Don't just have students make 'things'. Have them make 'things that matter' to people in your community & make the world a better place.

"What if you could bring back shop class, but orient the projects around things the community needed?" - Emily Pilloton, "If You Build It."

Photo of Kevin Jarrett

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"If You Build It," a PBS documentary about the innovative work done by Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller at a high school in Bertie County, North Carolina, has inspired an entire program at my school. I know because their work inspired me to do it.

In the movie, Pilloton and Miller lead a group of high school students through a yearlong course on design, teaching them tools, technologies, teamwork, and most importantly - focus on their community.

In the end, students designed and built a community farmer's market, learning architecture, carpentry, construction, mathematics, design, and so many other things it's impossible to list them all.

From the moment I saw the video, I knew I'd found the focus for the new STEM program I was challenged with designing from scratch. Many (most?) STEM programs have kids focus their creative energies on solving some kind of textbook problem or generic activity-based design challenge. Not at my school. Last year, students in every grade level had a capstone experience designed to test what they'd learned about human centered design:

  • Fifth graders were tasked with finding a way to help a second grade student at our school who couldn't play street hockey because his hearing aid generated too much feedback when wearing his hearing aid. Their resulting ideas and prototypes involved potential solutions to that specific problem as well as many others that came up as they ideated after empathy interviews.
  • Sixth graders sought to make it easier for a staff member, who has Cerebral palsy and travels with a wheelchair and an assist dog, to navigate the school campus. A variety of solutions were identified and created, and ultimately, a team of students presented the school board with their recommendation to install automatic doors, which is currently underway.
  • Seventh graders worked in collaboration with JeffDESIGN, a college within a college at Jefferson University Hospital Medical Center in Philadelphia, in response to the provocation, "How might we make hospitals less scary for children?" Three top project teams were chosen to present their ideas to Jefferson leadership; several are being considered for development into real products.
  • Eighth graders customized, printed, assembled and delivered e-NABLE 3D printed prosthetics to six children located in the USA, the UK and Ukraine.

That was last year. This year will be even better, as we embrace entrepreneurship and innovation as part of the design process, in active collaboration with the US Patent & Trademark Office, nearby makerspaces like NextFab in Philadelphia, the White House's Nation of Makers initiative, and more. We're also integrating EPICS, the unique curriculum developed at Purdue University that marries Next Generation Science Standards and human centered design. We've got bit plans!

So here's my point. The world is full of problems, ranging from big and hairy and seemingly unsolvable, to mere annoyances. We have an opportunity to prepare an entire generation of students to solve REAL PROBLEMS in the world, NOT MADE UP ONES. All it takes is a commitment to embrace human centered design in an authentic way, a supportive school administrative team, and a properly outfitted makerspace/fablab (it doesn't have to be full of expensive equipment, either). We're doing it in southern New Jersey. We started last year - this is our story. A similar series for Year 2 of our program is coming to Edutopia in a month or so, as well.

Won't you join us and commit to helping kids make the world a better place?

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe something you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research.

I have learned that my students' creativity, imagination and innovation are boundless, and, I can *ALWAYS* count on students to use those skills to save a lesson that, despite my best efforts to prepare, goes off the rails!


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Photo of Patricia

Hi Kevin! 

Thanks so much for sharing! I am definitely inspired. 

I want to know if you can share the process your team takes in figuring out what the theme of the capstone projects are going to be. Is it student led?  How are the students involved in this process? 

Anything you could share would be greatly appreciated! 

Photo of Kevin Jarrett

Hello Patricia!

Last year, we just sort of "happened" into the capstone project ideas. One I came up with (3D printed prosthetics); one was suggested by a colleague (assisting Miss Cindy); one was suggested by a parent (Jake's sports/hearing aid challenge); and the last one, the collaboration with JeffDESIGN, was pure serendipity after a Twitter introduction from a mutual friend.

This year, it's going to be different. Students will be involved in the process, and hopefully, they'll drive it.

Stay tuned, details will be here soon:

Best, kj

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