June 29th, 2012
10:46 AM ET

Why teachers should put students to work

Editor's note: Simon Hauger started Philadelphia's "Sustainability Workshop," a program for inner-city high school seniors that's organized around projects rather than traditional curriculum. Students build electric go-karts and solar charging stations. CNN's "The Next List" will feature Hauger on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

By Simon Hauger, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Working with teenagers is wonderful. They are a joy and a challenge. They are youthful optimists who believe in their power, and have boundless energy. Young people don’t know what they don’t know, and rather than making them arrogant, it fills them with hopeful idealism. As teachers, it is our job to make direct and audacious demands on their idealism.

My journey began 14 years ago in an after-school program I created at West Philadelphia High to engage kids around math and science. My students entered and won the Philadelphia Science Fair, something kids from West Philly weren’t supposed to do. Then we grew the program into the Electric Vehicle (EVX) Team. We built a full-size electric vehicle that outperformed top universities in the nation’s largest alternative fuel vehicle competition, the Tour de Sol. We went on to create the world’s first hybrid super-car: an awesome hybrid vehicle that was fast and environmentally friendly. At a time when most people had never heard of hybrids, West Philly students were building cars that were greener than the Prius and hotter than the Corvette. The EVX Team was gaining traction and recognition.

Our team of urban students won multiple national titles putting us in position in 2008 to be the only high school in the world to enter the $10 million Progressive Automotive X PRIZE.  Although we didn’t win, we made it to the semi-finals of the competition. We built and raced two cars surpassing 90 of the original 111 entries. It was a wild ride that won us a trip to the White House.

But what does this have to do with education? Through the program, EVX students became school and community leaders. They learned about hybrid drive-trains and climate change. They learned about marketing and manufacturing. They became public speakers, bloggers, researchers, technicians, fundraisers, and engineers. They were valued and were doing real work – amazing work.  They were more engaged and were learning more after-school than they were during the school day.

The success of the after-school program led to the creation of Sustainability Workshop, a project-based school whose mission is to unleash the creative and intellectual potential of young people to solve the world’s toughest problems. By challenging students to solve these problems - problems that are important to them and to society – we shift the dynamic of school from a set of things adults require students to learn to students doing real work in the world.

Complex problems require students to develop new skills - and they  need those skills in order to become successful adults. They are 21st Century skills, critical thinking skills, “soft” skills. They can be messy, difficult and elusive to quantify, but they are skills adults call on every day. If you’ve ever been part of a team at work that had to steer a project from inception to completion, you might agree that we’d be better off calling them “hard” skills.

At the Sustainability Workshop, teams of students work together to create projects and solutions that address problems that students see in their community and those that are affecting the fate of the planet. Through their project work they develop these “hard” skills which become central to the process of problem-solving.

And maybe the most fascinating aspect of this work is that the academic skills follow. Most of our students will tell you that they have done more reading and writing this school year than they had done in their entire high school career. Many will tell you they have done real science for the first time, and some will even tell you that they finally understand why math is useful.

By focusing on real work in the world, our students are solving real problems that need to be solved, while developing the skills and academic competencies they need to be successful adult members of society.

We make audacious demands on the idealism of the youth. At the Sustainability Workshop, the youth are exceeding our expectations.
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Filed under: Education • Environment • Science • Tech • The Next List • Video
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. jude cataldo

    Regarding Sanjay Gupta's interview on The Next List with Sarah H Parcak, noted satellite archaeologist, if her findings have been used to investigate the buildings found on Mars or any other planets in our solar system. That is if she is allowed access to pre photoshopped governmental erasures.

    August 11, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply
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    September 15, 2012 at 4:18 am | Reply
  4. Jake

    Remuneration is considered only for vaualtion of Goodwill. It may not have been paid in that year. Goodwill vaualtion is to be based on Normal profits earned by business.Remuneration to partners is Appropriation of profit only if there is no agreement, bu virtue of specific agreement it can become charge against profits.

    July 21, 2012 at 12:41 am | Reply
    • Tasma

      Hi Barb. OK. I admit that I have taken too long to get back to you on this but I confess that I was unrsue what you meant by professional ethos when it came up during the workshops. I felt stupid admitting it. But I've done some Googling and wrapped my head around what you are getting at I think. If this is just too simplistic, bear with me and let me know where I'm off base. You want students to leave your course knowing how to:1. Establish credibility (ethos) both as an individual writer and as the representative of an organization.2. Evaluate their audiences to make the most effective rhetorical choices.3. Write in both traditional and emerging formats.You plan to design your course so that students will be grappling with questions of ethos and rhetorical choices in every format you assign.Something like that???

      October 22, 2012 at 12:04 am | Reply
  5. chris bazzinotti

    Im so happy to see this story it ..It needs to get out to the rest of the country as to set programs like this in this usa.
    then build a factory or 1000 of them AND our country builds the future transport for the world ...USA Problem solved...I knew the shop kids could do it. SOS Save Our Shops....SOS

    July 10, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  6. Cynicdude

    What about students who lack ability in math?

    July 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  7. Bill Doughty

    Aloha! Simon Hauger is commended for being part of the solution... I'd be interested to see what books he recommends for young readers interested in science, technology, engineering and math - and critical thinking. On Navy Reads: http://navyreads.blogspot.com/

    July 1, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  8. Student's of the Workshop

    Visit our Facebook Page! http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Sustainability-Workshop/236000306441098
    Visit our Website! http://www.workshopschool.org/
    Check us out and support us! Thank you all!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  9. Joseph Oddie

    Please tell me how I can make a financial contribution to this wonderfu man, Simon and the school he teaches and the magnificent children he is priveledged to mentor.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • Student's of the Workshop

      http://www.workshopschool.org/support/ Here's our website thank you! We appreciate it so much!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  10. Matt Riggan

    To learn more about the Sustainability Workshop, check us out of Facebook or visit http://www.workshopschool.org. Thanks!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  11. propswife

    The concept (and the reality in the above case) are wonderful. The kids got to work on something they thought was cool and interesting and had to put skills to use that they were already learing in school. Great. However, the reality is that kids do not get to learn to read or do math while involved in a creative project, they have to do it in the classroom within the rigid structure of the standardized tests put in place by No Child Left Behind. My kids love to go to school and learn about new things, they do not love the mountains of homework that they have been assigned since Kindergarten that has little or nothing to do with the interesting thing they may have discussed in class.

    July 1, 2012 at 6:52 am | Reply
  12. The Wombat

    Is Simon aware of the Space Elevator Challenge worth up to $4 million in prize money. http://www.spaceward.org/ & http://www.isec.org/

    June 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • Antonio

      Forgive me; I'm a procrastinator, I'm chiteang a bit, and I've listed nine Below are the course objectives & learning outcomes listed on the syllabus for my FCS 105: Individual & Family Life Development course and I cannot claim full authorship (I'm new faculty I was told, Don't try to reinvent the wheel yet ).I like the first three, could do without #4 through #8 as they seem a bit redundant with #2 and #3 (i.e., the roles and responsibilities of all players individual, family, community, etc. , parenting, theoretical foundations, and influences on development should be understood if #1 through #3 are effectively covered). I also like #9, however, I think I would tweak it and put more emphasis on individuals, then families, and finally (maybe) human services professionals I can barely get through individual and family development, let alone human services. Students who complete this course will be able to…1. Distinguish patterns of basic human and family development across the lifespan.2. Evaluate the role of societal trends and issues as they affect development of individuals and families.3. Explain the significance of family for individuals and its impact on the well-being of the individual and society.4. Explain the roles and responsibilities of the individual in family, work and community settings.5. Explain the roles and responsibilities of parenting across the lifespan.6. Use theoretical foundations to describe, analyze, and predict behaviors in individual and family development.7. Distinguish significant influences on individual and family development.8. Recognize the role of human services agencies and professionals as they support individual and family development.9. Recognize variations in personal and diverse beliefs and values (including your own) among human services professionals, and individuals and families they serve.

      September 24, 2012 at 5:29 am | Reply
  13. Ralf

    Team Academy in Jyväskylä, Finland – a role model of student learning by actually doing projects (to be correct run their own companies from day one on over the course of 3,5 years). I have written about my experience on http://leanthinkers.blogspot.com (check: TeamAcademy)

    June 30, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
  14. greeneducationonline

    Let Simon know, there is on line education fr sustainability! http://www.greeneducationonline.com – These courses are written for junior and high school level students-

    June 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply

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