by Mikai Tilton
Engagement in schools is lacking. A recent study of over 900,000 public school students in the United States found that in 5th grade, 75% of students feel engaged—but by the time they reach high school, that number drops to around 33%. High school students today are unmotivated, uninterested, and uninspired.
On November 9, Google software engineer Brian Brewington gathered students, teachers, parents, and entrepreneurs of the local community to unpack why. Dubbed “Saturday Sparks,” the community design event, as Brewington described, set out to “work together to uncover sparks of learning, and create solutions based on the needs we find.”
8 “Lightning Talks”—rapid-fire presentations by one or two people—were given on subjects ranging from weather balloons to travel experiences at the Watershed School.
A School of Mines student described how a curiosity about drones led them to their current career trajectory. A student from Monarch High School outlined an app that they designed that would allow teachers collaborate in scheduling assignments and tests to avoid concentrated student workloads.
Erica Fine from Thorne Nature Experience described her work as the E Movement program manager. E Movement, heavily backed by Boulder County, seeks to make nature and outdoor experiences accessible for every child in Boulder County. The program hopes to promote environmental literacy through adulthood in every graduate of schools within Boulder County. Beyond environmental knowledge, environmental education has been shown to improve critical thinking and leadership skills, academic performance, and civic engagement in K-12 students.
Hundreds of inquiries structured around the phrase “how might we…?” were drafted in response to the problems, solutions, and outcomes described in these talks, among them:
“How might we open the time and space for exploration and creativity in schools?” “How might we create more time and flexibility for educators to plan?” “How might we create, support, and validate unstructured time?” “How might we break down the barriers of inequality in order for everyone to experience tailored learning?” “How can we connect learners to mentors in their community?”
Patterns soon emerged in questions posed; most notably were themes of promoting meaningful community relationships, re-imagining traditional school structures, equity in education accessibility, and creating a platform to foster everyday curiosities.
Led by Brian, a group began drafting the interface, target user profiles, and advertising of a platform where those with inquiries can connect with teachers, experts, and or organizations to explore or solve them. The app is structured so that one person can ask a question and work together to pursue an answer with a community of certified experts, teachers, or companies that can foster this “spark” of curiosity. Unlike existing apps or websites, the app hopes to be able to steer away from a black-and-white question-and-answer format and instead encourage learners to work together with mentors. Ultimately, the goal is a community that can rely on and work with each other to do “work that matters.” The first step of this process—a general platform objective and trajectory—are set; likely next steps are more detailed user interface concepts and piloting the website or app inside of a school or organization.