighter, almost broken, then become a full scale chandelier, the kind you’d see in Versailles, or Windsor, or one of those other palaces you’ve never been to.

The day comes. You’re finally ready to bring your vision to life, to take the light bulb out of the proverbial thought bubble.

And once you do, the world suddenly looks different, just a little bit brighter, just a little more whole. After you reprimand yourself for using too many metaphors about light, you give in–cliches are cliches for a reason–and let yourself bask in the glow of success.

Later, you take a seat on your couch, think back over the year; the false starts, failures, successes beyond anything you ever dreamed possible. The half-finished desk calls to you. You kneel down beside it, take out the manual and try to figure out which piece is A-1, if E-7 is really necessary, and why you ever decided to buy your desk from IKEA in the first place. But with the desk just a few steps away from catalogue-perfection, that light bulb goes off again. Without thinking, you drop the screwdriver and close the manual. Furniture can wait. But light bulbs… Light bulbs burn out.

I’m so proud of my students and colleagues for all of their hard work in Innovation Lab’s inaugural year! Can’t wait to see what “light bulb” moments come to InLab students next year!

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Final Exams and PoLs

Last week, a brilliant math student asked me, “Am I going to have to explain this for the final? Because I can do it, but I don’t think I could explain it.”

She asked because, for honors midterms in January, I replaced the open-ended section with an oral exam. Students prepared to explain two different types of functions. At their scheduled time we flipped a coin to choose their topic. Terrified, nervous, or confident, they presented for a minimum of fifteen minutes to a panel of two teachers and one student. I let students choose what specifically they wanted to discuss, but they needed to be ready to answer any question related to their mathematical function.

A typical Algebra 2 exam may require students to [heavy math warning] find the vertical asymptote of a rational function. I suggested students be ready to explain why a rational function has a vertical asymptote. And their answer must not be parroting a rule or definition. To be more clear, imagine I asked you to explain to me why balloons float. You might respond that helium is lighter than air. My questions during the oral exam forced students to explain the equivalent of why helium is lighter than air. It takes more time and a deeper understanding to answer a theoretical math question like this. We allowed our students both.

I am disappointed that I cannot offer an oral portion of the exam during next week’s final exams. The presentation they will do, however, is a worthy substitute. These Presentations of Learning (PoLs) are a way for our students to reflect on their year by giving specific examples from STEM and Humanities projects as proof that they are working towards meeting the core values of GHS’ Vision of the Graduate. We also will ask for areas in which they want to improve next year. This reflection and goal-setting is the basis for their work in the fall. We are starting small; the audience is just the panel of teachers. However, we expect PoLs to grow every year into something akin to those at High Tech High and other interdisciplinary programs.

The math exam will largely be a traditional math exam. The A+ student from last week will memorize how to solve all of the problems, but there is evidence to suggest she will quickly forget most of it. In a study featured in the documentary our school has screened three times, Most Likely to Succeed, a top-rated east coast school gave their usual final exams and students averaged a B+. Three months later, on a simplified version, the average dropped to an F. In a similar study, Dartmouth College gave students who scored a 5 on their AP Psychology exams at the beginning of their college Psych course and only 10% passed.

We are a project-based, interdisciplinary program within a high school that, for our courses, requires final exams. We can count Presentations of Learning as a percentage of them. While I am excited to hear students’ triumphs, I most look forward to hearing about their goals for next year. We will expect students to remember them three months from now.

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Watching Learning Happen

I sit quietly Friday morning, watching the aftermath of a “knowledge dump” (That’s what I’m going to call it) session on radiation. The white board was full of information of nuclear radiation equations, particle penetration and energy levels, and general characteristics of the three major forms of radiation. Afters months working on STEM projects, preparing for Presentations of Learning, and finishing up their sophomore research papers before the end of the year, the students are “eating up” their self-directed learning modules on nuclear energy and spending time teaching each other trigonometry.

We, the teachers, have become resources; students set their own schedules, optimize the time they need to spend on each topic and project. They willingly help each other, sharing their strengths with their peers, and using “little tricks” to remember steps or to solve problems. It really is fascinating to see the learning environment that has been fully established over the year. The growth of the students has been amazing, from the first time they picked up a temperature probe in September, to their final National History Day projects in May (Go WASPs!!!).

This week they had a little break, as they got to go to the Bruce Museum to see the Electricity and Electric Paris exhibits, and had a fun ice cream social with the current and upcoming Innovation Lab students. I am excited to watch next year’s progress…wait… I am supposed to be teaching…but then again, how is that different?

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STEM Project Exhibitions – Eureka, it really IS battery power (and solar power, and hydropower, and…..)

As we approach the end of the school year, Innovation Lab students are busy putting the finishing touches on the final STEM Project of the year – the Eureka! It’s Battery Power Project!!!.  For this project, students were expected to design and build a device incorporating electric power that is portable, sustainable, and meets a need.  In a twist that “upped” the challenge factor, students not only had to design the actual output for the project, they were also asked to plan a unique exhibition of their work.  Exhibition audience, format, timing, and scheduling were all up to the students.  Brian and I just provided logistics support and, where necessary, signed paperwork.  We are thrilled to report that both the devices themselves and the venues in which the students have showcased their efforts were diverse, creative, and impressive!  Please see below for details and links for each of these 14 amazing projects!!!!  This blog is long – but it is TOTALLY worth the effort, so don’t miss out on any of it…..

#1 – The Electric Go-Cart

Dylan, Alex K., Grant and Tyler have been on a quest – a quest to build a solar power rechargeable electric go-cart.  Like all good quests, this one will probably need multiple volumes to come to its dramatic and satisfying conclusion.  For their exhibition they created a documentary detailing their work thus far (see below), and will be consulting with the tech-engineering class to help problem solve the remaining issues.

#2 – The Solar-Powered Tyke Car

Siobhan, Ziare, Destene, and Grayson rehabilitated an old broken down tyke car, including a complete re-wire, AND made it solar powered by constructing a solar power charging station for the car’s batteries.  In addition to meeting the need for fun, this group used their project as a kid-friendly way to educate young students about sustainable energy and solar power.  To prepare they had to take a complex project and explain it at two levels – in a technical description directed at an adult audience and in educational materials directed to an elementary audience (which you can read here).  As their culminating exhibition, they took a road trip to Whitby School and demonstrated their project to an elementary level class, including test drives!  Everyone had a blast!!  You can read more about it in this Greenwich Free Press article.

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The Solar Powered Tyke Car group visits Whitby School!


#3 – The Atmospheric Water Generator

Kai, Jari, Molly, and Jovanni are trying to help solve a major public health issue – availability of potable water in developing nations.  Their idea?  A personal atmospheric water generator that harnesses solar energy to power a dehumidifier (to condense water from the atmosphere) and provide water filtration to ensure the water is safe to drink.  Initial research and design attempts served to clarify how humid the atmosphere would need to be and how much power would be required to condense a given volume of water on an average day.  The group also conducted tests to analyze the extent of water filtration likely necessary to make that water “clean” enough to drink.  Turns out there are A LOT of technical challenges to be resolved to bring their concept to fruition.  Thus, the team has enlisted the help of engineers and designers at MIT’s D-Lab. Via email communication and an upcoming Skype session with these experts, the team hopes to brainstorm ideas to overcome obstacles.  Have a look at the technical proposal they forwarded to the D-Lab here.

#4 – The Nanoporous Graphene Desalination Membrane Documentary

Sofia, Kathryn, and Rob also opted for a project centered on water availability, and began diving into desalination (pun intended!).  They were inspired by the work of Dr. David Cohen-Tanugi on nanoporous graphene as a reverse osmosis membrane and decided to make a documentary about him and his work.  They reached out to Dr. Cohen-Tanugi, who has generously offered his time and expertise via emails and Skype interviews.  Based upon these communications, and close reading of his MIT dissertation as well as several peer-reviewed scientific journal articles on the subject (e.g. this article published in Nature Magazine) the group has crafted a documentary script stunning in its level of technical detail and accuracy.  Based upon the quality of their work, the group has been invited to screen their finished documentary as part of Bruce Museum’s Sunday Science at the Seaside Center – so be on the lookout for that event tentatively scheduled for September 4th!  As a stunning example of the real-world professionalism promoted by Innovation Lab – the three also have a signed technology licensing agreement with MIT granting them permission to use data and figures from Dr. Cohen-Tanugi’s dissertation in their documentary!

#5 – Hydropower!!!

Katherine, Nicole, Angelina, and Flora aimed to construct small modular hydropower devices that can recharge standard rechargeable batteries, and then install them in our campus waterfall.  They tested three different waterwheel prototypes, but found that none of their initial designs would generate the current and voltage necessary to recharge a standard rechargeable battery.  The have presented all of their work in exquisite detail on their very own hydropower website.  Please visit it today and offer your comments!!  Of special note, the stunning photograph that serves as the site’s banner was taken by Nicole at our waterfall (look for the rainbow…).


The hydropower team in action.


#6 – The Piezoelectric Power Proposal

Chloe prepared a proposal for installation of piezoelectric tiles in high foot-traffic areas of Greenwich High School with the dual purpose aim of providing an energy-offset for the building as a whole, as well a providing an entertaining, high-visibility format to educate students and staff about issues of sustainable energy.  After meeting with Headmaster Chris Winters about her proposal, she is in the process of contacting Pavegen to get a formal price quote for the proposed project.

#7 – “Solar Smoothies”

Rylie, Julia, Jane, Fjolla, and Sofi sold “Solar Smoothies!”  They built a solar power charging station / food preparation cart that uses sustainable energy to power two smoothie blenders.   They made and sold their own signature recipe smoothies to InLab parents and students at our Innovation Lab Community gathering earlier this month, and then to Greenwich High students in general in the student center during lunch block.  The smoothies got rave reviews and were so popular they sold out in under 30 minutes!!!!


Building and exhibiting the “Solar Smoothies” cart


#8 – The Miniature Vertical Axis Windmill

Alex S. has been creating prototype after prototype of a small scale vertical axis windmill with the intent of manufacturing a portable device that can be attached to the frame of a bicycle or the window of a car, so that users can charge their cell phones or other small electronics while travelling from place to place.  After designing and testing two different 3D printed designs, and a third wood and metal design, Alex realized that he had not properly accounted for Bernouilli’s principle in his designs, and that therefore his speed of rotation and power output were sub-optimal.  For his exhibition, he will be conferencing with some AP Physics students to problem-solve and plan the next prototype iteration.


Alex’s tests of his three prototypes.


#9 – STEM Stories (A Personal Narrative)

Juliana began her journey trying to make a backpack that harnesses solar energy to filter water and charge a cell phone, then shifted focus to solar powered decorative lawn lights.  Along the way she learned some fundamental truths about the nature of STEM including: 1) things seldom if ever turn out the way you pictured them at the outset, 2) progress is a meandering journey, not a straight shot, and 3) frequently you can learn more from what doesn’t work than what does.  Leveraging her strong literary bent, Juliana has opted to chronicle her experiences in a personal narrative.  Keep an eye out for her beautiful writing soon to be available on her blog.

#10 – The Solar-Powered Robot (Its name is Frónt)

Calvin, Kevin, and Andrew are trying to help out the GHS Robotics Team by building a portable solar charging station that can recharge both the nickel-metal hydride battery that powers the team’s robot (whose name is Frónt) and the lithium-ion battery of the Android platform phone that serves as the remote control for the robot.  Stepping down the voltage from the charging station to what the phone can handle has been a real engineering challenge, requiring the gentlemen to design, solder, and test their own circuits to provide just the right amount of resistance.  Check out the Instructables post that served as the group’s exhibition!  They are also planning to show their progress to the GHS Robotics Team for feedback.


Planning and building for the solar-powered robot.


#11 – A Better Solar-Powered Cell Phone Charger

Tess and Riley have proven the old adage “if you want something done right, do it yourself”!  They built their own compact solar-charger for cell phones.  Their version – which they soldered, wired, sewed, and tested themselves – is cheaper, lighter, and works BETTER (provides more current and a faster charging time) than a commercially available version they used for comparison.  For their exhibition, they demo-ed their product (and gave out lollipops!) to enthusiastic students.


Solar-powered cell phone charger is a real draw!


#12 – The Solar-Powered Grill (Burgers Anyone?)

Emily, Pierce, Carly, and Sam wanted to make burgers at the beach using a solar-powered electric grill.  To get there they learned solar panel wiring, soldering, battery-pack design, grill wiring, 3D printing, and more.  Although they aren’t ready to BBQ just yet – you can learn more about their journey from the photo book they created chronicling their efforts.  Their book, as well as several prototypes and other artifacts from the project, will be on display at Bruce Museum as of July in a fitting supplement to the museum’s current Electricity exhibit (more science puns!).


CEPS in action!


#13 – The Battery Board (Patent Pending)

(Dr. G is a licensed Patent Agent so that could actually happen….)

James and Joey melded their passion for skateboarding with practicality, completely redesigning a standard skateboard to harness the energy of the rotation of the wheels to charge a rechargeable battery, which is then wired to a USB port, so that you can plug in and charge your cell phone or Jambox speaker.  If you were able to join us for our Innovation Lab Community Get Together a few weeks ago, then you probably got to see James and Joey exhibit their work in progress.  If you missed it, don’t worry!  Joey and James’ YouTube video contains their thoughts on project, as well as the comments and feedback of some community members.


#14 – The Solar-Powered Raspberry Pi

Anselmo, Richie, and Owen brought together their diverse talents in technology, coding, and building to craft a portable solar-charging station for a Raspberry Pi.  Now this small portable coding platform is even easier to use!!  Check out their Reddit post that includes detailed instructions for how you can make your own, including a complete parts list and a a downloadable STL file for their 3D printed battery holster.  The team then exhibited their work to a Greenwich High School coding class.  Feedback from the coding class and in comments on their Reddit post have been extremely positive – with ongoing design revisions being debated.  My favorite comment on the Reddit page: “Wish I had your skills in high school!”


Solar powered Raspberry Pi


WOW!!  Thanks for hanging in there ’til the end.  Brian and I are SO excited about what Innovation Lab students were able to accomplish in the course of this project, and we hope you have been as well.  Stay tuned for more exciting STEM project work in 2016-2017!!!


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On Friday morning, my department head asked me what I was most proud of during the first year of Innovation Lab. I told her that watching students exhibit their work – at the Bruce Museum, at National History Day – were highlights of my career. Not twelve hours later, in South Carolina for a graduation, I acted the part of proud parent and swiped through photos and videos of InLab student work. I never seem to do this with math quizzes. There is a correlation between how shareable work is and the extent to which students (and teachers) care about it.

The connection we have with our students is a large part of the reason we want them to exhibit work of which they are proud. I was an RA in college for four years and Courtney spent years in boarding schools. Christina is a dean at GHS and Sarah spent years with tight-knit AVID cohorts. Mike literally wrote a book about being a teenager in high school. We are certain that a strong community is the foundation on which successful school experiences are built.

How do students contribute to or gain from such camaraderie? We asked them to reflect on this last week. Follow the links on the students’ names to read their full thoughts.

As part of the Innovation Lab community, I feel inspired and encouraged by the people around me to take risks and learn new things every day.

I think it’s so awesome how we get to show our parents and the community our work, it really makes me feel proud about all my hard work.

One of the biggest benefits I have found to being part of the InLab community is the ability to talk and seek out help when I need it, because I feel comfortable with the people I am around all day. Whether it is something personal or something academic I am struggling with, I know that there are people I can talk to.

I think everyone plays a role in Innovation Lab which is why it makes it special atmosphere.

The Innovation Lab community is a place where I can go whenever I need help no matter what.

The InLab community changed me. I am more confident in the way I think and I am doing better with my grades because the community allows me to operate the way I do.

This community has helped me to realize that there is no idea that I can not achieve.

The InLab community gives back to me because I get to see new things everyday. It is also cool to see that everyone has different ideas, and thinks differently, and many different projects are developed.

Innovation Lab has developed into a community of hard-working students who share knowledge with each other and push each other to grow more than just academically.

Innovation Lab is a community that faces challenges and struggles to create and learn something more than a poster for a project or read passages out of a textbook. It is a program to which the students are the leaders, the creators, and the innovators whilst the teachers are more than teachers but our mentors.

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National History Day State Competition

On Saturday, six Innovation Lab students competed in the National History Day State Finals at Central Connecticut State University. Participants spent the days and weeks before the competition putting the finishing touches on their projects, getting feedback from parents, teachers and peers, and not sleeping nearly as much as they should have. But their drive and desire to perfect their work came completely from within; there was no grade attached, nor pressure put on them by teachers to win. Sure, winning is nice, but students demonstrated an ownership of their work that extends beyond first, second, and third place. They have become experts in their topics, and because of this, were driven to present the most professional iteration of their project. By taking a personal and local approach to history, they were able to play the part of the historian, preserving the past and drawing lessons for today. The value of their work reaches beyond both the classroom and the competition.

Flora, Katherine, Juliana, and Nicole earned 1st place in the Senior Group Performance category for their project on Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. With an extensive collection of research that would make a doctoral student proud, including interviews with two WASPs–Greenwich resident Gloria Heath and Bernice Haydu of Florida–their performance illustrates the profound impact World War II had on the lives of these women and the country as a whole. As the WASPs continue to fight for the right to be buried at Arlington Cemetery, the performance not only shines a light on an aspect of history often ignored, but calls on the US government to right a wrong of the past. They will be heading to Maryland in June to compete against the top performances in the country.


Juliana, Nicole, Katherine, and Flora with Mr. Belanger and Ms. Hawes.

Julia and Sofia received a special prize for Outstanding Entry that Best Incorporates Jewish History, Heritage, and/or a Jewish Personality from the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County for their project on FDR’s policies toward Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. Through interviews with Herbert Karliner, a passenger on the SS St. Louis, and Agnes Vertes, a Holocaust survivor, they evaluate FDR’s policies and actions from the perspective of the people who needed his help the most. With current connections to the Syrian Refugee crisis, their project sheds light on the political, social, and economic factors that shape how a country responds to international challenges.


Julia and Sofia with Mr. Belanger and Ms. Hawes.

Hearing our students’ names called during the award ceremony was no doubt exciting. But reflecting back on the project, and more broadly, the first year of Innovation Lab, we feel proud to be part of such a passionate learning community–a place where students take the initiative, go the extra mile, support one another, care about their work, and embrace critical feedback to become better thinkers, writers, and learners.

We couldn’t be more impressed.

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One year ago, where I am sitting right now, twenty-eight desks were arranged in rows and columns facing the front. There were a few stock posters of Italy and a bowl with old Spanish pesos on top of a dusty cabinet. The cable connecting the computer and the SMART board was two generations older than the HDMI you use at home.

There are at least ten solar panels in that room now. The posters were replaced with mathematical artwork first hung at the Bruce Museum and enough memes that the Fire Chief is worried we’ve covered too much of the wall. We’ve stained the floor (sorry), got rid of the computer (not sorry), added a Chromecast (awesome), and are renovating the adjacent courtyard (slowly). The classroom is an example of the prototyping that occurred there today.

Grayson, Siobhan, Ziare, and Destene are working to charge batteries for kids’ cars using solar power. Just building the rolling cart for the panel takes hours. They’ve messed up at almost every step of the way. “Fail fast, fail forward” was the chours at Deeper Learning last month and was apropos this week. Find me a test that can measure Ziare’s satisfaction in taking apart a gear-box and figuring out why it was broken. A gear was missing; today was the day he needed to learn how to 3D-print.

3D modeling and printing is perhaps the most tangible example of prototyping. Two groups of four are dependent on battery packs working. Emily’s prints have gotten progressively better. She’s iterating and improving.

I was giddy today when we finally got the large solar panels working. The voltage of the panels, rated at 48V, topped out around 83V.

In addition to this miniature motor, the sun was strong enough to power the electric go-kart motor. The students escaped before I could film it, but I did catch the getaway.

Prototyping is vital to what we do but it takes time. We front-loaded this project with the chemistry and math of batteries: redox reactions, exponentials, logs. As students prepare their final submissions – documentaries, a Reddit post, a photo essay – we ask that they return to the science and math explanations and data that support the project. This week and next week, though, are all building.

When we speak with other schools that teach and learn through projects, they’re honest. If you think you can take science and math courses that already have daily pacing charts, add engineering and technology, and somehow “cover” everything you did before, you’re not being realistic. Our Design Studio course essentially adds another quarter credit to our four core classes, but we still have to make tough decisions about which topics are essential to “cover” in their entirety and which to simply expose students to. The weekly schedule we project to students has become a best guess and not a scripted plan.

The irony in using the word prototype is that it suggests that what we create can be easily copied. The majority of teachers – my old self included – worked hard to refine handouts to use yearly. We love tinkering until we get that lesson just right. But standardizing the experience strips it of the most important part: input and creativity of students. They are the ones inspired to make a Solar Smoothie or phone-charging skateboard. Our passions are not their passions. The space where they overlap, we hope, is our classroom.


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Managing Inspiration


The girls getting a chance to step back from their work and enjoy some bonding time during lunch, before refocusing on the tasks at hand.

The Innovation Lab is abuzz with activity. Between blog posts, battery projects on electric stove tops and drivable toy cars, and their work on the civil rights era, I often wonder how the students are able to process it all. They are so busy all the time, and constantly changing gears. In a span of fifteen minutes, I saw several students go from working on a math assignment, to a discussion on a recent edit on an essay with Mr. Belanger, a quick blog conference with Ms. Shaw, and then back to their math assignment. I am still reeling from my experiences last week at the Deeper Learning Conference and have not yet processed it all. But the students persevere, and their successes continue to mount. I looked this week on how they managed it. All around the Design Studio kids are working, but working the way they work best. Laying on the cushy risers in the corner, their headphones on at a table by themselves or having a quick snack before work (“snackie before workie” as Fjolla half jokingly refers to it), the students find their own ways to become inspired to learn what they need to learn and make it a part of themselves.

So the weekend is beginning and I put on my headphones and start listening to a CD produced by the High School for the Record Arts ( that we had received on our Deeper Learning conference to help me focus. The kids that produce these songs did not have an easy road. Most of them found traditional education did not suit their needs. It had no practical application to their lives as they saw it. It took a special place that molded a curriculum to suit their interests and round them out for a career by working on projects that required them to study everything from law, to accounting, to marketing to meet the needs of the project. They would use those skills to express everything from global issues to corporate sponsored messages. Skills and content that get continually reinforced so that they can draw upon that easily when needed, no matter what their future career might be. 

Learning that is relevant. Not to us as teachers, but to the individual student. At HSRA it was based on the individual student passions. For our students and others in many project based learning programs, the project is focused around a theme in which content would work as the framework, but the product and whatever else is needed to reach that product is student choice, and they own it. It gives them not only a chance to find a passion, but more importantly to expand their horizons and give them a chance to reach outside of their comfort zones.

It is inspiring to me to see this work in so many ways. What we have to offer them is the foundations as they are needed, showing them all available resources, and supporting them on their path to success. Our world has a rich learning experience available and our students just need a little guidance to use resources outside of the classroom as well as having the equipment in the classroom to creature real world solutions and product. Truth in what we offer in not just facts, but in what is real to the students and their futures, not what is so often only useful for a traditional classroom. David “TC” Ellis, founder of the HSRA, shared with us his thoughts on what was important for finding success, and how to manage the inspiration he eventually found. Is what we offer our students authentic and fulfill a need?


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