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Kindling a Fire: Engineering our way to MIT

Kindling a Fire: Engineering our way to MIT

At Country Day we are constantly asking ourselves “What does deep learning look like in 2024?” Often it still occurs in a traditional classroom setting with a teacher delivering a mix of direct and inquiry-based instruction to students. But increasingly, some of the most robust learning opportunities for our students occur outside of the classroom – and even outside of school hours.

One of the best examples from this year is Country Day’s InvenTeam. These eight Upper School students aren’t just studying design thinking, engineering, and technology. They’re actively applying those skills as part of a unique experiential learning opportunity in which they are inventing a new product related to bike safety. Team members are studying a group-selected problem, designing a solution using advanced technology, drafting a patent application with the help of a local law firm, and developing marketing strategies for their product. They are working nights and weekends as much as during school hours, and there’s no course credit or grade at stake, just the satisfaction of a fascinating project and an important problem to be solved.

The InvenTeam was formed to participate in an annual Lemelson-MIT program, where teams across the nation pursue year-long invention projects involving creative thinking, problem-solving, and hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Country Day was selected as one of only eight schools in the country to win a grant from MIT to pursue their invention. The InvenTeam will be showcasing its final prototype at EurekaFest, an invention celebration taking place June 10-12, 2024 at MIT.

This kind of hands-on experiential learning is a strategic focus for Country Day, and if you watch the InvenTeam it’s easy to see why. These students are doing cutting-edge work with sophisticated software and artificial intelligence – the kind of work that you might expect to find at the college or graduate school level. They’re connecting with parents, alumni, and community members to learn from experts in the field and to gain valuable feedback about their invention.

Perhaps more importantly, they are authentically engaged in their project. Rather than chasing a grade or a credential, they are committed to solving a problem for its own intrinsic value. In the process, they are developing their intellectual curiosity and resilience.

According to one of their teacher-advisors, STEAM coordinator Jamie Back, she knew the team was motivated about the project when their local patent attorney asked if they could write a five-page technical paper in a week and the team immediately answered “Yes!” This investment is particularly exciting because the paper was not for a grade – it was for a provisional patent application for their invention. As Jamie said, “The students were passionate about doing work for a project they created – a project they were deeply invested in with their time and energy. This is the epitome of experiential learning.”

The students’ authentic engagement is also evident from the problem they sought to solve: bike safety. This is not just an abstract theoretical issue for the Country Day community; it has a personal connection. The team’s decision to focus on bike safety arose from the tragic death of alumnus and former teacher Fred Carey ’80 in a bicycle accident in 2014. Fred was a beloved community member, and his loss is still deeply mourned today. The InvenTeam hopes to honor his memory by developing innovative technology to prevent future such tragedies.

As you can tell, we are proud of our InvenTeam and eager to see them showcase their work in Boston. But in some ways, our work is just beginning. To achieve our strategic objectives at CCDS, projects like this one must become a more regular feature of our curriculum – in and out of the classroom. That will require constant innovation and a willingness to take risks. Like our inventors, we are iterating our way to success.

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the April 2024 edition of the publication.