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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Newton Public Schools’ Innovation Laboratory: A New Model for Sustainable Education

Mar 29, 2013 01:09PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Jake Close, Sean McIntyre, and Owen Dix in front of their Swing Pump.

Steve Chinosi, director and chief Innovation Officer of the Newton Public Schools’ Innovation Laboratory in Newtonville, is in the business of true education—inspiring “solutionaries”, who are prepared to joyfully and enthusiastically meet the challenges of world problems. Like Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Seymour Papert, a renowned educator and computer scientist who conducted in-depth research in how realworld topics get students excited about what they learn, Chinosi has discovered that project-based learning is one key to unlocking the curiosity, creativity and critical thinking of tomorrow’s problem solvers. Chinosi’s students, who are enjoying the gift of exploration, are helping to invent a more sustainable future.

In 2006, when Chinosi and a group of his writing workshop students decided to build some research skills, they initially debated a topic to focus on. Although the subject chosen—is a Wankel (rotary) engine better than a diesel engine—was a likely one for teenage male students to explore, Chinosi knew nothing about engines. What he did know about was what it would take to engage his students in a challenge—defending the diesel as the best and most efficient engine in the world.

Within a day, fired-up students had scoured the Internet for critical information and turned in impressive results to Chinosi. Although biodiesel was an improbable topic, students were inspired by the idea that waste vegetable oil could power cars and generators. “It was the research topic that every teacher dreams about,” says Chinosi.

Student research teams spent a month seeking out information on the chemistry of biodiesel, the history of Rudolf Diesel and his invention, as well as the impact and economics of the global petroleum market. Their papers, slideshows and Wiki-site, presented to the principal and science teachers, impressed and inspired Chinosi. “Their enthusiasm for the content was so infectious that I caught it and decided to continue their research on their integration of science, history, economics, and contemporary issues,” he says.

Two years later, after studying, researching and participating in every biodiesel activity he could find, Chinosi built a prototype appleseed processor and began making fuel. With his curriculum research and development complete, he was ready for students. In 2009, 17 pioneers signed up for the first Greengineering class. In 2013, this class, as well as many others like it across the U.S., filled with nearly 200 students.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
~ Alan Kay

“In one school the demand is greater than the capacity,” exclaims Chinosi, who notes that programs have struck a chord on multiple fronts. He has observed that young people, who are involved in a collaborative learning venture, are feeling their call to activism. “Whether it’s social, political, and environmental change, they have an embodied sense of knowing that they can make a difference and that their actions will affect the planet,” he explains.

Chinosi offers an example of how teams of solutionaries with young, fresh eyes, and unencumbered minds, invented a universal solution to pumping water in rural areas of the developing world, where access to fresh water is a problem. In the fall of 2012, after much discussion on how frequently adults use the phrase, “I wish I had half the energy that kids do,” the design challenge became Playground-Power.

Curious to explore how playtime energy could be put to productive use, the collaborative research of student teams resulted in the decision to invent a swing pump that would allow play do the work of pumping water. After students dismantled an old abandoned swing set in the backyard of a consenting homeowner, they used the parts to engineer a full scale prototype that could be built anywhere with scrap metal and two-by-four pieces of wood. “That was just one of the many inventions that semester,” says Chinosi, who notes that the lab is now on the list of visiting dignitaries, such as the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the U.S. State Department.

“Harvard University researchers will be here for the next six months to study our integrated STEM model, Greengineering, which has no boundaries between subjects like conventional education does. The human brain doesn’t isolate information on mathematics, history, biology, or chemistry. Rather it integrates information, which is what education should do. I’ve seen how kids get more excited about ‘Solution-Centered Learning’ with ‘Student-Centered Solutions’ and how they better retain what they learn, which is why I believe that this could be one of the new models for education,” enthuses Chinosi.

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