Consciously or not, we feel and internalize what the space tells us about how to work. -David Kelly, founder of IDEO and the d.school
Two new spaces on The White Mountain School campus — the digital recording studio in the Catherine Houghton Arts Center and the Inquiry, Innovation, and Impact Lab (I³ Lab) — are inspiring ingenuity and critical thinking and have been catalytic in helping us more fully realize our mission. Committed to inquiry and engagement, these newly created spaces have ignited curiosity and creative problem-solving. Being a school of inquiry and engagement, we believe first and foremost that student learning should be driven by student curiosity. Teachers must create learning conditions — culture, programs, and facilities — that spark questions and inspire students to imagine viable answers to their questions. In doing this, it is critical that the facilities are not the limiting factor in a student’s potential. We can confidently say, now, that we have unparalleled, state-of-the-art facilities for creative problem-solving that will allow our students to bring their ideas to life.
Why is it critical for schools to focus on creative problem-solving? Our students, when they finish with their schooling, will likely be in jobs that currently do not exist, solving problems we have yet to imagine. A recent report from McKinsey & Company suggests that one-third of all tasks, 60 percent of all jobs, and 30 percent of current work hours will be automated. From incorporating artificial intelligence, addressing climate change, and understanding changing global economies and politics, how can schools possibly prepare kids for a world that is changing so fast? The answer is surprisingly easy.
We prepare students for an ever-changing world by focusing on Essential Skills and Habits. While content is important — as it is the catalyst for inquiry — the actual content must be secondary. Of primary importance must be to instill in students the flexibility, confidence, and endurance to ask daring questions and then have the academic and social-emotional skills to research, think critically, collaborate effectively, and communicate persuasively. To be more succinct, of primary importance are White Mountain’s Essential Skills and Habits. WithEssential Skills and Habits at the center of student learning, we then must encourage and inspire students to become daring thinkers and creators. The following two stories will illustrate precisely how the culture, programs, and facilities at White Mountain are doing just that.
The I³ Lab
It was early on a Saturday morning. Being the administrator-on-duty, I was walking through the buildings to make sure all was right. I heard noises from the new I³ Lab. Going down to check it out, I stumbled upon a student observing a moving robot with a marker taped to it. The robot was writing on a whit board. “What are you doing?” I asked. She smiled and shared that for her father’s birthday, she was programming her robot to write “Happy Birthday.” “We just learned how to program the robot to move,” she said, “so I extended it and figured I could make it write.” This student is in the newly created course, Introduction to Robotics. We created the course to lower the barrier of entry into the I³ Lab, and the course has brought students into the space who had not previously thought of themselves as engineers. She asked, “Is it okay that I am here?” Okay?! It was amazing. She was extending her learning into a new domain; she was creating. In terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy for effective learning, this student was operating at the highest level.
The I³ Lab is a high-tech space for bringing ideas into reality. Yes, the tools are remarkable. With a full suite of 3D printers, a state-of-the-art Epilog laser-cutter, and a CNC machine, students have unlimited access to top-of-the-line tools for digital fabrication. In the woodshop, students can build and create using a SawStop table saw, bi-level miter saw, scroll saw, band saw, and a routing table. However, more exciting than the tools are the courses that are putting the space to use. We launched a new set of Design and Engineering courses, including Introduction to Robotics, Advanced Robotics, Design Thinking: Digital Fabrication, Design Thinking: Physical Fabrication and, to be offered next year, Advanced Design Thinking. Furthermore, Northern Horizons Team 7416, the School’s FIRST Robotics Competition team, which meets as an extracurricular opportunity in the winter , launched its inaugural season last year earning several district and regional awards. The pieces for Murphy, their 2019–2020 competition season robot, were designed and created in the I³ Lab. The robotics team is excited to launch its second season this winter and will be using the I³ Lab to program, design, and fabricate a completely new, fully-functioning robot. Lastly, in maybe the most beautiful form of student engagement, on Thursday nights, the I³ Lab is open during study hall. The space fills with curious kids, interested in tinkering and creating, learning through exploration, and all the while, bringing ideas into reality.
The Houghton Arts Center’s Digital Recording Studio
On the same Saturday that I stumbled upon the student in the I³ Lab, I came upon a group of students in the Houghton Arts Center’s new digital recording studio. A few of the students were members of the new Contemporary Music Seminar class, in which they are learning about music theory and sound engineering. These students were teaching others to appropriately set up the various microphones and use the USB mixer and the Logic Pro software to engineer the music they were creating digitally. Students teaching students in the very moment of creation! That is student-driven inquiry at its finest! Later that evening, I came back to find one of the students who had learned to use the software and mixing board earlier that afternoon. When I walked into the studio, he proudly exclaimed: “Listen to the bass line I just wrote!” I listened, and it was excellent. “How do I get into this class next year?” As I stayed and observed the work the student was doing, every time he ran into an obstacle — such as how to use a certain editing feature or integrate different music tracks into one — he researched online how to incorporate new skills. Unafraid to fail, which he was doing in rapid succession, he would try out what he learned. Intrinsically motivated and innately curious, this student persistently overcame challenges and adversity. That type of learning is exactly what we hope to inculcate in our students, as we know — through research and experience — that it is transferable and enduring. Moments like that are the inspiration and spark for authentic, lifelong learning.
When the Houghton Arts Center opened in 2014, then-Head of School Tim Breen said: “The Trustees of our School had a vision: recognizing the importance and value of an arts center for the School and the local community. This really began two years ago, with Catherine “Kitty” Houghton leading the way to help revitalize our music program. And it grew into the building you see here today.” Today, we are breathing even more life into the music program. The recording studio is now set-up with the software and hardware to allow our musicians to record and engineer music in — according to music teacher, Ben Salomon — “the best recording studio in the North Country.” The space is in constant use. We are offering a number of new courses this year, including Music Composition, Contemporary Music Seminar, Contemporary Band, and Chorus. We also offer individual music lessons in guitar, ukulele, drums, and piano.
Whether a student is digitally fabricating an object to 3D print in the I³ Lab or manipulating musical tracks on Logic Pro in the digital recording studio, at the core, they are doing the same thing. They are creating. They are bringing something new into the world. They are turning their ideas into something others can touch, hear, manipulate, interact with, and understand. Even more, these students are developing confidence and competence in solving new and novel problems, developing experiences to draw upon throughout their lives when they will — again and again — need to be daring and innovative in their creative problem-solving.
Culture, programs, and facilities: schools must always build in that order. We have long since had a culture of inquiry and programs that focus on creative thinking; now, we have the facilities that provide unlimited potential for students to design and develop innovative solutions to the beautiful and important questions they ask. David Kelly, the founder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design and of the design firm IDEO, wrote: “Consciously or not, we feel and internalize what the space tells us about how to work.” The new spaces at White Mountain are telling all of us loudly how to work. They are saying: “think divergently and create boldly; become creative problem-solvers.” And they, alongside our programs and culture, are preparing our students for an ever-changing world.