The Independent Project

The past few weeks I have been conversing with Mary and Cali Ragland, two seniors from Perkiomen Valley High School in Pennsylvania. These two are are currently taking an independent study course around the essential question: “How might we design an educational system that best meets the 21st learner’s needs by valuing curiosity?” They reached out to me after having been introduced by a teacher to some of my blog posts and learning about my work in the Education Transformation Movement. Furthermore, my work designing the AP Lang Collab Course last year, where I co-developed an AP Language and Composition course, was intriguing to them because they wanted to learn about how to push through the “dark night of the soul” in the life of an self-guided project.

These two have been doing some great work interviewing teachers and students and pulling away key insights about the role of curiosity in education. I especially love the quote that they describe as really encompassing what made them interested in education transformation:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – W.B. Yeats

I would definitely encourage reading more about their work on their blog:  Curiosity in Education. Personally, talking to these two has been great because it’s reminded me of how far I’ve come in the past few years, and reminded me how important it is for me to always go back to where I started- this blog.

Senior year has made blogging very difficult because I have spent most of my “non homework writing time” working on college essays and scholarship applications. Then when I kind of have “free time” (which basically just means I have finished homework and have no planed activities or meetings at the time) I find myself wanting to savor the moment to take a break from intense mindfulness. However, I know how important it is to blog to not only share my story with others, but to reflect for myself and capture my learning journey. After all, I started this blog for me -not because I wanted hundreds of followers or felt like my voice was something that just had to be heard by others- I started it because of what I thought was a silly challenge to observe and reflect on the world more intently.

In fact, I haven’t blogged in so long that I haven’t yet reflected on the fact that I was approved to embark on another curriculum creation opportunity by designing my own Independent Project!!

For my last semester of high school I am exploring the connection point between film, change theory, and education which will also apply towards my last needed half of a social sciences credit. Often times social science credits are just assumed to be a history course, whether it be world history, US history, economics, US government, etc. However, social sciences by definition are “social” meaning, about human society and social relationships and how they function, which does explicitly mean just IMG_6689.JPG“history.”

I say “just history” because I believe everything involves some understanding of history, because everything has a history and thus History is Everywhere. An essential question to all learning is, “How can we use the knowledge we have gathered over time (the past) in order to better understand and design for our present and future?”

So yes I believe you could call my course a “history course” because I’m definitely researching the past. However, for my particular project, I really wanted to explore society from the perspective of how we create change in society to then apply this knowledge in the world of education. The final product of this work will be a high quality documentary video focused on the Innovation Diploma and the moment that I call the “clicking moment”; that moment when students realize that the world is changing and education should be too, and they start to take ownership of their learning in order to make a difference now, not “when they are grown up.”

Now the main reason I haven’t mentioned this project yet is because it was a last minute project that got put into double time in order to come to life. At the end of last semester I knew I wanted to devote more time second semester to exploring and contributing to the education transformation movement. However, I’m always so busy and yet their is a finite amount of time in the day. I had to figure out what in my daily schedule could give a little time. What I realized is that what I wanted to work on would likely hit a lot of social science credits, so we thought, “What if this was my ‘history’ class?”

I worked on overdrive with my mentors in order to put together a document to pitch the idea of an Independent Project to our administration. The end of the semester though was a very crazy time for me both in and out of school, so I got approved with the intent of needing the first few weeks of second semester to still work on the planning details.

 

One of the first tasks I had was to figure out how I would devote my ID time, especially after the reMoVe10 design brief gained so much momentum after first semester. The design brief given to us by the Mayor of Sandy Springs, was designed to be a project we worked on during a single semester. However, our school admin, representatives from the Sandy Springs Council, and our new partners at Georgia Commute Options all got so fired up about the work we’ve been doing, that we realized this project needed to continue. 16387341_10154593513538277_4820722959124524604_n.jpg

Because of this decision to change the scope of the project, our team had to look back at our team roles and norms and decide how best to continue based on plans that were already set for second semester. I already had plans to work on my Independent Project work, and another team mate was already in the process of another design brief opportunity. Therefore, we added a new member to our team, and I used the month of January to waning out of my position as team leader to make a smoother transition for the new team. My plan is to continue to work with the reMoVe10 team, but more as a consultant for them to help give feedback and provide assistance at specific events.

{Small necessary tangent: This last month was honestly really hard for me, because I naturally find myself in a leadership role in the sense of “project manager,” so it was challenging to work on stepping back and being a leader by pushing others to take a leadership role. However, I think it was something important for me to work on because part of a leaders role should always be to coach others to lead.}

IMG_6691.JPGWhile continuing to work with the reMoVe10 team this past month, I used 4th period (my Independent Project time) to start further brainstorming what my video will look like, while getting a Film Course 101 tutorial from a mentor, and continuing to find ways I can discover and experiment with changes in education specifically in regards to the role of student voice. So far I’m diving deep into essential questions such as “What motivates people to learn?” “Where does ‘passion’ fit into education?” and “What gives students agency?” as my design drivers, though I believe as I start to interview people the story line will become even more clear.

I’ve learned that with documentaries one of the best things to do is to just press record and start filming. So now that I’ve officially had my last day full time with the reMoVe10 team (last Wednesday) I’ve been gearing up to dive all in on this Independent Project using my 8 hours and 40 minutes a week (between ID time and my new Independent Project specific time) to research, film, and synthesize information about the social science of education change. We pushed “purchase” on some new awesome film equipment yesterday, and now the fun (and intense) work is about to really start!

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The Movement: Transforming Education

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For the past three days I got the honor and privilege to work along side some of the most inspiring students I’ve ever met from around the country. What did these students have in common? They are all proud, passionate leaders in the movement to transform education so that in the very near future everyone can have a learner-centered education. And to think that the attendees at this conference were just a small hand full of the learners involved in this movement is inspiring.

42 students and some smaller number of adults, were gathered from 15 different schools across 13 different states for a conference called SparkHouse hosted by Education Reimagined held in Washington D.C. The coolest part about this conference was that it was specifically designed so that there would be more students then adults. (But we made sure to clarify on multiple occasions that everyone in the room was a learner. I’m always saying that everyone can be a student, a teacher, and a mentor at different times in their lives because we are all life long learners.)

The last few days I’ve posted reflections about the day (Learner-Centered Commonalities and Inspiring Minds United At Last ), but today I’d like to really reflect on my take aways overall and next steps.  (I’ll admit, there is probably much more I could say on this topic and I’m sure I’m forgetting important things, but this is my best stab at it.)

Take aways:

  • Relationships are key in a learner-centered environment: between students, teachers, families, and the community; every student needs to have the feeling of being known, heard, and cared about at a personal level for the best learning to occur
  • Defining vs distinguishing: you can’t define something (such as “learner-centered”) with examples, but you can distinguish what does and what does not fall into a certain category by having conversations to establish a common understanding
  • We need more common language: every learner-centered school is a little bit different though we share the same values. The hard part about this is that because the programs are different we use different language to describe the experiences (this week alone I heard about design thinking, project based learning, masteries, cardinal academy, capstones, extended learning opportunities, etc…) the problem with this is that it gets very confusing to convince people to join a movement while constantly trying to describe all of these different words which essentially just become jargon.
    • How might we develop a glossary of common language so that we can distinguish between different types of experiences while still being able to provide clarity and unity for the movement?
  • Detecting the presence of leadership: There is a kind of speaking and listening (communicating) that causes people to be engaged and united around a common goal that is for “we” (not “me”) in a safe space; the people are then energized and feel a part of something bigger than anyone of us and it’s for everyone
  • Creative ways to get credit: I love the opportunities I’m given by being a student at MVPS however, there are many times where I feel like I’m facing a two worlds struggle because there simply isn’t enough time in the day to dive deeply into my project work and extra curricular activities which I’m passionate about while also spending the required amount of time in core classes to gain graduation credits. The interesting thing I realized while at this conference is that many schools are giving students core credits for their big scale project work that may even take place off campus. (Like getting credit for working in a Kroger and Bank run by the school, or getting credits for participating on the robotics team, or getting credits while being certified as a chef or nursing assistant, or getting credit for an internship that takes place a few times a week during the day.) There are a lot of interesting ideas about creative ways to give credit for large scale project work outside of just credit in the sense of acknowledgment that you’re doing something awesome and gaining skills that will make a cool story to talk about. It seems like a nice baby step in the right direction is to start finding new paths that students can take to gain credits for the learning done from large scale project work (such as Innovation Diploma work or even electives and clubs perhaps).
  • If not now, then when? If not you, then who?: I can’t remember what TEDTalk I watched that had this quote, but some of us from MVPS brought it up at the conference because it accurately describes the mood most of us felt once we were “done.” We gathered an incredible group of people together and that alone has been a huge takeaway. I now know more about so many interesting types of learner-centered models and we have also formed a powerful community of students that are ready to work together to push this movement forward. Every great moment in history starts with a gathering of people.

Next steps:

At the end of the conference the group came together to start discussing next steps and what we would like our role to be in this movement. I’m happy to say that we’ve already started to take action on a few ideas, and we’ve also been thinking about several others that may be a little over the mountains right now.

Next steps in progress:

  • GroupChat/Communications: first off, it’s important to us that we stay connected, so the team of learners at this conference established a group chat with everyone on it so that we can update, support, and ideate with each other as we go back to our respective schools
  • Student Voice Edition Magazine/Reflections: as of earlier today I challenged everyone to also write/draw/record a reflection about their experience with learner-centered education, how they felt about the past few days, what their most excited for next, what’s the biggest thing they’d like to change, etc. then the idea is to compile these reflections into a singular magazine to showcase this new unified student voice group that has been created over these past few days. Luckily a bunch of people were also interested, so I think we’ve officially gotten the ball rolling!
  • Video Re-cap: throughout the three days, a professional video team recorded us as we worked and had some interviews with people as well, and the plan is for everyone to share this video with other people to help spread the word about the work being done across the country already with at least these 15 schools
  • T-Shirt Word of Mouth: everyone who can has agreed to wear our #SparkHouse shirts this coming Monday as a conversation starter to talk about what we did while we were away from our typical school day

Over the mountain thinking:

  • Pitching at our school: everyone walked away from the conference with at least one new cool idea for their personal school based off of what other schools were doing, so an interesting next step would be for everyone to actually pitch to their admin about a new idea for their school to prototype with
  • Exchange program: we send teachers to learn from work being done by other schools, but what if we had an exchange program for students where students would spend a few days shadowing students from another school to learn about other learner-centered models; student voices are powerful, so imagine how powerful it would be if a student in Georgia could come back from 3 days (arbitrary number for now) spent at a school in New York and say that they found this other schools way of teaching to be really inspiring? That would say a lot. Plus it would be fun for us students interested in learning more about different types of education!
  • The glossary: I talked earlier about the need to develop more common language, so one idea I left the conference with is the idea of creating a learner-centered education glossary to help distinguish between different ways we classify models of education. If each student at this conference were to help make a glossary for their specific school, then we put those together, I’m sure we’d find some interesting overlaps and have interesting discussions about what’s worth distinguishing between and it could help provide clarity to the movement in theory.
  • Student run conference: everyone’s always saying that student voices are some of the most powerful ones, and I believe that every student at this conference has the leadership potential to facilitate a conference. So one over the mountain idea that I proposed was for every school group from the conference to facilitate their own conference similar to SparkHouse. We would use the event to get more learners involved in the movement from people that are already hooked to people who come from a traditional school and don’t know much about the new possibilities some schools are making possible.

 

Overall I was thrilled to take part in this event and have left being more inspired than ever. I’d like to believe that I’ve been involved in this movement for some time now with my blog and twitter presence in this world of education transformation; however, this experiance was amazing to me because it’s the first time I really felt like their were more student voices out there being heard. There are obviously students at my school and others that are supportive of this kind of learning, but not everyone is as passionate about really being involved in the behind the scenes promotion and development work alongside the adults, which is understandable. I’m also sure there are more student involved in the movement that I’ve yet to meet. But I now feel like more students are starting to get involved and I think that’s going to be game changing, especially now that I feel connected to a strong united community of the 42 students I just spent the last three days with. (Not to mention all of the adults that have been super supportive and instrumental in making these connections happen and successful).

When teachers talk about learner-centered education people ask, “Where’s the evidence of this working?” but when students talk about learner-centered education, we are the evidence. It is working. Everyday I feel like I know myself a little bit better and am improving my skills as a learner a little bit more due to the opportunities I have to take ownership of my learning and blur the lines between school and the real world.

We as students have inherited a certain type of world, and we have something to say about it. The educational world has been the same for decades, but we are living in a new world so it’s time that education was reimagined, redesigned, and reinvented into a learner-centered model. I feel empowered as a learner to work to push the education transformation movement forward, and I’m excited about all of the possibilities of the future. I imagine a world where one day every student experiences learner-centered education each and everyday, and I believe this future is a very realistic world.

 

Learner-Centered Commonalities

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I don’t even know where to begin to describe how awesome today was!!! Learners from around the country gathered together talking about our unique learner-centered educations, and the conversations were mind blowing.

After sharing short presentations about our schools, we specifically focused today on what things are similar and different across the 15 different schools in order to get a clearer idea of how to describe learner-centered education by distinguishing traditional vs non-traditional (learner-centered) school aspects.

When trying to figure out what makes a learner-centered school my team came up with these commonalities:

  • hands on learning in the real world
  • self-paced learning
  • strong relationships between students and teachers
  • different forms of assessment then just a 0-100% scale
  • an emphasis on skills not just content learning
  • interacting and engaging with the community
  • students take ownership and are passionate about their work
  • flexible and interactive learning environments

However, I also noticed some big differences though between my school (MVPS) and some of the other schools here. The biggest one is that a lot of these other schools have a huge emphasis on the importance on internships and award graduation credits for internships as well as other specialty programs. For example, I heard of multiple schools were students can take a class offered at school where they actually get certified as a nursing assistant, or a chef, or coding languages and they not only get certifications and skills needed to go into these fields in the workforce, but they also get high school credit for it! It seems like a crazy idea, but in my opinion it’s just crazy awesome!

After we created lists similar to the one above in small groups, we came together as a full group and read through part of the document that Education Reimagined has been developing as somewhat of a north star to help share with others about this transformative movement. The quick summary of the main points is:

  1. each learner is unique
  2. learning is natural
  3. learning can happen anywhere, anytime, with anyone

While I can’t find a link or picture to the rest of these three points, here is a link to more about how the Education Reimagined team has been envisioning this movement which we read before coming this week. Part of why we were gathered here this week has also been to help refine some of this thought process; thusly, there was a big discussion today the need for adding potentially two new points to more clearly address the relationships between who we often call students and teachers, and also to describe the culture of a learner-centered school. I was more participating then note-taking during this discussion, but there are some great quotes on twitter I’d encourage anyone interested to read.

I think a big takeaway from this discussion was the general notion that we all have insider language we use at our schools, but really they are all just different ways of naming similar types of ways to learn. The language is less important than the meanings of the words. To convince people that a new idea is a good idea, you need to expose them to stories and immerse them in situations where they experiance this new way of learning for themselves and observe the benefits.

I was really inspired today by all of the students who are clearly all motivated and driven learners doing awesome work. Everyone here just “get’s it” as we said in an actual conversation I had earlier. It’s as if all of us here have experienced being around other students that just go through school like it’s a chore and have had those classes stuck in a traditional mindset, and yet everyone here see’s the possibilities for the future and is working to make it a reality. We don’t have to convince each other that a change is needed, we just agree and talk about how we’ve worked to provide our voice.

I’m still just so grateful that Education Reimagined decided to have this conference for the first time with students, because it’s been wonderful getting to hear from more students out there that I can really relate to and talk to about transforming education.

Best of Both Worlds

Days until the first day of school: four. Days until senior bootcamp: three. Level of craziness happening in my head right now: threw the roof.

I feel as if I have so much to do still before school starts. I only got back into Atlanta on Tuesday and I’ve been busy every second of the day. This week I’m finally taking my in car driving lessons; most people that know me know this is a big deal because I’m always hitchhiking rides with friends since I just hadn’t really taken the time to learn how to drive within my two years of having a permit…

Meanwhile, I’ve also been helping move stuff in my sister’s room (including setting up an IKEA loft bed), coaching camp, going through old school supplies and preparing new ones, trying to finish editing the article I’ve written for an e-magazine, working on finishing at least one of my 3 college essay drafts (I only need 1 but I can’t decide on an approach I like best), finishing up summer math (2 topics to go!), finishing up my AP Latin summer reading, and going to both of my siblings orientations since one is at camp and the other needs an adult figure. So basically there’s a lot to be done in the next 3-4 days.

However, at the same time I am excited for parts of school to begin. I am super excited that my study hall finally is the same time as band so I can actually practice with the high school band some without missing a core class! I also can’t wait for theater to start especially after talking to my director today and learning more about our awesome set and one act play competition plans. (Plus my next show makes me the record holder for most high school shows with a total of 12!) With knowing my schedule it also means that I already know which classes I’ll have with some of my friends and there are some that we’re just all really excited for because we know that when we’re in class together it’s always a good class. Innovation Diploma will also be welcoming our 3rd cohort, the Gates Cohort, starting Tuesday and I’m deeply curious as to what the future holds for us there. And as much as I am not thrilled with ending senior year, there will definitely be a lot of fun senior moments in the future which I’m also excited for!

I love how in the summer I have the freedom to travel and create my own schedule, but I also love how the school year has so many opportunities due to resources and the benefits of collaboration. If only there was a way to have the best of both worlds, because that would be wall shattering, mind blowing, and game changing in the most awesome way!

Different Communication

imgres.jpgI’ve talked to dozens of people about “real world skills” and despite all the debating in terms of which words are the best ones to include on this metaphorical list, good communication skills always seems to come up.

You could be the greatest genius this world has ever known, but if you can’t communicate what you know to others, than your knowledge is relatively useless.

Every  job, every aspect of life is going to require communicating things to other people. From describing how you want your hair cut, to proving you solved the worlds  hardest math problem, everything is communicating. There is no one that works 100% independently in our inter-connected global world. At the very least, there is a conversation between a supplier and a consumer.

With the clear demand for good and diverse communication skills, it’s amazing how many people still struggle with communicating. I’ve talked to countless people that say they wish their employees were better communicators, which isn’t surprising since teachers often note that their students can’t all communicate their ideas effectively.

The problem is clearly identified, so now how do we solve it? How might we create better communicators; people who can explain their thoughts in a number of different ways? Because part of being a communicator means you have to be adaptable to working with different types of people. Not everyone understands best from a written essay, or a lecture, or a presentation, or even a prototype. Everyone has a different way they learn best, and thus the best communicators are ones that can teach in different ways.

In school we tend to focus on academic writing, but there are a myriad of other ways to write, teach, and communicate. I for one have never taken an art class since 6th grade other than band. If someone learned best from seeing a drawing, I would be at a loss. And I know plenty of people who can’t send a good email to save their life, which will soon become a large problem for them. Furthermore, besides the alphabet and a few random words, I wouldn’t know how to communicate with a deaf person through sing language what so ever; that makes 70 million people I can’t communicate with past a kindergarden level. Even writing college essays is a huge problem for many students because they aren’t well versed in talking about themselves.

If communication is such an important skill, if we’ve identified we value it so much, it seems essential that we start putting a greater emphasis on learning to communicate in different ways.

The First Step to 21st Century Education

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I’ve had a a fantastic week at the beach with my friends on the lovely island of Sanibel. Even despite the tropical storm that came in, we had a lot of fun on the beach, in the pool, biking around, playing games, reading, and just hanging out and talking together.

I was reading Future Wise over this vacation and thus thinking more about the future of education– yes, even while on vacation these are the things I think about, I know I’m weird that way. I have realized that even though it is summer I find myself constantly thinking about school. I find myself not always being “productive” over the summer which is odd to me because I typically am very consumed with school work, self selected work, meetings, clubs, theater, acro, band, etc. What I’ve noticed is that I am very fond of school.

This isn’t really surprising to me because I’ve always rather enjoyed school. When I was younger I would say I love school without a second of hesitation. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself more annoyed with school and always waiting for the next holiday break or even just the weekend during the school year. So really I guess what I miss isn’t quite school, but really I miss the company of fellow learners working, discussing, and creating new ideas together; I don’t miss all of school as I use to back in elementary school.

This made me wonder: “Why is it that as I’ve gotten older I’ve become less fond of school is so many ways?” My hypothesis is that I don’t like school as much as I use to because school is no longer just about the fun and wonder of learning, but now it has become a stressful climb for “success”- however we might define that.

Thinking like the designer I believe myself to be, I decided to test my hypothesis about how stressful school is to older students.

I send a text to 13 students currently in high school and 2 in college from a total of 7 different schools across 3 different states asking this question: “What are specific examples of things that make you stressed, and why do you think they make you stressed?” Then I waited to see if their answer would have something to do with school, even though I specifically did not ask, “What makes you stressed at school?”

I did not provide any explanation as to why I was asking the question until after they had answered, if they asked, because I did not want to influence their answers in any way. Though in honesty, I did not get responses from everyone (it is summer after all and people are concerned with other things as expected though I only missed a few), the results to my small test were overwhelmingly inline with my hypothesis.

Most students responded with something having to do with school being the cause of their stress. The results varied between stress when teachers all assign big things due on the same day causing students to loose sleep, and when core classes and extra curricular events battle for time priority, and having pressure intentionally or unintentionally placed on them to get certain grades, and a myriad of answers about the struggles of figuring out where to go to college (these responses in particular often had many layers to them with everything from researching, to financial problems, to parental influence, to feeling confused, to fears about the general future of their existence riding on this one major decision- you get the idea).

Now I will say that there were other things that came up in my conversations about stress. Not everyone mentioned school at first at least, but as soon as I explained my hypothesis about school stress, 100% of those students acknowledged that school stress is a major problem and gave ample examples to support the claim.

I know this was a small little test with not the most scientific report, but I’m confident that if I was to expand my pool of users, I would find that a majority of upper level students get overwhelmingly stressed about school.

This is a problem.

Why do we let stress overwhelm school students? How can we expect students to become life long learners when they associate learning, which is most closely associated with school, to their primary source of stress? How might we make learning fun again?

One of my good friends from Nerd Camp whom I asked this question to, discussed for a while with me about how much we both love learning and yet how school has taken away from that love a little more every year. When I asked her why she thinks that is she gave a response that I believe to be sadly accurate:

“Learning isn’t really encouraged in school, success is.”

However, as another one of my Nerd Camp friends pointed out,

“And a lot of the time you can succeed in school without learning anything.”

As we have grown older school has become about getting good grades, so we can get into a good college, so we can get a good job, so we can have a good life; the idea of going to school because we love to learn and explore and wonder and just have fun being curious has been lost.

I know that these feelings and goals are not in any school’s motto, learning plan, or mission statement, but if this is what students’ are feeling then does it really matter what’s written on paper or proclaimed to audiences?

In my opinion, any school’s true goal is to create life long learners by preparing them with “lifeworthy” and “lifeready” knowledge, skills, and wisdom. But what distinguishes a lifelong learner from just another student at a school, is that a lifelong learner continues to seek out new knowledge and skills and wisdom even after primary education is complete, because lifelong learners find unwavering joy in learning. 

Stress can easily shatter joy; if we wish to guide students to find joy in learning, then we must find ways to eliminate some of the stress found in school- no matter the school you attend. That is the first step that needs to be taken on the path to 21st century education.

 

Availability Status Paradox

images-1.jpgIt amazes me how we live in a world that is so attached to technology and social media especially, and yet we have such a hard time getting confirmation notices from people about scheduling events.

According to recent studies, Americans check social media on average of 17 times a day, which is about one time for every hour they’re awake. Furthermore, the average American spends about a third of their awake day on a phone. (4.7 hours out of the average 15 hours spent awake.) Yet with all of this time spent on phones, somehow we still manage to have a discouraging amount of people who are frightfully incompetent at virtual communication with project teams.

Kemps this year did not even get to finish the tournament because too many teams had a problem actually getting together to play their matches. This weekend is our spring showcase at Jump Start and I am still haven’t gymnasts last minute tell me that they won’t be there which means I’m constantly re-choreographing and coaching. All year when I would try to schedule meetings, so many people just don’t respond until last minute, or they forget to ask the right people if they can actually attend. It’s just crazy that people can’t organize and communicate their schedules.

Then you get the excuse, “oh I’m sorry I don’t understand how to work ____ in order to respond.” And this baffles me even more, because if you don’t know how to work something (which is hard to believe because communication tools are pretty user friendly as far as it goes), then I’m sure there is someone you can ask to teach you how to use a tool. All you have to do is ask for help, but often that is a mind blowing concept.

Social media and scheduling tools like Google Calendar, Skype invites, Slack, and even just email are great tools, but only if people actually use them. How might we get more people to update their availability status to teams in a timely manner?

RISE To New Levels

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ReSpIn’s journey through the prototypes at iFest 2016.

(I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been wanting to write this post, however I wanted to make sure I wrote it when I wasn’t paranoid about being up too late and still getting other things done. So finally, here it goes. )

For the past several months I have been one of four members of the ID cohort on the ReSpIn team- a team striving to Reduce waste, Spark conversations, and Inspire change so that sustainability becomes a part of the Mount Vernon community’s DNA.

Back in the fall, we observed that the middle school does not have recycling bins in their classrooms due to “not having the space.” Yet if we wish to have our students making conscious decisions about how they are affecting the environment, it’s important for us to provide the means like a recycling bin in order to make positive choices. This simple observation impelled a year long design challenge around how we could provide the middle school with a recycling bin that not only was a piece of furniture that people utilized properly, but also really made people think more about environmental sustainability.

Using the DEEP process as a kicking off point, we were able to create early prototypes that lead us to the overall concept of the RISE Sustainability System. (While not intentional, we recently realized that “RISE” could actually stand for, “Recycling in School Environments,” though I must admit that was not intentional for that reason.)

The system would have two elements:

  1. Part one is the RISE bin container which would serve as a shell for the current bins we have, but the shell would create more vertical and shelf space by providing a way to raise the recycling bin on top of the trash bin.
  2.  Part two is the accompanying classroom component meant to help teach students more about recycling.  We realized, after interviewing an external expert who is a venture capitalist, that trying to make sustainability a part of the MVPS DNA needs both a product and a social innovation; therefore, the classroom curriculum is meant to address the social component of this problem.

These two parts together are the entire “RISE Sustainability System.” However, we have focused primarily at this point on the physical product because it is what was most in front of us at the moment. (What good does it due for students to learn about why and how we properly recycle if they don’t actually have a way to recycle in their classroom?)

Through early empathy interviews, prototypes, experiments, and observations, we discerned that students take an interest in things they have ownership over. So the big question became,

“How might we have students take ownership of the RISE bin with the bin itself still being structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing?” 

Our solution: have the middle school students build and customize their own RISE bin as a class. Our first to scale prototype, which sat in two different middle school classrooms for a week, generated a lot of buzz about recycling, and we learned that the 5th graders in particular were really curious about the RISE. They were asking lots of questions and wanted people to use it correctly even though it was falling a part due to it’s design (being made out of foam and duct tape primarily). So our hypothesis was that if students got to build the RISE themselves they would take even more ownership over the bin and wanting people to use it correctly, which therefore means they’d have to recycle correctly.

IMG_5107.jpgThis new hypothesis brought a plethora of design constraints for us on the ReSpIn team. In particular we were struggling with figuring out the best materials to use, how to attach pieces together, and how to create a simple yet ascetically pleasing way to get the waste into the proper bins. This period of struggle included long discussions with the team, mentors, and experts, several prototypes of different magnitudes, and many hours outside of school declared “ID time” spent working to finish our product. (I now know all sorts of random fun facts about materials and machines, like how you can’t use Coroplast in a CNC machine because the rotation of the machine will just get caught in the threads and make a not so aesthetically pleasing hole. More than just fun facts, I’ve learned how to use a plethora of tools like Silhouette, Fusion360, and the laser cutter while also improving my innovators skills of associating, experimenting, questioning, networking, and observing.)

We were narrowing prototypes based on 8 design specifications and scoring with either a negative, a positive, or a neutral:

  • function- how well are people able to get trash into the trash bin and recycling into the recycling bin?
  • customers-how well can our users put the RISE together? how well can custodians take out the content of the bins?
  • materials- how hard is it for us to get the materials ready for our users to put it together? (“What machines can we use with this material?” was a large factor.)
  • environment- How environmentally friendly is the prototype? (this had to be positive)
  • size- does it take up minimal space?
  • safety- how safely can students put the prototype together with this version?
  • aesthetics- looking for a certain degree of professionalism since we are at school
  • cost- the goal is to make the RISE wide scale someday, so how costly would it be?
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ReSpIn team at GT’s lab learning about CNC machines and what materials work with what machines.

After a fair amount of time, we were finally able to decide upon a 2.0 full scale version of the RISE. This version is made out of PVC, MDF boards (wood), and  zip ties and has met all of our requirements.

By iFest (the day at MVPS where all high schoolers showcase project based learning work from the year) which was just three weeks ago, we were able to create one fully finished 2.0 prototype and most of one 2.1 prototype which we had high schoolers and teachers testing with our instructions book while trying to create the PVC skeleton of the 2.1 prototype. (There are only minor differences which we wanted to test such as how 2.1 is taller and has a front piece made out of a different wood which we stained.)  Then after iFest, after we finished up the rest of 2.1 and made edits to our instructions book, we were ready to get our latest prototypes tested by some actual middle schoolers.

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I’m happy to now announce that earlier this week we had a huge success for the ReSpIn team with our RISE Sustainability System! We were able to get our prototype into the classroom and officially test out the design with middle schoolers and it went really well!!!IMG_1763

As soon as I walked down the hall with a pile of supplies, 5th graders started looking at me and asking questions about what I was doing. I quickly assembled a group of 15 student volunteers to help with our test, and from the moment I gave them the instructions booklet they were deep in concentration over their work. I noticed a lot of teamwork skills being practiced with leaders emerging for different things such as the student holding and reading instructions, and the student taking lead with putting PVS pieces together, and the student telling others what they could do to help, and the student asking everyone questions to make sure they were doing things correctly.

From early on I was able to observe that there were still several students not actively participating in the process the entire time, so I changed the test a little by instruction them to split up into a teams. One group focused on the PVC part and another focused on prepping the wood pieces with zip ties for when they’d be attached. Based on this feedback our team is now editing our instructions book to say from the start for the class to break up into 3 teams with two of the teams working on a different section of the PVC and the third team working on wood. This will hopefully help more students stay actively engaged in the process and cut down on how long it takes to put the RISE together.

We also were able to get good feedback about how much people liked the pictures, but we need to adjust the way we talk about the wood pieces because that was hard for them to understand which piece was which. One girl also said, “These zip ties are hard to get in the holes,” and multiple others agreed, so I think we have some design work to make that easier as well. There were a few other wording confusions, but overall they were able to assemble the bin with only asking me a few questions about the wood pieces particularly and also when one PVC piece was not quite fitting in right.

However, the most inspiring piece of feedback of the test that we were given was from a little girl who told me, “This is the best idesign challenge we’ve done, because we never get to see a project like this get this far.”

IMG_1762I’ve fallen in love with our users and I’m excited for the new edits and whatever comes next so that we can provide them with the best solution to this problem. Though, I don’t know exactly what our next steps are, because like the 5th grade girl said, “We’ve never gotten this far.” But all of the smiling faces, “thank you”s, and teacher comments about students asking more questions about recycling is how I know we are doing something right.

Individuality

images-1.jpgBeing a leader is hard. I’m the founder of Kemps Khaos Club at MVPS last year, though we were an un-offical club 2 years ago as well, and each year we’ve tried to improve our student-faculty card game tournament.

This year we set up the “Kemps Kouncil”  to help deal and organize all game times. However, trying to organize the Kouncil to make sure they organize the games is a whole other challenge. It’s been challenging mainly because usually I’m that kind of leader who, when something isn’t being done, I just do it myself to make sure it’s done. However, with Kemps, I’ve really been trying to let my team mates take that responsibility and just give them reminders to make sure it gets done. The hard part is when I get questions from teachers about when they are going to play their next game and all I can say is, “I don’t know, your dealer should be sending you an email soon…”

A lot of times when I’m on a team I end up in a leadership role. It’s just my personality and nature I guess, even in a letter I have from my preschool teachers it says, “When playing in a group setting, Anya prefers to be the leader but will allow other children to take over that role as well.”

In fact a lot of that letter is a surprisingly accurate description of how I still am today, which seems so weird considering I was 3 at the time this was written. I wonder how old we are when our fundamental personality traits start showing. How much do we really change over time? What traits start showing themselves earlier than others? What personality traits are more likely to change over time versus staying consistent through out a person’s life? What shapes our personality?

I feel like in high school one of the most common faced problems is someone feeling the need to be like someone else, rather than feeling comfortable with embracing who they are.  Everyone is an individual person with different personality traits. Some that are praised, and others which show our weaknesses, but they all make us, us. Our differences are what make us unique, special, noticed amongst the crowd.  At a wedding the bride is the one in a different dress. When trying to get someone’s attention you stand up to be spotted in the sitting crowd. In a sea of yellow flowers, it’s easy to spot the one that’s a radiant, ruby red.

For the amount of stress teenagers go through with trying to figure out “who am I?” I wonder what it would be like if schools placed more time and energy into helping students embrace their individuality. It’s a skill that will truly last a life time and be invaluable to success.

Individuality is important to me, and it’s something I see people struggle with all the time which makes me sad, frustrated, and oddly ignited. HMW help people feel comfortable being themselves? It’s a question that’s been asked by people for centuries, so why does it seem that not much has changed- I mean if the question is still being asked, clearly the problem hasn’t been solved. Why not? Are we asking the right question? Are we tackling the problem the right way? Are we communicating and working with the right people?

I feel the designer inside of me burning with questions and a sense of agency to take action in some way or form yet I simply don’t know where to start, so I’m starting with these questions. Hopefully something will come from them.

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No One Likes Stress and Anxiety

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It makes me disheartened with education when I see people physically upset (crying actually) due to stress about the end of the year. I truly don’t understand why we make the end of the year so full of stress and anxiety right before the holidays too. No one wants stress and anxiety. Teachers don’t want it, students don’t want it, parents and families don’t want it. Why is it still here?

(This reminds me of my recent post about the SAT.) What if there was a fun  way to end the year that still gave students the opportunity to showcase their learning over the course of the semester?

Like what if the year ended in some big puzzle challenge where you were in small groups, or even a class, and you had to use what you’ve learned over the semester in order to find the answer? Similar to at nerd camp last year when we took 3 hours to break a code as a class and then solve the riddle once decoded. It ended up testing most of what we had learned thus far about cryptology and helped us grow as a team. It tested our collaboration and communication skills as well as the problem solving and creative thinking skills; plus it made us think more about how they used codes in WWII which lead to really interesting conversations. This experience was tons of fun (it’s actually one of my favorite challenges that I’ve ever taken on) and yet it was really challenging and a great test of our knowledge too!