Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Journey Begins

This week, I'm coming off of an intense FIRST Robotics build season and Duluth Regional and making a tight transition to a trip that I had been dreaming about for the past 7 years -- visiting a number of the schools that I consider to be the most amazing in the country.

As I was designing and officially proposing a new 2 credit course, Grand Challenge Design, that I plan to teach next year, I found myself left with too many questions.  The course is designed to give students immersive experiences working in a design team, partnered with a non-profit organization or individual who has a challenge to be solved.  From there, teams will define the underlying problem they observe from their field work, invent new solutions, and iteratively test them with their clients until they successfully solve the problem.

I have a lot of experience to draw upon from my experiences with Olin College, Future Problem Solving, the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, and FIRST Robotics, but I also knew that there were passionate teachers all around the nation who already successfully adapted many of the ideas I was pursuing for the high school level.  Sometimes I can be an inventor, but if it helps me make school awesome as quickly as possible, I would rather just be a thief.  Thus, my dream to go see a number of awesome schools I had been collecting in my mind for years was rekindled.

After making my dream list, most of the schools I wanted to see were clustered in Southern California and the Northeast, leading my initial plan to consist of a two week trip that spanned both coasts.  Knowing that our professional development budget was tight, I never considered asking for travel reimbursement, choosing instead to self-fund and just keep costs low.  Despite this, the plan was shot down on the grounds that missing two weeks of block classes in the middle of the school year would be very harmful to students' learning.  Though I didn't like this answer, it was fairly true.  I scaled back the plan to the highest concentration area, a stretch from San Diego to the Bay Area, and received approval for a 5 day journey.

Once the plan was cleared, I started reaching out to my list to solidify visit dates.  Rejection after rejection, I was not only annoyed but terrified that with all the approvals in place, I would have no where interesting to go.  On a whim, I reached out on Facebook where my Olin College and other friends offered support in droves.  Suddenly, I had an "in" everywhere with direct invites from close friends of teachers and school directors.  Who knew that engineers could be so connected in education?


Monday 3/7: High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego.
HTH is a powerhouse in the project-based-learning (PBL) world, known widely for its highly interdiscinplinary approach to teaching and ability to get students working in teams beyond the classroom.  I look to draw on my PBL experience at Olin and PBL training from the Buck Institute as I see how it all comes together and works at a public high school.

Tuesday 3/8: Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) in Goletta.
Monday night, I will rent a car and drive 5 hours north to Goletta, just past Los Angeles.  Here, I will meet Amir Shaeer and his students at DPEA.  The academy started as a few add-on classes for high school students that formed a hands-on sequence to spark a passion for engineering and provide students with the prerequisite skills to succeed in the field.  The capstone project for seniors was designing a robot for the FIRST Robotics Competition, the same league I compete in with students in Byron.  I am excited to see how Amir and team weave FIRST into an immersive and engaging curriculum for students during the school day.

Wednesday 3/9: (probably) Summit Public Schools, Facebook, and Alt School (Bay Area).
Tuesday night, I will get up near San Jose where I will begin to crash with a number of my Olin friends.  Due to the very high concentration of amazing places between San Jose and San Francisco, I plan to double and even triple-up my meetings to squeeze all I can out of my time there.  Unless I flip days with Nueva, I will start the morning visiting one of the Summit schools, a public high school that invests deeply in personalized learning.  They partnered with Facebook to build out new software tools to manage this process of personalization.  I hope to meet over lunch with some of these engineers to better understand the philosophy behind this tool.  Finally, I'm planning to head up to Alt School, a private school founded on the idea of personalizing learning for all students in an open-ended, hands-on way.  Operating more like a tech start-up than a school, they have a dedicated team of engineers whose full-time job is to build the systems that makes all of this work seamlessly.  Finally, I plan to end the night visiting some Olin friends working on an early stage business incubator for education-focused start-ups.  This will easily be my most exhausting day.

Thursday, 3/10: (probably) Nueva School and Singularity University (Bay Area)
One of the most amazing schools with a very strong reputation for excellence is the Nueva School.  I am thankful that an Olin alum is managing their makerspace on campus.  I am hoping to see how they mix traditional high-intensity academics with open-ended learning experiences in a well funded private-school setting.  I know many things won't easily transfer to the Byron Public Schools budget, but the approaches and ideas surely will.  In the afternoon, I am visiting an old friend who co-planned a sister cities youth conference with me back in high school.  He is now working with an organization that tries to bring together some of the most talented minds to work on very challenging problems together.  I am excited to see how advanced students are pushed and stretched in this new school.

Friday, 3/11: Design Tech ( and Stanford's d.School
On the last day of the trip, I am 100% focused on design.  This will likely be my favorite day, as everything I know about makes me think that it is Olin College for the high school level, the goal I have been working on since deciding to become a teacher.  I will round out the day with a visit to the real flagship of design education, the at Stanford.  Between the two, I hope to figure out a solid model to work from with my Grand Challenge Design course next year.

This week is going to be awesome.  Though I have a grueling schedule and will still have fires to put out at home, I plan to stay disciplined by taking a crazy number of photos and blogging every day, maybe more, as I process and reflect in real time.  I'm excited to also mix in reflection from an awesome robotics season, something I have had no chance to mentally process and reflect upon quite yet.  Perhaps my long drives early in the week will give my brain a chance to put some of this to words as well.

There are a lot of details of the plan yet to be worked out, so it will be a true adventure with plenty of audibles along the way.  I'm hoping and planning for wonderful conversations, crazy new ideas, and lots of excitement.  Here it goes!

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