Maine Students Learn How to Learn, in Innovative Ways

Jun 21, 2016

LEWISTON, Maine - There aren't a lot of opportunities for students to be innovative in schools today. Between a focus on standards and getting the grades, there's not enough room or time to try something new.  But some schools in Maine are finding that allowing for some innovation is worth the risk.

Pages of schematic drawings hang on a rack in the front of the Drafting and Design Technology classroom at the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center. A dozen or so students are on computers, completing the designs for aircraft engines, garden landscapes or sports cars.

"It just gives you new challenges and you can see how you want to do things," says Gannon Therrien.  Therrien is at work on the plans for a 1912 Bentley rotary aircraft engine. Using the same software as that used by professional engineers, he’s taken the original blueprints for the engine and recreated it in a 3-D computer model, fixing problems and creating missing parts along the way.

"We created the whole engine so we could see if it worked or not, based on the plans we made," he says. "And then some of the changes we made, and the new dimensions, once that all worked, we dimensioned it all. So we used some of the old stuff. but then some of the new stuff we had to improvise."

What students are doing in the program has drawn interest from across the state and beyond. Students created 3-D drawings of a 20-horsepower motor for the Stanley Steamer, a Maine-produced car that saw its heyday in the 1920s. The Stanley Museum in Kingfield now sells their drawings.

And they re-created plans for a three-horsepower marine engine that students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hoped to use to build a working prototype, but found themselves without the mechanical resources to pull it off.

Cooper Madore was one of the students involved in creating the plans. "The MIT project was so great 'cause, obviously, it was for such a big college; and I think I worked a lot harder on that 'cause I think I knew it was for MIT."

"The whole idea is that, in this class, they can apply math, they can apply things that they’re learning in other classes - for instance physics, etc," says Terry Harper, who teacher the program. "The other thing is that they learn problem-solving skills. The engineering process is all about defining the problem, coming up with the solution, and then working through the steps to solve that problem."

(Audio of buzzing, rolling ball) That’s the sound of the sphero, a small, blue-glowing ball that a group of boys at the Dyer Elementary School in South Portland are buzzing around the hallway. The programmable robot is a popular feature at the school’s maker lab, a place where children can create their own special projects.  

"Some kids will be coding and some kids will be doing some woodworking, and some kids will be knitting or crafting or using the iPads to do stop-motion," says Megan Blakemore, who runs the school’s learning commons and the lab. "And they sort of feed off each other with the excitement, and you’ll see them move from group to group saying, 'What are you doing? How did you do it?' And they’ll end up teaching each other, so it’s a really great energy."

Blakemore says the more teachers can get kids to be self-directed, the better.  That could mean they choose to sit and read, or could mean they create something from scratch. The maker lab, just like Harper’s program, allows students to make mistakes as they innovate.  

Dr. Thomas Edwards, provost of Thomas College says it's important to get things wrong sometimes. "Students make mistakes all the time, and students learn from their mistakes. So it is important to be able to make mistakes, but to be able to make mistakes in an environment that’s supportive, that’s encouraging, that says, try it again, try it again."

The college recently opened the Center for Innovation in Education to train undergraduate and graduate students in new approaches for 21st century teaching and learning.  Edwards says that with the pace of the world and technology moving so quickly, educators have to prepare children to be able to adapt to changing environments.  And he says that's what schools are providing when they allow students to innovate and create.