How The Steward School Is Reimagining School Paradigms for Today’s World

On a Saturday morning last spring in Richmond, Virginia, more than 40 students in grades 25 and their parents gathered at the Bryan Innovation Lab for The Steward School’s first “Conundrum Day.” A conundrum is a difficult problem that requires solving, so Conundrum Day was a special design-and-build, problem-solving event in which students were tasked with constructing a house that would survive hurricane force winds. The challenge was based on “The Story of The Three Little Pigs,” and required students to build a house made of only recycled materials for the “fourth little pig.”

Before construction began, a local engineering firm presented a lesson on structural engineering to help students understand the basics of sturdy construction. Students designed and constructed their houses, and then tested them in a special wind tunnel. They observed the effects of the wind on their structures through a view window in the tunnel, noting the wind speed that registered. All of the student creations survived at least 60 mph winds in the tunnel with most still standing even in hurricane force winds of 80 mph.

Students test their structures in the wind tunnel at the Bryan Innovation Lab. Credit: Cary Jamieson.
It’s just one way we’re practicing innovation at The Steward School, a preK12 day school in Richmond. Reading the secrets of Bell Labs, Pixar, or Google and attending the NAIS Annual Conference confirm the importance of creativity and innovation to succeed in our modern world. Yet the model of education that most adults grew up with was designed to produce knowledgeable and compliant workers for agricultural and manufacturing economies. The problem is that model no longer leads children to thrive in an information-based economy. They may get by, but they will not thrive without the intervention of luck, social networks, or personal gifts. As educators, we must work to create school environments that increase the chances for all students to succeed at the highest levels. That means solidly integrating creativity and innovation into school programs.

Embracing a Systems-Thinking Approach to Innovation

Many schools start the innovation discussion by grappling over technology’s place in their programs. Questions swirl about what to use, when to use it, and how it affects the bank of world knowledge that students must memorize versus what they can easily look up on their Internet-connected handhelds.
We at Steward also struggle with these questions, but I think it’s better to start by defining our terms to align with the modes of learning most needed in this technology-infused, rapidly changing environment. That means we need to move away from a solely linear approach to school design and embrace a complex, systems-thinking approach.
In my view, systems-thinking should complement a linear approach. For instance, we need linear thinking to ensure curricula are aligned vertically from grade to grade and horizontally across disciplines and sections at the same grade level. At the same time, we also need to see our schools and curricula as part of wider systems. Systems-thinking addresses real-world concerns, such as allocating and distributing resources, employing information networks, and leveraging connections between our schools and communities. In a linear approach to school design, we control the pattern; in a systems approach, we influence it. The world into which our students are graduating is far too complex for us to believe we can teach them to “master” it; we must teach them to adapt, create, open their minds, and take responsibility.

Incorporating a Looping Sequence of Independent Research, Design, and Innovation

At Steward, we are actively testing our approach to innovative teaching and learning in our curriculum and pedagogy, and at the Bryan Innovation Lab. Because we understand that artful innovation can only come from deeply understanding what has come before, as opposed to the mythical apple dropping from a tree, we base our JK12 curriculum on a looping sequence. This process begins with independent research, leads to design, and finishes with innovation and starts over again.
I define independent research as finding relevant information and drawing on related influences. After students gather this information, they must learn to ask, to what end? Their answer is design, by which I mean understanding and affecting the systems they’re studying and reflecting this knowledge through sketches, mind maps, rough drafts, and basic models. For example, in Anatomy, students may research the human muscular system and use that knowledge to sketch and debate several versions of prosthetic joints. The results are still hypothetical until they take the next step and bring that design to life by using a 3D printer to create the joint. Thus innovation is the final stage of generating a new idea, designing a representation, and bringing it, in concrete form, to others. In our Biomedical Design class, a grade 11 seminar, students build proportional wire armatures with working bicep muscle/arms modeled from their measurements. The results are judged on form (classes voting on the aesthetics) and on function (the ability of the prosthesis to pick up an object and insert it into a defined space).
We want students to critically examine innovations in real life for relevancy, usefulness, sustainability, and good design, and not limit themselves to what is described in a textbook. If we have failed slightly, we can redesign the idea. If we have failed massively, we can return to research and start again. In addition to traditional classroom techniques, this iterative teaching method supports makerspaces, experimental design, coding (which many employers now cite as one of the most valuable skills in their organizations), and entrepreneurship.

Learning to Code at All Ages

Coding is emerging as an important competency at our school. This past December, more than 470 of our students (77 percent of the school), from all three divisions, participated in the National Hour of Code. Students created graphics and games using Scratch Jr. and Scratch, graphical drag-and-drop programs created by a team at MIT. Older students developed video games using Pixel Press Floors and explored the Python programming language using Code Combat. Students in grades 49 were introduced to a studio featuring Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies. Teachers are beginning to use these languages and resources as tools in ongoing classroom designs, along with HTML, Java, and Pixel Math.  Arduinos and Raspberry Pis (maker resources) are no longer uncommon, thanks to both middle school maker-based clubs and increased use in classroom lessons.

Highlighting Innovation Process at the Bryan Lab

The meadow and pond are areas for study at the Bryan Lab. Credit: Kristina Kerns.
As mentioned above, the Bryan Lab, too, focuses on the process of innovation. Its utilitarian purpose begins in the natural area leading up to the building, which is surrounded by native species of flora and fauna, raised garden beds with water cisterns, retention ponds, a nature trail, and outdoor learning areas.

Student gardens at sunset at the Bryan Lab. Credit: 3North.
The building itself (constructed wherever possible with local materials) is home to three main spaces: a demonstration kitchen, a health and wellness area, and two innovation studios. All the behind-the-scenes systems are exposed: Water, electrical, and gas pipes are color-coded; the geothermal and photovoltaic devices are in plain view, allowing student groups to monitor the building’s energy use; and even the concrete floor remains unpolished to keep its constituent parts visible.

Laptops set up for use in 3D printing in the innovation studios at the Bryan Lab. Credit: Kristina Kerns.
Spending time in the Bryan Lab pushes students to understand the systems they are part of and inspires them to contribute to their betterment. For instance, our students are aiding in amphibian conservation and wetland monitoring by participating in FrogWatch USA. Also, this past year, our Environmental Science classes constructed a series of bluebird houses, and have been monitoring and sharing the data with a national database. Of special note, eighth-grader Gracie Goodpasture received the 2015 Angela Award from the National Science Teachers Association for her ongoing scientific experimentation, including her success in developing her own breed of chicken, partly under the mentoring of Jim Perdue. As a result of this work and more, Steward was named a 2015 national Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kindergartners studying the ecosystem at the Bryan Lab. Credit: Cary Jamieson.

Innovating in Faculty Professional Development

Ongoing faculty professional development is imperative in any redesign of a school. The work here is unending, as it should be, and thinking outside of the box is just as critical for teachers as it is for students. In June 2015, a group of 10 teachers from multiple disciplines and the Bryan Innovation Lab, as well as participants from the Academic Technology department and school administration worked together for an Innovation Week.  They participated in workshops on various topics, including design thinking with experts from Capital One, a Richmond-based Fortune 500 company; mindfulness training and meditation; and sessions about Python and MIT’s App Inventor. The teachers designed lessons and units to build various applications: one to analyze a Shakespearean text by searching for the most frequently used words and phrases, another to examine the metabolism of food as it moves through the body, and a third to convert ancient punishments for crimes to modern penalties for the same crimes.

Requiring Innovation Seminars to Graduate

Steward has kicked innovation and systems-thinking into high gear by constructing and using the Bryan Lab, moving the entire school (JK12) to a 1:1 iPad and BYOD environment, and developing grade-level seminars in grades 912 for independent research, design, and innovation. We believe so deeply in the importance of these concepts that we don’t treat them as electives; they are graduation requirements. Upper School students take grade level for-credit seminars in Research, Fundamentals in Design and Innovation, Innovation Studies, and Biomedical Design as well as a cap with a senior project and speech, two yearlong projects requiring all three elements of the cycle.
Perhaps the best outcome of the educational paradigm we are all working to create is to “find the unforeseen from the unexpected,” as Donella Meadows put it.  At Steward, we intentionally seek to fuel the mind, stir the imagination, and unleash the possibilities. As educators, employers, and community members, we strive to realize these goals on behalf of our children.
Dan Frank
Dan Frank

Dan Frank is head of school at The Steward School (Virginia). An earlier version of this article appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Sydney Smith, Kristina Kerns, Robin Ricketts, Mary Greenlee, Cary Jamieson, and Laura Akesson each made important contributions.


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