Students Tap into Passions to Serve Community With New Making Skills

April 23, 2018
By Tim McIntyre

Students from a small project-based learning high school in Oakland County, Michigan connect out-of-school passions, new maker skills, and rigorous design thinking to identify a community need and construct a solution, spurring profound growth.

In the lobby of FlexTech High School, a construction project is underway. Three walls, one with a bookshelf, demarcate an area of the room soon to be filled with new carpeting, custom seating, coloring books, and a speaker system. It’s known as the “Cozy Cove,” and it is the doing of a team of students putting a new set of skills to work for their school community.

It is just one of many such community impact design projects currently underway as part of Project Make It Happen, a 2017 LRNG Innovators Challenge grantee.

The LRNG Innovators Challenge grants stem from a partnership between LRNG, powered by Collective Shift, the National Writing Project, and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign to help educators extend time and space for connected learning. The connected learning theory posits that learning happens on a continuum—in school, as well as at home, work, and among friends—and is driven by students’ own interests and life experiences.

Project Make It Happen first began to take shape after a career interest survey revealed that students wanted more exposure to design, making, and engineering opportunities, says principal Sarah Pazur. FlexTech being a small school, this meant finding a community partner. Pazur connected with The Village Workshop, a makerspace a few miles away from the school where students could learn to operate and work with a wide variety of different materials and tools alongside members of the community and skilled professionals from local industry.

But Pazur and John Ward, the art teacher taking the lead on the project, didn’t just want to create a 21st century shop class. They hoped to create an authentic experience, giving students the chance to build enduring skills while engaging in work that inspired them, using hands on work to connect their passions to their community, and to future college or career opportunities.

Thus, Project Make It Happen was born. Students began with an eight-week survey course at The Village Workshop, where they learned to work with a wide variety of materials and equipment, from CNC machines to woodworking and welding.

With these newfound skills in hand, students then utilized the Agency by Design framework, a product of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero initiative, to “put a magnifying glass to their school and community [to] uncover needs they might want do address,” researched the problem they identified, and then identified the materials and resources they would need to design a solution.

This framework has been a useful way to help students think deeply about both their problem and their proposed solution, says Ward, ensuring that students really are working to meet an authentic need, rather than developing a cool construction project and “sticking it onto a problem.”

In addition to the Cozy Cove, teams of students are constructing outdoor seating for lunch time use, which the school currently lacks, and bee boxes for a non-stinging, actively pollinating variety of bee. Addressing off-campus needs, one group is constructing checkerboards for the local children’s hospital, and a student who volunteers at a local senior living home is constructing custom seating, the design emerging from a close study of the residents’ needs and preferences.

FlexTech utilizes a project-based learning approach throughout the curriculum, so students are no strangers to multi-week group endeavors. But the wide-open nature of the project has created challenges that students haven’t had to face in more structured, scaffolded projects, and the authenticity of building something to address a real community need has powerfully motivated students to step up and meet these new challenges.

“I think it’s given them more agency and voice and choice over their learning, and it really helped them develop project management skills that they hadn’t necessarily had in the past,” says Pazur. “So I think it stretched them to think…‘what does this project mean? What do I need to figure out to make it successful?’”

The students have stepped up and delivered, as evidenced by the deeply thought out and carefully planned projects under construction, but the impact of their growth hasn’t stopped there.

While the school’s project-based curriculum has always created opportunities for students to take on challenges and try out new modes of learning and production, says Ward, most have understandably tended to stick with options that are familiar and comfortable. But this is changing.

Ward sees much more willingness from students to try out new equipment, techniques, or forms of expression, thanks to their experience in the exploratory phase of the project. “I don’t know how to do this, but now I know how to learn how to do it, how to make those connections,” he explains, paraphrasing the now-widespread attitude.

More profoundly, Project Make It Happen has given students a taste of what a school project that truly engages with their passions and pursuits can feel like, and many are reluctant to go back. Students are less inclined to opt for more formal or standard assessments, Ward says, instead approaching their projects with a mindset of “let’s try to think about what it is that I want out of this, what it is that matters to me that I can bring to this project.”

Though still in progress, it is clear that the legacy of Project Make It Happen will be deep at FlexTech High School. For future classes, it will mean a spot to sit and each lunch in the sun, a place to unwind in the middle of a hectic day, and a healthier ecosystem surrounding the school. For the students that went through it, it means not only a set of skills, but the knowledge that every school day is an opportunity take on a new challenge, and to do work that weaves into their passions, their community, and their future.

By Tim McIntyre