John Spencer: The Creative Power of Limitations – TEDxPennsburgED

John Spencer leads us into a counter-intuitive discussion about limitations and how they actually promote creativity, instead of stifle it. Filled with research and anecdotes, this talk will challenge your thinking on what makes us most creative.

John Spencer is a Professor at George Fox University, founder of the digital writing platform “WriteAbout”, author of “Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard”, and former middle school teacher. John write about creativity and learning at


Alan Snyder: Reawakening Agency in Students – TEDxPennsburgED

Dr. Alan Snyder shares Lehigh University’s growth of their Mountaintop Program, where students have revived the maker movement while tackling big problems. Student agency comes alive when ownership and creativity are part of the learning process.

Dr. Alan Snyder is Vice President and Associate Provost for Research and Graduate Studies at Lehigh University. Alan has worked to make the university’s research environment and its rich connections with human concerns of value to all students.

Edward Clapp: Creativity as a Participatory Process – TEDxPennsburgED

Dr. Edward Clapp looks at creativity as a participatory process, and how this drives much of what we celebrate in our creative history. Beyond the biography of creative individuals, we should be looking for the biography of creative ideas to understand the need for collaboration and participation.

Edward P. Clapp is a senior research manager and a member of the core research team working on the Agency by Design initiative —an investigation of the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning —at Project Zero, an educational research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Principal El: Every Kid Deserves Someone Crazy About Them – TEDxPennsburgED

Principal El is an award winning education leader and author of “The Immortality of Influence” and “I Choose to Stay.” As a teacher in inner-city Philadelphia Principal El lead his middle school chess team to multiple international championships. In this talk Principal El shares why every child deserves someone to be crazy about them, and we can be that person!

Beyond Makerspaces: Why We Created an xLab at Our School

I cringe when people ask me, “Are you handy?”

Partly because I don’t consider myself to be the best with tools, but also because it is asking me to judge whether or not I’m capable of fixing, making, or crafting something. Here’s the thing, I didn’t know how to put new shower tiles in and patch up my existing dry wall with cement board when we had a leak last year…but I had a friend help get me started, I watched a few DIY Youtube videos, looked at some articles online, and now I know how to do that (although not too well).

The same thing happens in high schools all the time. The “handy” kids go to shop class, the “artsy” kids go to art class,  the “business” kids go to business classes, the “techy” kids go to web design classes and so on…

It’s got to stop. We can’t continue labeling kids as one thing or another thing. What we know about the future workforce is that creativity, making, and innovating will be at the center of most jobs…and that will require students to be all of the above:

‘Experts predict that 50 per cent of occupations today will no longer exist by 2025 as people will take up more creative professions,’ said Martin Chen, Chief Operating Officer of Genesis.

When we started to look at the research and studies at Upper Perk, one thing kept hitting us again and again: All students need to be given the chance to build (not just make).

The Definition of a Makerspace

Diana Rendina wrote a fantastic article on “Defining Makerspaces” that dives into what actually constitutes a Makerspace, and created this awesome graphic:


While there are many different definitions, most use the term makerspace as a place for making, learning, and collaborating.

That’s why I agree with John Spencer when he said that Theaters are the hidden Makerspaces of schools. And that’s why I agree with Diana, that a Makerspace can be in a library, a classroom, a wood/metal shop, an art room, or even a computer lab.

In my perfect idea of school, every classroom would be considered a makerspace because students would always be making, learning, and collaborating.

In planning for our new Makerspace at Upper Perk two things happened to make us think a little bit bigger. Sure, we wanted students making, working together to solve problems, and learning along the way. We knew the power of a makerspace. Yet, it wasn’t just about the space. We were revising curriculum (you can read about that process here). We took apart our entire K-12 scope of technology education. We wanted to bring in equipment that could literally allow our students to build anything they dreamed of building.

And in the end, we went beyond a makerspace, and built an xLab.

What the Heck is an xLab?

Let’s break down the term “xLab” into two separate pieces.

First, start with the term Lab. The definition of a lab or laboratory is a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, creating or teaching. It is derived from early 17th century: medieval Latin laboratorium, from Latin laborare ‘to labor.

And while we can talk about how much “fun” it is to make things and create things, it’s also a lot of hard work. A lot of labor. What you put in to the building, is what you get out of it. That’s the lesson we can learn from some of the greatest inventors and creators throughout history. We also see that most of them worked in some type of lab.

Thomas Edison built and worked in a research lab. Albert Einstein, also worked in a research lab. Nikola Tesla, yep you guessed it, worked in a lab as well. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, is also busy building labs for his company.

Now for the “x” part of the xLab name.

The “x” represents not only the unknown, but also the potential and possibilities of the unknown. The “x” means a student can dream as big or as small as they’d like while making, creating, and building. The “x” is opportunity, and one that is not predefined nor judged on standards.

Google’s Solve for X site explains the spirit of “x” in their mission perfectly:

We are a community of scientists, inventors, engineers, artists, thinkers, doers, the young, the wise, men and women from every background across every geography connected by a shared optimism that science and technology can cause radically positive things to happen in the world.

When we took a team of teachers and administrators to Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Program and saw what innovation looked like at the college level, we couldn’t stop talking about the idea of “x” on the way back home.

We had revised our curriculum to allow for a design thinking approach to engineering, robotics, and industrial design. We bought equipment that could transform what our students would be able to make and build (CNC Router, Heat Press, Vinyl Cutter, 3D Printers, Vex Robotics, etc). And we had teachers passionate about giving students an authentic experience each and every day.

The UPxLab came out of many discussions on research, experiences, visits and collaboration across multiple levels, departments, and spaces. And it’s awesome.

This is why I’m helping to run a FREE course this summer on Design Thinking with John Spencer, where I can go into more detail about building the xLab and the process. Click Here to Sign-Up for the FREE Design Thinking Course this Summer.

Building Products to Build a Future

The xLab is still in its infancy. Our programs and course offering are changing and will continue to change. But we know what our purpose is for the xLab.

Students should have real world building opportunities. Making for others can be just as rewarding as making for yourself. Students building benches for the local YMCA and stage design for our TEDxPennsburgED event is a powerful and authentic experience.

Students need to have choice and ownership in what they make and build.

What students learn in other classes will directly impact what they create in the xLab. The same goes for what they build in the xLab will directly impact the type of work they do in other classes. Tying together education and departmental goals is a huge step in multi-disciplinary work that matters.

In the end, it comes down to this: The goal is not to prepare students for something; but to help our students prepare themselves for anything.

Here’s some pictures of the xLab and I can’t wait to keep sharing what ALL of our students are building, making, creating, and doing.

TEDxPennsburgED sign students built and part of our xLab space.
Principal Carpenter watching students design a product on “Inventor” and then cut it using the CNC Router.
Got to have some LOVE in the xLab!
The classroom portion of the xLab space with 3D Printers and Robotics.
The TEDxPennsburgED set design out students at Upper Perk built for the event!

How to Host a TEDx Event at Your School (Like we did at Upper Perk!)

It’s almost here! TEDxPennsburgED is finally happening in one week, and we’ll be broadcasting it live to the world (at Upper Perkiomen High School) on May 7th from 12:30-4:30pm (EST).

The idea and planning began in the summer for this official TEDx event, but as more and more people are asking, “How did you guys get a TEDx event at Upper Perk?”, I wanted to break down our process into five steps (even though it has felt like 500 steps!).

Step 1: Event Type and Initial Brainstorm

The TEDx guidelines allows you to apply for a variety of different types of events.  You can choose between the following:

Standard event

This is the basic event type. It is subject to all of the standard rules, and applies to most events. Learn more

University event

Holding your event for your university? This event type is for those hosted at a college or university, and organized by current university administration staff, faculty or students. Learn more

Youth event

This is a TEDx event organized by, or catered toward, youth and/or kids or school communities. Learn more

Salon event

This is a small weekly or monthly event that keeps a TEDx community engaged between regularly scheduled TEDx events. In order to organize a Salon event, applicants must already have an existing standard license. Learn more

TEDxLive event

TEDxLive is centered around the simulcast of the annual TED Conference. Here, the world becomes TED’s audience. Learn more

TEDxWomen event

A TEDxWomen event is a TEDx event on the topic of women and gender which features the simulcast of TEDWomen. Learn more

Internal event

This is for corporations, organizations, government entities, non-profits or other institutions that want to organize an event under an institutional name. This event type, and the naming exception it grants, is approved only for internal, private, employees-only events. Learn more

TEDx in a Box event

Some communities may not have the resources and infrastructure to organize an event. In these cases, we deliver all the resources needed to organize a TEDx event, packaged in a portable box. Learn more

Library event

This event follows the same format as a standard event, except that it is hosted by librarians at a local library. Learn more

ED event

ED events are TEDx events where educators, students, administrators and others gather to discuss the future of education. Learn more

We ultimately decided on the “ED event” as is demonstrated in our name TEDxPennsburgED. We wanted our community, educators in our district (and surrounding districts), and students to come together to learn from experts around the world.

Next was brainstorming ideas for a date, potential speakers, and learning about the TEDx rules (there is a lot, but all for good reason). Once this was done it was time to apply.

Step 2: Fill out the Official Application

You can apply for a TEDx license here. Reading the rules and understanding the guidelines helps in filling out the application, but I did have to do one revision after filling it out. I choose the TEDx ED license to apply for, but made some mistakes in what the event could be called (we initially wanted to call it TEDxUpperPerk but that was not allowed).

As the curator (person applying for the license) you’ll also have to go into detail about your background, why you want to host a TEDx event, and give some explanation about how you plan to pull it off.

After re-submitting the application…we waited, and waited, until finally receiving the confirmation email that TEDxPennsburgED had been approved!

Then it hit us…uh oh, this is real. What’s next?!

Step 3: Build a Team

The best part about doing a TEDx event at your school or district is how many people are willing to get involved and spend their free time on creating this event! At Upper Perk we sent out a few emails letting everyone know about the event and asking for folks to join the planning committee.

I was blow away by the response. We have over 20 teachers, 9 administrators, and 50 students all playing major roles as part of our TEDxPennsburgED planning committee!

At the first planning meeting we did the following:

  1. Locked down a date and place
  2. Made an initial list of speakers to contact
  3. Decided whether it would be a full or half day event
  4. Came up with a theme for our event (An Innovative Learning Culture)
  5. Talked about the timeline
  6. Discussed what potential roles and sub-committees there would be
  7. Discussed who would be invited as part of our 100 guests

Our team has grown and multiple people have taken on roles that have brought this event together. I can’t begin to say how proud I am of our team and the work they have done so far!

Step 4: Speakers and Audience

One of the most difficult pieces of any TEDx event is inviting the right speakers and actually getting them to accept the invitation. TEDx rules are specific about not paying speakers, and also not allowing any selling from the stage.

Our planning team discussed having a variety of speakers from across the education spectrum, and we were able to create a speaker lineup of a student (a 10th grader at Upper Perk), teacher, principal, professor, college president, associate provost and researcher.

Our student Pooja Girwarr was one of 12 students in our district that applied to speak at the event, and after a few rounds of interviews, I’m so happy to have Pooja represent the student body at Upper Perk and the entire community!

Here are the rest of our speakers for TEDxPennsburgED:

John Spencer

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 11.34.09 AMJohn Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. John has written several education books, and the popular young adult novel titled “Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard.” John is also the co-founder of technology writing platform, Write About. John is a national speaker on education, creativity, and the power of story.

Principal El

thomas-elSMALL-06-1Salome Thomas-El is a Principal in Philadelphia. As a teacher a Vaux Middle School Salome led a group of inner city students to 8-international chess champion titles. He has since written the books “I Choose to Stay” and the “Immortality of Influence” while being featured on CNN and as a regular contributor to the Dr. Oz show.

Dr. Edward Clapp

EPCheadsshotDr. Edward Clapp is a Harvard University Professor and Senior Research Manager of Harvard’s “Project Zero”. Edward is a leading voice in the design and maker movement around the world, and is an international speaker, who has also written and produced an off-broadway play. Edward is an international speaker on education and design.

Dr. Karen Stout

KStout_2014 (1)Dr. Karen Stout is the President of Montgomery Community College and the incoming President of the national organization Achieving the Dream. Dr. Stout has led a national movement to raise up community colleges and fight for the achievement of all students at the post-secondary level. Karen is an international speaker on education and leadership.

Pooja Girwarr

POOJAPooja Girwarr is a 10th grade student at Upper Perkiomen High School, and has been in the school district since she was in Kindergarten. She has been involved in various organizations throughout her years of schooling at Upper Perkiomen. On her own time, she strives to fundraise money to support research to find cures for childhood cancer. Pooja is very excited to represent the school with her talk, “Becoming That Little Kid, Again”.

Dr. Alan Snyder

alanDr. Alan Snyder is Vice President and Associate Provost for Research and Graduate Studies at Lehigh University. Alan has worked to make the university’s research environment and its rich connections with human concerns of value to all students.

We discussed as a team what the audience could look like. In the end we settled on 50% of invites sent to folks living and working in the Upper Perk community, and 50% sent out to surrounding districts and areas. We had administrators, teachers, and our area Chamber of Commerce help distribute these invites.

Still, we wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to watch this event could be able to take part in the live experience. To that end, we worked with UPTV (our HS TV studio) and AVT to pull off a live stream for the event. You can now watch TEDxPennsburgED live on the website on May 7th!!!

Step 5: Details, Details, Details

We are still a few days away from the big event. Our teachers, students, and custodial staff have completely revitalized our Courtyard area for a reception after the event.

Our teachers and students at the HS have been busy building the set for the stage (it’s so awesome). They’ve made the TEDx letters, signs, and so much more.

We have a group of students from our Elementary school showcasing apps and games they’ve made with MIT App Creator and Scratch during the intermission time period, our local Robotics club is putting on a show during intermission, and our MS and HS students are showing the things they are building and making on a daily basis with computers, 3D printers, CNC routers and much more!

Our play director and HS English teacher (she’s fantastic) has taken the lead on fleshing out many of the details and I’m so happy to have people invested into this event like her and the many others that are putting their own time, energy, and experience into making this event one to remember!

I hope you join us on May 7th at 12:30pm EST to watch TEDxPennsburgED live on the website

I’ll be sure to write a follow-up post about this event, but I’d also love to see some other schools and districts apply for a TEDx event at their school or community. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been a lot of fun!

Why The Maker Movement Matters to Every Student

“Students engaged in direct experience with materials, unforeseen obstacles, and serendipitous discoveries may result in understanding never anticipated by the teacher.” 
― Sylvia Libow MartinezInvent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

In 9th grade I cut my thumb on a saw in wood shop and had to get stitches. It wasn’t too bad…

However, that was the last year I took “shop” class in high school. I had enjoyed making our C02 cars in middle school, and liked the process of learning in “shop” class…but the food in Home Economics, and the potential game-making in Computer Programming took me away from wood shop. Nonetheless, I continued to create and make long after high school.

As a high school teacher I began to see a divide between the kids who took shop class and often went to the local technical school, and those students who took all “academic” classes. This is not to say that they weren’t academic. We had fantastic discussions in English class where high level connections were consistently made, yet many did not see themselves as “academic” and wanted to do other things after high school. In fact, many thought high school was a waste of their time because it had “nothing to do” with where they were headed.

I loved the “real world” perspective many of these students brought to my class, but I hated the fact that I categorized them as “those students”…meaning tech school students. The other piece was how the percentages were swayed heavily to boys in both our “shop” classes and technical school. I mean 90%-10% heavy!

The flip-side of this equation was a set of students who took every AP and Honors level class they could take during their high school journey. Their goals for high school were different. They wanted to get into a great college, and knew they had to have a HS resume that would reflect how intelligent and hard working they had been for the past four years.

They rarely did anything with their hands. Rarely made anything in school that was not tied to a set of standards or written out in paper. This was not to say that they weren’t creative. Far from it. However, their opportunities were limited in “making” because of the academic path they took in high school.

If only it were that simple..

Like most things in life, school for me as a teenager, and as a teacher…was not that cut and dry. Most students did not fall into either of the above paths, including myself. I fell somewhere in between, shying away from AP classes and also not seeing the value in tech school.

Yet, I always was tinkering around. Making videos (before everyone made videos) and making my own songs, recording things, and always interested in music as I was part of a band. At the time I didn’t know I was a “Maker” or have any idea about that term. I did know that when something interested me I usually jumped at the chance to mess around and play with it to learn.

When I gave my students the choice to work on whatever project they wanted to for our 20% Time projects, I joined in the fun. I decided to build my own app from scratch (something I always wanted to do) and the Maker in me came out again. I saw how my students struggled with their projects…yet continued to push through. Even though our projects were not tied to grades, they still cared and had a higher level of commitment than I could have ever drawn out with a quiz or test.

This was English class…and we were making things with our hands. We were also writing, reading, speaking, and listening about our own projects and the other students that were in the class.

Although my students and I embodied the “maker” mindset during those 45 minutes each week, the problem was simple: That was not enough time.

They needed more experiences in school like 20% Time where they could fail safely, learn by tinkering, collaborate freely, and see an idea go from seed to creation over a period of time.

Why this needs to change in the 21st century…

Yes, we are 15 years into the “21st Century” and keep talking about it like we’re still not living in this world. We all know how the world has changed, and how our students have changed. Not to mention how the workforce has and will continue to shift towards jobs that are going to require critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

But I still see many schools as silos. If you want to go to college take this path…and if you want to get “career ready” take this other path over here. That’s not going to cut it anymore.

The “career ready” path has to have strong academic merit to it, just as the “college ready” path has to have creativity merit to it for it to actually prepare students for life after school.

Shouldn’t a student who is heading to college to take engineering courses have hands on experience designing, making, and building in school?

Shouldn’t a student who is starting their own landscaping or design business after graduation have experience writing business plans, speaking to an audience, and connecting their math class to their business interests?

And shouldn’t an elementary student interested in everything have the opportunity to explore with their mind and their hands as they make their way through our K-12 system?

As a teacher, parent, and student myself I believe we need to expect more out of all of our students, and give them the opportunities in school to do “real” work instead of consistently “preparing” them for what is next. 

And here is how we are starting to make that shift in my school district…

Beyond Makerspaces: Creating a Maker Department

I met Dan for the first time this summer and was immediately impressed by his knowledge and attitude towards teaching and learning. He was a Tech Ed teacher in Upper Perkiomen School District and I was the new administrator. We were on the same interview panel for new teachers and got to know each other quickly. Dan had a wide range of experiences teaching ever level of Tech Ed and Industrial Arts within the district. He had been at the Elementary School, Middle School, and made the switch back to the High School this summer.

We got into a discussion during our first meeting about the changing landscape of high school and how the Industrial Arts department and program needed a re-design. By September our idea had transformed into something tangible, as we understood this challenge and gathered research to support our idea (Phase 1). 

We set out to create a new 9th grade course where students would have the opportunity to learn design and engineering concepts hands on through a variety of creative experiences. We also wanted to create a course that would be gender-neutral in its description and experiences, hopefully bringing the ratio between boys and girls in class closer to 50%.

After meeting with the High School Principals, our Assistant to the Superintendent, our area Robotics expert, and the other members of the department we began to put together the pieces of this course to frame the opportunity for our students and school (Phase 2). 

With the challenge, idea, and opportunity firmly in place, our next steps were meeting with various stakeholders and then going back to the drawing board again and again (Phase 3). 

We decided this course had to be a funnel for the rest of the department’s offerings. We couldn’t have all the 9th graders take a design and engineering course…only to take traditional “wood shop” courses in 10th-12th grade. We also wanted to make sure we kept the good pieces of our Industrial Arts program instead of throwing everything out.

Our refined course idea looked like this:


And as we got more and more feedback, we re-designed the entire flow of offerings and courses in our IA department (Phase 4):

Maker Department

Our course was named, “Creative Design & Engineering” and students will be making/creating/building in four different areas:

  • Students will compete in a head to head robotics competition while learning the principles of design, construction, and programming.
  • Students will construct a fully functioning desk clock that demonstrates the creative concepts that go into the building process.
  • Students will be given the task of creating a product for daily use in their life that will be designed in AutoCad and printed using a 3D printer (i.e. iPhone Case).
  • Students will design and create their own personal logo that will be cut on a vinyl plotter and placed on an article of clothing or other graphic product of their choice.

In order for students to have these experiences we had to propose the new course to our school board along with the budget requests to make this a possibility.

We needed the following equipment to make it all happen:

  • Vex Robotics team set for students to build out their own robots in each class and then create a competition where teams of robots played against each other.
  • 3d Printers from Airwolf. We searched far and wife and felt their line of 3d printers were perfect for our new course and department.
  • 4×8 CNC Router will allow students to design and create professional grade products for our community and school district. Our students will be able to create their own custom products with almost any material.
  • Vinyl Cutter/Plotter which are versatile and allow for a wide variety of finished products that include: shirt logos, magnets, decals, signage and other creative media.
  • Heat Press to be used along with the Vinyl Cutter for our design aspect of the course.

We presented our proposal to our school board (Dan, Blake, HS Principal, and myself) and had a good amount of questions about the course and direction we are headed. The following week they unanimously voted for our course approval and budget requests!

Our final piece to the equation was hosting an area-wide Maker Faire for our students at the end of the year, and those at other area schools (look out for an invite!).

From these experiences we are hoping students find real interest in one or more of these areas and choose to take electives in their 10th-12th grade years.

More importantly, we want all 9th graders to have this opportunity, and for their feedback and interests to continue to drive our course creation in the upper grade levels (Phase 5). 

Expanding Design Thinking and Making Beyond the One Department

You may have noticed the bold text above with Phases 1-5 listed. Those Phases are part of the Design Thinking Process as outlined by IDEO in their free toolkit “Design Thinking for Educators” – and each Phase was used during our Course creation process:


While I’m extremely excited about getting this course ready to start in the Fall of 2015, I’m just as pumped to use the Design Thinking Process in other areas of our K-12 spectrum.

This process can be used in a few key areas:

  • Curriculum Design
  • Unit and Lesson Planning
  • Learning Spaces and Classroom Design
  • Project/Problem Based Learning Design
  • Research and I-Search Papers
  • STEM Lab Design and Problems
  • Strategic Planning and School Initiatives/Pilots

Design Thinking can be used as a framework to tackle many of the tough issues we are facing in education right now. And I believe the same can be said for the “Maker Movement” with our students.

The Maker Movement matters to all students, because each deserves the opportunity to take an idea from conception to reality, to fail and experiment along the way, and to feel the sense of accomplishment when they make something original.

Regardless of the academic experiences students have had in their life, we are looking for every 9th grade student to have this opportunity and want to see what happens next.

I’m so proud of the work the teachers and leaders at Upper Perk have already done, and I cannot wait to see our students making. This course is only one piece of the puzzle, and the same can be said for the entire newly designed department. But as we continue to build these blocks, learning is transformed into a more and more authentic experience for all students.

Would love to hear your thoughts about this course, department, and design thinking process in the comments!

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

Honest Thoughts From My First Twitter Chat as an Administrator by @AllisonStephen1

This is a guest post from Allison Stephens, our HS Assistant Principal at Upper Perkiomen SD. It’s so great to see all of our building level administrators on Twitter engaging, but this is an honest post on what it’s like navigating a twitter chat for the first time. Enjoy!

So I have been thinking about trying out a twitter chat for some time now. I have been lurking on different hashtags to see which ones peak my interest. Browsing through the monthly NASSP, I came upon #APchat. This chat takes place every Sunday night at 8:00 pm. Perfect!

Of course, I had to start by observing from afar. I couldn’t bring myself to jump in with both feet. I lurked on #APchat last weekend. The topic was RtI, which is interesting to me, but not exactly applicable to me at this point in my career as a high school assistant principal. This week the topic was school safety. Score! There isn’t a day that goes by in my position that I don’t think about the safety of each and every student and staff member in the building. We also had a recent incident in the community in which an active shooter was on the loose, thus necessitating a building lock down. The timing of this twitter chat topic couldn’t have been better.

One of the reasons why I have never participated in a twitter chat before was because I didn’t think anyone really cared to have a conversation with me. I was wrong.

Ready, set, go…..introduce yourself! Allison Stephens, Asst. Principal @UpperPerkHS, Pennsburg, PA #APchat. Made sure to tell them that it is my first chat. What if no one responds? What if the hashtag is wrong? Oh geez! I see the moderator respond, “Welcome @AllisonStephen1, good to have you here. I wish we had prizes for first time participants.”

Ok, I am in, this is happening. People want to share and collaborate with me. Someone even thinks we should have prizes for people like me! Immediately, I have five new followers. I am surprised that there are a few people who want to follow me, they want more than a one time interaction over one Twitter chat. The questions start and educators from across the country share their viewpoints instantaneously. Pretty amazing stuff. Coincidentally, at the same time, my three month old son begins to scream from the bedroom. I can do this. I can engage in meaningful PD with educators from across the country all while getting my son to go back to sleep. Multi-tasking is one of my talents 🙂

I began to share my ideas on school safety and began to get feedback on my viewpoints. Respect and communication are essential to safe schools. I grabbed some tid bits about how to improve school culture. Actually talk to students and see if they feel safe. What a novel idea. I shared an idea with a fellow educator about creating an anonymous google form in order to discourage the mentality of “snitching”. Really awesome stuff.

My son is crying because the light from my cell phone is keeping him awake. I am beginning to panic because I missed answering a few questions, but it’s all well and good because Twitter is cool like that and you can go at your own pace. I can go back and review the questions and answers when he is calm. As fast as it started, it is over and I have ten more followers.

I needed to do this not only for myself, but for the staff at my building. I need to share and get feedback and collaborate because that is what I expect students and teachers to do. No matter how busy I am, I need to make time to engage in professional development in order to improve my own practice and support the professionals around me.

Meaningful PD, that I chose to engage in, at my own pace, on a Sunday night, all while getting my son back to bed. I might try a Twitter chat again. Thanks for the collaboration and conversation #APchat!

What are some other good Twitter chats that I can engage in?