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Project X at SSIS: Innovative Learning in Action

A marble clinks down a shoot and knocks over a row of books that jostles paint-smeared brushes across a canvas before tumbling down a series of dominoes that release a wedge from beneath the wheel of a skateboard with a rider that proceeds to scoot across a stretch of paper, leaving behind streaks of color.

This Rube Goldberg machine demonstrates how human motion coupled with machines can create art. It was designed by a group of five middle-school students at Saigon South International School (SSIS) as part of Project X, an innovative week-long program that gives a glimpse into the future of education.

SSIS was recently designated as an Apple Distinguished School, and along with technological support, the distinction puts them in conversation with leading schools from around the world. SSIS curriculum developers became aware of an open-inquiry week that the Garden International School in Malaysia had implemented and were eager to try it themselves. Project X, as it is called, invited students, rather than teachers, to lead the search, not for singular answers, but a range of insights, as a way to develop valuable learning skills.

Teams of randomly selected students from four broad categories created for the Project X - human, digital, construction and natural - had to decide on a problem or question they wanted to explore that related to the year’s theme of motion. Once they had their guiding question, it was up to them to brainstorm, research, plan, experiment, make revisions and ultimately create a prototype they would present to solve the problem. This process is called the Design Cycle.

The diversity of questions and proposals was staggering. One group of students aimed to address slouching after they learned how bad pasture negatively impacts mood. Another group wanted to help disabled students experience classroom activities that would normally be impossible for them.

Some of the topics were motivated by the students’ own experiences in the city, such as a group that designed a pet carrier to fit on motorbikes and another that tested door guards that protected against flooding. Some groups unleashed their inner artists, like the team that crafted clothing inspired by leaves, rocks and other natural items.

Other groups went hi-tech, imagining a pendulum-powered spherical vehicle and retractable furniture. While some projects proved highly theoretical, such as a hoverboard that would require liquid nitrogen, others were exceedingly implementable, like a bike sharing program. The goal of the week wasn’t to produce ready-to-use products (though one group did achieve that), but rather for students to explore the design process. Their digital stage props attracted the attention of a theater teacher who vowed to use them in upcoming productions to replace costly, unsustainable traditional props.

The team behind the Rube Goldberg machine that created art, exemplified a major goal of Project X. Group member Bridget explained that once they decided on their topic the difficulty began. Their marble broke, the books didn’t neatly fall as they’d expected and the skateboard didn’t always release from its brake. They quickly came to understand that each of these setbacks was an opportunity for “initial learning” that would allow for later breakthroughs.

Project X sought to achieve numerous goals, including helping students realize the importance of question-posing and self-motivation. Curriculum director Tina Fossgreen explained that typical classrooms in which a teacher assigns problems and holds students’ hands through solutions don’t reflect what students face in the real world. Whether as an employee at a startup, or an individual dealing with a home maintenance task, people often need to proactively search for problems and experiment with solutions to succeed. Project X reflects SSIS’s larger theory that creativity and critical thinking are cornerstones of a valuable education.

One of the largest takeaways involved teamwork and conflict resolution. Because the groups were randomly assigned and included members from different grades, students needed to learn to not only get to know one another, but also to deal with differences of opinion. Project X mimicked the way future jobs and social settings will push them out of comfortable friend groups and force them to collaborate with new people. It’s a telling sign that by the end of the week, new friendships had been formed and, interestingly, that some of the most successful groups admitted they likely would not hang out again after the project was completed.

Another goal of Project X was to address skills that students should have, but don’t typically get from more traditional classroom activities. While SSIS attempts to regularly foster hands-on skills through activities such as class trips to their Maker Space or Design Lab, which function like large, fully-stocked workrooms, Project X provided a great opportunity to develop useful abilities like digital production, computer programing, and construction.

The Rube Goldberg group’s experience exemplifies this, as seen in Bridget’s admission that when they discovered they had to nail a board, they realized they first had to learn how to use a hammer. It’s a skill they will certainly use again in their lives.

While the administrators still need to review the daily progress reports from students and teachers to fully assess the project’s success, the early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One student revealed to his teacher that he had spent his entire night working on a website for his project, not because he had to, but because he wanted to. Another exclaimed how happy he was for the opportunity to use the animation program that he loves to use in his free time in a school setting. It hardly needs to be stated that making students excited about school increases their learning potential.

Moving away from traditional models of how students are grouped, how schedules are structured, and how content is delivered, Project X ultimately serves as a model for project- and inquiry-based instruction that mirrors real-world experiences and allows students to explore their passions. While Fossgreen admits that the future holds many challenges—such as those related to climate change—with foundations like the one provided by Project X, future generations will have the skills to address these challenges.