What Innovation Looks Like at the College Level

“This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energizing as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.” ― Alfred North Whitehead

Last month our HS Principal Rob Carpenter took a team of teachers and administrators from Upper Perkiomen School District (where I work) to visit Lehigh University’s Mountaintop program. To say I was impressed, would be putting it lightly. I was blown away by this program Lehigh had created. It was student-centered, innovative, and unique in approach. Here’s a little bit about the Mountaintop Program:

Inside a former Bethlehem Steel research facility atop South Mountain, Lehigh is creating a vibrant and unique learning environment—a space in which students are given the freedom to pursue answers to open-ended questions while working in, and across, all disciplines. In the process, the students are challenged to increase their capacities for independent inquiry, for taking intellectual risks and learning from failures, for collaboration, for recognizing important problems and opportunities to effect constructive and sustainable change.

Video (you need to watch) Reviewing the 2013 Mountaintop Experience

The Mountaintop Program has been written about in the New York Times and Fast Company, but there was no sense of “we are done” from Dr. Alan Snyder and the rest of the Lehigh team. They were actively talking about how the program was growing and improving. Also, what they were learning each summer from the students and mentors working in the program. As we toured the facility there was a sense that the work had only “just begun” and we were watching something special unfold.

As the Lehigh University President told Fast Company:

“I actually believe that the timing of this couldn’t be better,” Lehigh president Dr. Alice Gast told Co.Exist. “This kind of work you can’t do online, you can’t do at night in your pajamas on the computer. You need to be with other people, and it involves collaboration, and the inquiry, and the open-endedness you can’t get from a MOOC—but I think [Mountaintop] is very complementary to those resources,” she added.

What We Learned About Innovation From Lehigh

Dr. Alan Snyder — Lehigh’s Vice President and Associate Provost of Research and Graduate Studies — led our team on a tour of the Mountaintop facility and program. He met with us to talk about how the program originated and what the learning looked like for students and professors involved. During the visit I took away three lessons about innovation:

1. Innovation Doesn’t Have to Be Pretty

The Mountaintop facility is old. It’s beat up. It is rusty and probably a bit dangerous. But that is what makes it so special. Students and faculty don’t need to worry about the space. They can use the space however they want. The docks are filled with whiteboards and crates and wood, all can be used for a multitude of purposes. The students make the space their own, and build on it as need be. A lot of times we think of innovation as something fancy and glitzy like a new iPhone. In schools (just like in life) innovation doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to support the work.

2. Innovation is a Collaborative Effort

Students work in teams on a product (with a specific purpose). They work together off-line, on-line, and cross-teams. The space is set up so there is a huge communal spot for conversations and gathering in the middle of the dock. The work is important, which leads to engaged conversations, and hard challenges to solve. We often think of innovative work being done by a mad scientist somewhere in a lab by themselves, but this program was about a group effort that was ultimately one of the most rewarding pieces.

3. Process Is Just as Important as the Product

During the visit Dr. Snyder made it a point to talk about the process. How students chose topics to study and problems to tackle; and why it was messy, but centered on learning by doing. The Mountaintop program is still debating about “grades” for this program. There are no “tests” or other traditional types of assessments. And much of the assessing is work between mentor professors and the students (as well as outside mentors). In many schools are focus is on the end result. Yet, the process (and how we tackle the challenge) is sometimes way more important than a finished product.

A Model at Upper Perk for an Innovation Academy

After our visit to Lehigh we began to discuss plans to expand our Makerspace and xLab into a full blown Innovation Academy.  Our vision of an Innovation Academy is very much like a school-within-a-school approach. Rob and the HS administration have already discussed what it would look like to build out career pathways for our students, and seeing the work Lehigh was doing at Mountaintop solidified some of the reasons behind this type of transformation.

Right now we are in the planning and building phase of what an Innovation Academy would look like at Upper Perk. Here’s where we need your help. As an avid blogger and believer in student choice, I’ve came across many resources about innovation, inquiry, design-thinking, and maker examples–but we need more. Do you know of any schools that have taken the ideas behind 20% time and Genius Hour and devoted an entire set of classes to this type of innovative work? Please share any resources in the comments (or any thoughts on the program you might have)!

Check out all of the student projects at Mountain top here, and I want to leave you with the second Mountaintop video (from 2014). If you liked the first one you’ll love this:

Photo via FastCompany


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