Without adjusting our current methodologies, we are providing students with information and skill sets that will no longer be beneficial to them within two to four years after leaving school. Shocking? Take a moment and answer the following question: Why are our top innovative minds like Elon Musk-of Tesla Motors and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)-and those who run Google, Facebook, and the like creating their own private schools that provide students with innovative growth mindsets, personalized learning skill sets, and the desire to go against what has always been done in the past?

We as educators need to take a step back from our past glories, biases, and fear-based mindsets and view school through the eyes of children who have used technology during their entire young lives. We must be willing to ask, “What is the experience we are trying to create?” as we dream toward the future of schools. As Sir Ken Robinson stated, “Creativity is as important as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Not Just Electronics 

We live in a world where we are surrounded by technology. Technology is not just the electronics that we use in our everyday lives. In a way, one might consider something as simple as a pencil that we use to make our “to-do” lists to be part of “technology.” When students participate in hands-on problem-based learning with a design-thinking process, they are learning skills that will help them for a lifetime.

Not only are students buying into their own learning, they are learning while solving real-world problems using the engineering design process. Starting in fifth grade, students are now beginning to understand how to solve problems like creating plants without soil, using hydroponics, building hydraulic arms, and creating packaging for puzzles they create on a 3-D printer.

It’s no longer about students opening a textbook and finding an answer; they need to be a part of that process, so they work collaboratively to find a solution. Students start by asking themselves, “What do I need to know in order to solve this problem?” 

Part of the Solution

When students feel as if they can be a part of the solution, they develop a certain confidence within themselves to take ownership of that design. They learn to analyze and evaluate solutions they have brainstormed. Students determine what solution will work best and have to be able to explain why they chose that solution. The fun part is the prototyping and building-they see their designs come to life. But the most important part comes from students feeling that their solution is valued.

Whether these prototypes are displayed around different areas of the school or presented at a board meeting, this real-world learning has to extend outside the classroom. Students buy in when they know the work they are designing and creating is for an audience outside of their classroom. Students who follow a rubric follow it to the last letter, but also have to stay within the designated parameters. Students who are given creative freedom and full autonomy can truly impress the unexpected world around them. They can then take their soft skills; their design-thinking growth mindsets; and advance in a world with swift, agile shifts.Innovation is a mindset. These projects allow students to better understand the design process while focusing on human-centered design to make the world a better place.

Innovation provides them with the opportunity to develop not only critical-thinking skills and understanding of iterations, but also the soft skills that will help them articulate their message to others in years to come. Take a look at some of the creative “real-world” projects being developed by students in the Tabernacle School District in Tabernacle, NJ.

Hydroponics/Aquaponics—Fifth-grade students go through the engineering design process and create a hydroponic wick system out of recycled materials. After evaluating the benefits of aquaponics, they then turn their hydroponic systems into an aquaponic system. In the near future, we will be exploring adding fish to the system to create a vibrant food source for our school or those in need.

Hydraulic Arms—Seventh graders evaluate the mechanical advantage of using hydraulics. Students work through a design challenge of “scoring the most baskets using a bouncy ball.” They design and create “arms” that rotate, lift, and have a claw that opens and closes. Imagine the possibilities the students will dream up when they are charged with creating devices to better the lives of others. 

Soma Cube/Packaging Design—Students design and create their own Soma cube puzzle. They first use snap cubes to make their pieces (to ensure that they fit together). Once they have their pieces, they create those pieces on Google SketchUp. Their pieces are printed using a 3-D printer. Expanding the challenge, the students then have to create packaging for their puzzle. That part of the challenge is open-ended.

Mini Golf Holes—A final project for the advanced students in geometry involves building a hole for a miniature golf course. Students design their layouts under constraints based on the size of the land provided, as well as other variables. They first create their model on Google SketchUp. They then use lumber and tools to make a life-sized, working miniature golf hole. 

As we embark on a new journey at the Tabernacle School District, we will rely heavily on student and teacher voice, autonomy, and purpose to create an innovation-based culture in which the fear of failure is removed. Here’s the beauty of all of this: We are just getting started!

Heather Petersack is a teacher of STEM, Design, and Engineering in the Tabernacle School District in Tabernacle, NJ. Glenn Robbins is the superintendent of the district and a 2016 Digital Principal of the Year.