EdCuration Blog: Learning in Action

Innovation in Education: From Test-Taking to Change-Making

May 25, 2023 11:13:52 AM / by Kristi Hemingway


Humans are naturally curious. We are driven by our very nature to know and understand, and psychologists widely agree that human curiosity is intrinsically motivated–it’s built in. 

Why then, is the 2023 gradient learning poll reporting that 50% of students say they are not engaged in what they are learning in school, and 80% of teachers say they are concerned about their students’ lack of engagement? 

McREL International termed the student engagement crisis as a “Silent Epidemic” and reported that “approximately 40 to 60 percent of America’s high school students are chronically disengaged” (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2004).

And yet, as a career educator and parent of two, I’ve consistently observed children and adolescents to be intensely engaged, highly motivated, fiercely driven, and unreservedly enthusiastic about an endless variety of topics and activities. They are also profoundly concerned about the problems and issues in their communities and globally. So where’s the disconnect? 

The evident lack of engagement is not a gap in the adolescent psyche, but rather a weakness in the traditional pedagogy of classroom instruction, and listless framing of academic content. What students—and their teachers—are NOT passionate about is hoop jumping, fake work, and academic content that seems to have no connection to the real world. Can you blame them?

Educator Pernille Ripp confirmed the research by simply asking her students why they find it hard to care about school. They responded that they feel:

  • No connection to their teacher and peers,
  • No urgency about the content,
  • No purpose in what or why they are learning,
  • No power over their own learning,
  • Mind numbed by worksheets, regurgitation and fill-in-the-blank activities,
  • There’s way too much teacher talk,
  • And like school is just something to get through, leading nowhere and with no relevant outcome.
This is not breaking news. Sir Ken Robinson told us this from the TED stage back in 2006, and nearly all teachers know this is true, with 95% of teachers saying that finding tools and strategies to increase student engagement should be a “priority for every school.” 

Although it may not seem so, these statistics are actually great news because they indicate that we know what students want and need, and that nearly all (95%) of educators are ready for a change to new tools and strategies. What a watershed moment!

Many educators are already in the process of shifting to a more active, inquiry-based, and problem/project-based learning approach to increase connection, urgency, purpose, power and voice for students. For educators who are just beginning that shift, new tools, curriculum and training are coming to market daily. 

Project Invent is one resource that distinguishes itself from other PBL curriculum/programs by giving students the opportunity to have a measurable, tangible impact on real people in their community. Students can even turn their project/invention into a real-life business opportunity!

Project Invent’s goal is to create a generation of fearless, compassionate problem solvers and decrease the opportunity gap in STEM & Entrepreneurship. Increasing equity is a huge focus, with 50% or more of students in their STEM programs being Black, Indigenous, Latinx and/or the first generation in their family to be college bound. 

Student teams invent technologies that solve real-world problems in connection with members of the community. For example, a team of students at Freeport High School worked with community member and paralympic athlete, Robert Rodriguez, to design a more secure and absorbent prosthetic leg cuff. 

“Working with a community partner has been a great experience because it really pushes the boundaries,” says Freeport High teacher and Project Invent Fellow, Lashonda Gardenhire. “This is a real problem, it’s not just something that I made up for them to work on.” 

Innovative Educator Alayna Utt, worked with an extra-curricular group of secondary students to design an automatic file-sorting backpack to help a visually impaired community member keep track of paperwork. Students discovered that the same technology was useful in keeping them and their peers better organized as well. 

“The biggest struggle is definitely inspiring kids, and what I found through Project Invent is that if they are in charge, they are motivated,” says Utt. “They are extremely engaged the entire time.”

Project Invent emphasizes that  students & educators don’t need prior experience in design, engineering, or PBL to participate. In fact, the following examples are just a few of the many inventions completed largely by teams engaged in this type of learning for the first time:
  • A vibrating motor system that relaxes the user when their heartbeat reaches over a certain threshold
  • A camera rail system to photograph and monitor pollinators in local gardens
  • An accessible reading pen that aids users with dyslexia by decoding printed text into spoken words
  • A tech-enabled glove that helps stretch arthritic hands
  • A sports field kit to detect early signs of concussion
  • A smart jacket that acts like a wearable hug for those who live alone or have anxiety

In addition to training and curriculum, Project Invent provides national pitch events, called Demo Days, for students to demonstrate learning and vie for funding for their inventions from investors.

“Demo Day made building a project a very inclusive process for the students because most of the students I work with don’t have parents who are working in STEM, and don’t know any engineers,” says Project Invent Fellow, James Wang, East Palo Academy. “Demo Day folds in so many different aspects of the entrepreneurial process.”

One hundred percent of teachers who have joined the Project Invent Fellowship say that Project Invent has been helpful, if not revolutionary, to their teaching. Teachers from all content areas and grade bands are encouraged to become a Project Invent Fellow. Membership includes a 4-day immersive training, full curriculum, access to pitch events, hands-on staff and member support, and connections with community partners.

“The summer training for Project Invent was beyond phenomenal! It’s one of those few things in life where it exceeded expectations,” says Project Invent Fellow, Joel Voelz from Crystal Springs School. “We were able to take an entire year’s process and condense it into four days and have all the teachers experience the same frustrations and thrills and excitement that hopefully the students will. It’s just an amazing experience.”

Humans are naturally curious. Project Invent offers a framework for that curiosity to drive classroom learning toward a tangible purpose. A classroom of enthusiastic students collaboratively engaged in hands-on learning, focused on real-world solutions leaves no room for boredom or opting out. It's a place where both students and teachers look forward to showing up each day and diving in. It’s what our students, and their teachers, want and deserve. 

You, and your colleagues, are encouraged to enroll in the 2023-2024 Project Invent cohort here.


Topics: STEM, Project-Based Learning

Kristi Hemingway

Written by Kristi Hemingway

Kristi is a lifelong educator, published author, national award winning journalist and a writing/literacy teacher and consultant. After working with international and European schools, as well as the US, Canadian, and British militaries, she managed programming for a large Arts and Humanities non-profit. Most recently Kristi worked for a curriculum company as a literacy consultant, instructional coach, and professional developer prior to joining EdCuration in 2019.

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