How to Plan Projects that Make Jaws Drop

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It is no accident that this post is on July 4th, America's celebration of Independence. It is even more appropriate having just returned from Philadelphia, PA from the 2011 ISTE conference. Lisa Davis, and I were presenting our students' Virtual Bike Tour and the other incredible projects accomplished through the HP EduInnovator Grant.

What I saw and heard, was the same thing that happened at the National Science Fair and almost everywhere I talk or show my student's work. Double takes, jaw drop, questions as to which college my students go to (they are Freshmen in HS), and more or less disbelief that students are capable of doing these things. Unfortunately for me, the audience always seems to think it is something special that I do, or that I have specially gifted students (neither are true, nor are they absolutely false). I'll tell you my secret so you can go and replicate it with your students:

1) I always look at what the "real world" or colleges are doing and steal it for my classroom. If there is a professional software, I'll find a way to get it for them. Is ground breaking research occurring at Engineering universities, I'll take my students to go talk to them. I vehemently oppose a belief that students have a limit to what they can accomplish at any age. Countless professors, parents, executives, and project managers have come to me and said something like, "I never learned that until my Junior year of College," and yet here are these students doing graduate level research, creating software and designing interactive circuits.

2) The second thing to create amazing opportunities for learning (often referred to as projects) is to keep plates spinning. This is similar to a project manager in the corporate world, but sadly we don't do enough of this in High School. Shawn (of Think Thank Thunk) talks about this in his Education without Coercion Ted Talk.

When I hear that a student is interested in something, I will passionately (some would say obsessively) learn how I can help them to become better at it. If a student wants to learn 3D games, I'll learn Blender with them. If they have always wanted to learn to make Android apps, lets make one for our robotics team! He loves to play guitar, why not make our own. All of my favorite and best projects have come from students inspiring me to keep learning along with them.

Basically it comes down to three steps to creating a great project, do you believe in the students, can you listen to them, and are you willing to learn along with them or at least support them in doing so? If so then you and your students will have an amazing adventure. Along the way you will find many roadblocks to creating these amazing opportunities. Some will say that all students need to learn the exact same thing and we need to find a way to motivate them to be on board, others will say that students are not capable/ready/mature enough to handle a complex or professional project.

In the meantime you know that you have truly unlocked a student's passion and ability. You have forever changed their lives and empowered them to create. That is the purpose of education, don't let anything stop you from doing so because it is the best part of being an educator. The amount of freedom and empowerment your students feel they have, will determine how much they learn and do with what you are teaching.

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