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Innovation Programs In Schools Can Help Kids Learn More Than Just Facts

2017 June 14
by Greg Satell

Traditionally, we went to school to attain knowledge. The smart kids knew that Columbus discovered America in 1492 and that the square root of 64 is eight. They studied diligently at home so that when the teacher asked a question they could shoot their hand up and be praised for their good work.

Today, however, teenagers carry far more information and computing power in their pockets than would ever fit in their heads. So the ability to retain knowledge and manipulate numbers with facility have become, to a large extent, outdated skills. Kids today need to learn how to understand systems and solve problems.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of programs designed to do just that. At the college level, programs like Stanford’s teach design thinking and entrepreneurship classes have become standard in business school curriculums. More recently, a wide variety of secondary school level programs have begun to take hold and are giving students a leg up.

A Nascent Ecosystem

While innovation programs at secondary schools are relatively new, they seem to be metastasizing across the education system and are increasingly popular among educators, parents and students. The problem is that there are so many different programs, with myriad approaches, it’s hard to know where to start.

For example, School Retool and The Teachers Guild train teachers to integrate design thinking into the classroom. CAPS Network and Youth Venture focus more on early professional development and entrepreneurship. DownCity Design helps students create solutions for their communities. There are also a wide array of maker labs and other approaches.

Sam Seidel, Director at the Business Innovation Factory Student Experience Lab has worked with a number of these programs and believes that it is crucial to cater to each school’s educational environment. For example, it might be easier for a school in an urban environment to develop internship programs with local firms, but a rural school, with a disperse community, might need to have a more integrated program on school grounds.

In the programs I researched for this article, the most important factor seemed to be support within the school community. It’s also crucial to have a few passionate teachers who have the drive to get things started.

Designing Real Solutions For Real Problems

Melissa Hecht and Ignacio Jayo’s journey began when they met Joe Kim, a former educator who now works at Eli Lilly innovating clinical trials. As high school teachers themselves, they were interested in what he had to say about how poorly the educational system prepare students for jobs like his.

“We saw a gap between the skills being taught in schools and those that are needed for life,” Hecht told me. In school, every question has a right answer and students are supposed to study to know what that answer is. But in the workplace, the important problems don’t have clear answers. We wanted to design a program that would help kids learn the skills needed to do problems like that.”

So the three started CentennialX, a program where teams of students are given real-world challenges provided by actual companies and given instruction in the basics of design thinking. Throughout the course of a summer, the teams work with a faculty advisor as well as a corporate partner to come up with a viable solution.

“The response has been far more then we ever imagined,” Hecht told me excitedly. “Kids and parents say that the program changed their lives. We never need to motivate kids to do this stuff. In fact we find them so engaged that we try rein them in a little bit and let them enjoy themselves.”

Creating A New Generation Of Entrepreneurs

The Dwight School has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. It considers its mission to “ignite the spark of genius in every child” and emphasizes a project-based program centered around the International Baccalaureate curriculum. At Dwight, students are encouraged to find their passion rather than just learn facts.

One of the major facets of the curriculum at Dwight is a full year project that all 10th grade students must complete. A few years ago, one student pursued an especially ambitious project to create an “Our Dwight” mobile app for the school. It performed so well that it got the faculty and parents thinking that they could take the concept much further.

The result is the school’s Spark of Innovation program in which students are encouraged to not only create projects, but attract funding for them. Each student has to complete five stages, from creating an idea and making a plan to building a prototype and launching an actual product. Each one of these stages is judged by a “Spark Tank” that is made up of parents and alumni.

Started in 2015, the program has already had some impressive results. One student built a portable particle accelerator for use in scientific experiments that was acquired by an investor. Another created a personal security device specifically designed for college campuses. A third, designed a pen or pencil grip that could be 3D printed for students with bad handwriting.

“We’ve found that in just the first year Spark tank program has had a profound effect on the school community,” Matt Moran, Director of Technology and Innovation at the school told me, “especially in how it has helped foster connections between students and parents that have the real world experience to help them achieve them.”

Reinventing Education

Clearly, the world has changed. Unlike previous generations, kids today can’t expect to train for a career that will last them a lifetime. In fact, a study at Oxford estimates that nearly half of today’s jobs will be automated in 20 years. We need to replace our regimented education system with one that prepares students for the future they will face.

“I think that what parents and educators most need to understand is that school is not just to attain knowledge,” Thomas Both, Fellowships Director at Stanford’s told me, “but to learn how to learn and solve problems when there is no clear “right answer” as there would be in a traditional lecture and test environment.”

Innovation programs can help, but there also need to be changes inside of regular classrooms. How can design thinking be used in science and math programs? How can a project based curriculum be applied to subjects like english and social studies? These are questions that we need to come up with answers for.

Most of all, we need to shift from an educational system that values what you can answer to one that values what you can ask and that fosters skills like teamwork, communication and exploration. A 20th century educational system will not prepare our kids for a 21st century world.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael Breeden permalink
    June 18, 2017

    Knowledge and understanding are two different things. Unfortunately, people too often confuse them. You can get knowledge from a YouTube video, but understanding takes work. The methodology for developing understanding is in Philosophy and is part of what was called “Critical Thinking”, a term very misused today. The other thing about Philosophy is that it is about more than developing understanding. It describes other ways to use the mind and seek truth. Reading almost anything teaches this as the author tells you how the actor thinks – how they recognize a problem, how they solve it, how they recognize mistakes they make. Unfortunately, electronic media tends not to teach methods of thinking or understanding or even teach understanding. In ways, this is changing such as the Numberphile videos on YouTube. There is more though to innovation and understanding than entrepreneurship.

  2. June 21, 2017

    I like the use of terms along a continuum. The University of Oregon’s Oregon Technology in Education Council (OTEC) has a nice hierarchy for Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom, arranged as it is along a scale of greater and greater understanding. For educators, such hierarchies are powerful since they help us choose learning activities and experiences and assessments. It is important to note though that even with this OTEC DIKW hierarchy, there are questions someone could ask. It isn’t perfect either. Nitpicking aside, the article’s insights and anecdotes are valuable. Leaders gain in understanding leadership when placed in leadership positions, entrepreneurs also learn the designing, building, and managing their enterprise by doing. The keys with each of these experiences though is in the reflection and the direct instruction, the engagement with the concepts.

  3. June 21, 2017

    Thanks Duane!

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