Developing future thinking innovators
By Terry McAdams
Innovation is a hot topic in education with academics, governments, and global organisations all trying to determine the skills and competencies that will be needed by the current generation of children. There tends to be some commonality between these disparate groups when discussing creativity and innovation. The terms critical thinking and problem-solving are identified as essential competencies but usually without an explanation of how they might be implemented. In an attempt to address this shortfall, this article outlines the approach that was taken by Branksome Hall Asia to develop the BHX interdisciplinary unit. In 2020, this initiative won the ISC Research International Schools Award for developing future thinking innovators.
Developing a future thinking initiative
In the words of Lewis Carroll, we will ‘begin at the beginning’ which starts with our school mission: to challenge and inspire girls to love learning and shape a better world. It was important that any initiative aligned with our mission, the International Baccalaureate educational philosophy, and was academically rigorous. With a group of talented educators brainstorming ideas to meet these criteria and taking inspiration from our locale of Jeju Island, the BHX initiative was born.
We wanted an experience to develop students’ understanding of the environmental, social, and economic impact of their decisions and actions. Students discussed what 21st-century skills they will need, as well as what roles they want to play in society. Our students wanted to be prepared to be real change-makers in their communities, with the flexibility to choose to be politicians, designers, engineers, scientists, or artists. Thus, we sought to develop an initiative that would provide students with an opportunity to synthesize their knowledge across several domains.
The BHX is an Interdisciplinary Unit (IDU) that takes place over one week and involves 100 of our Grade 9 students and 100 Grade 9 students from our sister school, Branksome Hall Canada. On day 1 of the program, the students explored the island and met with experts to learn about a carbon-free community and the efficacy of wind power on Jeju Island. Following on, guest speakers from the Institute of Wind Engineering at Jeju National University provided instruction and our Head of Design distributed the design specifications and project constraints.
An environment to support innovation
In preparation for BHX, our BHX faculty team had built a giant wind tunnel testing chamber, developed extensive online resources, and engaged with our local community to create and foster relationships around the shared goal of producing an optimal wind turbine design. As a truly global team of inquirers, students had to successfully navigate culture and language to develop their models. Students plan, research, design, develop, test, and refine their ideas to produce their optimal wind turbine design within six days.
Students had access to our Design Lab and use 3D printers, laser cutters, and other hardware to develop their solution. Technology plays a significant role, with students using CAD/CAM software to design their turbines and Logger Pro software with sensors to gather testing data. Using this data, students iterated their designs to try and increase the power generated in the wind tunnel. Students drew upon knowledge obtained during the field trips, interviews, presentations, and independent research to synthesize an understanding of the technology, concepts, and location as it relates to a carbon-free future.
To ensure that the initiative was academically rigorous, BHX was grounded in evidence-based educational theory. Central was the design lifecycle, constructionism learning theory, and an exploration of the concept of Triple Bottom Line (TBL). This concept frames the costs and benefits of the students’ solution in terms of social, environmental, and economic influences. So, the focus was not just to develop a technical solution but to understand the impact it will have on individuals and communities.
BHX resides within Branksome Hall Asia’s series of sustainable interdisciplinary units that run from Grade 4 to Grade 10, inclusively. These vertically-articulated units build upon the skills, attitudes, and knowledge developed over the previous years. In this regard, the BHX IDU plays a significant step in challenging and inspiring girls to love learning and shape a better world. Each initiative has strong connections with the Science, Design, and Mathematics curriculum at our school, and is expressly designed and scheduled to draw upon these subjects to create a meaningful learning experience. While we will continue to refine and improve our BHX interdisciplinary unit, this year it will be impractical to include the students from our sister school.
Steps to creating an innovation initiative
While Branksome Hall Asia’s approach to creating an innovative initiative was successful in achieving the specified goals, it may not necessarily translate to other schools without a few critical steps. The following recommendations should prove to be helpful when creating an innovation initiative:
Create a vision for technology innovation that aligns with your school vision, mission, and educational philosophy. If an initiative does not align with your school objectives, it is unlikely to be effective.
Build a professional learning community to include your parents and not just your teachers.
Run regular workshops to provide skill-sharing opportunities to promote innovation and creates a culture of learning.
Make sure the brainstorming team consists of volunteers. Those with a passion for the initiative will happily give up their evenings and weekends to support the program.
Ensure that the initiative is grounded in evidence-based academic research. This does not mean that schools should not be trying something original, it simply means that they should do their due academic diligence.
Create a clear design brief, framework, resources, and expected outcomes. These measures will help students understand the expectations and some academic rigor.
Focus on the student competencies that you wish to develop rather than the technologies that you want to teach. Technology is merely a tool and will change over time. The skills, confidence, and mindset that are created will last a lifetime.