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March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

When Students Take the Lead

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When high schoolers launched a business to produce and sell phone cases, they offered a glimpse into the future of learning.

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A recent project at my high school turned the traditional school paradigm on its head. It started when a group of students unpacked a new 3D printer; it ended with revealing the potential for a system that develops deeper student learning. I'd love to say that—like a lot of great ideas—it was all carefully designed by the teacher. But it was actually a happy accident born of a group of passionate students, an intriguing technology, and an educator willing to take risks to see what would happen.

Inspiring Technology

I'm principal of Carleton Place High School, a grade 7–12 school in Eastern Ontario. The school, established in 1922, serves approximately 760 students and is located just southwest of Ottawa. In September 2014, my school purchased a 3D printer, a technology that is becoming more and more prevalent in high schools across North America. These printers work by quickly melting and then cooling plastic (threaded on a spool like a fishing line) to make three-dimensional shapes. Students use design software to create the intended shapes.
These printers are transforming industries like health care, manufacturing, and design, so we wanted our students to be exposed to this technology. In purchasing the printer, we had no clear plan about exactly what we were going to do with it. As it turns out, we didn't need one—the students led the way.
When the printer arrived, no one at the school knew much about it or how it worked, but the students were intrigued. We gave the printer, still in its box, to grade 11 and 12 students in a business class called Information and Communication Technology, which focuses on topics like electronic business environments, communications, and project management. We simply instructed them to "do something interesting with it." (First lesson learned: The adults don't need to become experts on every piece of technology introduced to the classroom; sometimes it's a more powerful learning experience—and easier for busy teachers—to let the students figure it out.)
The class quickly had the printer up and running. Within a few days, a group was researching 3D printing online, designing plans at night, and waiting at the classroom door the next morning to print off their latest creations. The students became teachers, showing the adults in the school how the printer worked.
Their teacher, Chad Norbraten, challenged them to start a business using the 3D printer. The assignment included developing a business and marketing plan, setting up an e-commerce site, tracking financials, and using social media to promote their product. Soon the students developed a plan to tie the 3D printer to the course content by launching a business that created customized cell phone cases. With Norbraten's support, they found real-life applications for the theoretical aspects of the curriculum (for instance, a standard that requires them "to identify advantages of a team-based approach to project management"). They created a collaborative team, with members drawing on one another's strengths as they built their start-up company.
Within a few short months, the group launched its business, complete with website and e-commerce solution. To feed schoolwide student interest in the technology, the entrepreneurs trained other classes, including an after-school high school reach-ahead course for 8th graders, on both the software and design tricks they had learned. The students came to a staff meeting, school council meeting, and parent open house to demonstrate how the technology worked and to explain its potential to adults in the school community.
Through ongoing online research, the group identified a start-up company in the United Kingdom that created similar products. The students exchanged e-mails with one of the company's founders and later connected with him in a Skype meeting as their teacher observed. He gave them feedback about their designs, directions on how to improve their final product, and permission to use software the company had on its site (as long as profits went to the school).

A Step Further

The students were so engaged that they asked whether a course could be set up for them in the second semester so they could continue their work. We designed a blended learning course—using both in-person and online interaction—that would meet their learning goals. Using an online collaboration tool called Microsoft OneNote to anchor the course, we pasted the curricular expectations into the program and showed students how to capture evidence of their learning. These pieces of evidence took the form of notes, photos, and videos. For instance, students took photos of their designs and also recorded videos in which they spoke directly to the camera about what they did to master the curricular expectations.
As they worked, the students occasionally connected with their teacher from first semester for additional ideas and guidance. They also met regularly with me and kept a regular log of their hours to track what they were doing and next steps. They put in far more hours through this hybridized course delivery model than they would have in a traditional classroom.
In the second half of the year, the group continued to design new phone cases, set up an enhanced website that allowed users to design their own cases, conducted market research, and started making sales. Thanks to donations and a winning entry to a student business competition, the group raised almost $7,000 for the school to invest in additional technology, which included more 3D printers and a 3D scanner that can be used to scan objects, upload the image into software, manipulate the image, and then print the results.
The group even explored subcontracting some of its design work to an engineer in Pakistan. Although students didn't follow through with this plan, they raised provocative questions. For example, if students in a business class hire a subcontractor to do design work (which they weren't explicitly being evaluated on), are they cheating, or are they being resourceful and demonstrating a clear understanding of current business practice? The reality of their work challenged the traditional school vision of evaluation. In school, having others do work for you is "cheating." In business, it's a clever use of resources.

Learning to Fail, Not Failing to Learn

In the end, the business itself was not a huge financial success (the group produced fewer than fifty cases, and many of those were prototypes), but as a learning process, it was incredibly powerful.
The group had struggled, for instance, to find the right balance between its marketing efforts and the printing of the phone cases. Inventory creation and management were problems as well. The slow speed of the printer made it difficult to produce cases quickly enough to create the inventory they needed. Also, the group frequently focused more on creating the next design than selling the cases they had already created. In other words, the students were so focused on planning that there was not enough action to support the plans.
The students were very insightful about the challenges, thanks in part to the reflection journals we required them to keep. In conversations, they frequently spoke about "next time," implying that there was more to come. Rather than being a negative experience, the challenges deepened the group's resolve.
At the end of the course, the students were exhausted but jubilant. One student said,
We succeeded and we failed, and in life that's really prominent, but in school it's hard to come by. The course was realistic because we did fail at various times. We had to overcome that, and we didn't have anyone else to pick us up. We had to learn to move past it.
Another student added, "I put more work into this course than any other course, and I produced better results. Doesn't that tell you something about the education system itself?"

A Glimpse of the Future

In fact, the project raised several interesting questions: What is the role of technology in today's schools? How do we determine our current level of expectations for students, and do our expectations accurately reflect actual student potential? Who drives the learning in schools? How do we customize real-world, project-based work around student interests? With these questions in mind, a number of elements of the project are worth a closer look.

The Role of Technology

Although technology played an important role, its main purpose was to act as a conduit for students' creativity, curiosity, and innovation. In this case, the 3D printer allowed the group to explore design ideas and conceive of a product that they couldn't have created otherwise. The technology extended students' learning potential. It also encouraged them to think in different ways because it expanded the realm of what is possible.

Expectations and Potential

Outside of the limitations of a typical classroom structure, the students exceeded expectations the teacher, or anyone else for that matter, had for them. The teacher and I joked that if he had told students at the beginning of the year that they were expected to connect by video conference with an entrepreneur, students would have complained that we were asking too much of them.
In this case, the "unreasonable expectations" were both set and met by the students themselves. This left us with important questions about the level of expectations we set for our students—whether they are typically high enough and what role students should play in setting expectations for themselves and their learning.

Student-Driven Learning

The project made us wonder who drives the learning in our school. Does the traditional school system encourage students to learn about their passions? Is the system flexible enough to adapt to students' learning experiences to make this happen?
Although this was a particularly enthusiastic group of students, I don't believe these are the only students capable of such passion and hard work. Other students might discover this passion in different areas of interests, such as science, English, or the arts. The fact is that we don't really have a clear sense of what most students are capable of because the system is not designed to allow these kind of initiatives to take place naturally. Structure, curriculum, and adults currently drive the learning agenda, not students. This project demonstrated that it is possible to negotiate the curriculum and have students drive their own learning.

A New Kind of School System

The largest untapped source of potential in any school is, undoubtedly, the students. Unleashing this potential means giving students more control over their learning, providing them with opportunities to extend their learning outside of the classroom, and adjusting the school culture and environment to allow this to take place.
This project was only the beginning at our school. We expanded the business class to make use of the new technology. The class is currently using the 3D scanner and printer to launch a business that sells custom action figures and bobble heads.
We also now have a partnership with the local Chamber of Commerce, which helps us promote entrepreneurship in the school. The chamber recently invited students to tour area businesses and to attend a networking breakfast where they met local entrepreneurs. The chamber will soon assist the students in the creation of business plans.
Our senior drama classes are experimenting with the challenge-based, project approach, too. The students in these classes are working on projects that encourage wellness, including a music video to address student anxiety and depression, as well as a short film for the community about hunger and the local food bank. As a whole, the school continues to encourage engagement and relevance in all of our classrooms.
Schools need to change to meet the current and future needs of today's students. What we saw in this project might have been a glimpse of what the future could look like in a system truly built around students and their passion for learning.

Eric Hardie is a superintendent of instruction at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board in Eastern Ontario. With more than two decades of experience in education, Hardie is a former elementary and secondary school teacher and principal. He holds a degree in English from Western University, a Bachelor of Education from Mount Allison University, and a Master of International Education (School Leadership). Hardie has provided professional development and training in experiential learning, working with both teachers and school leaders, and has previously published articles in ASCD's Educational Leadership.

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