The Thiel Fellowship – Launching Your Project

with Danielle Strachman

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Danielle discusses how to disrupt education with project-based learning.

Danielle Strachman

Thiel Fellowship Program Director, Cofounder of Innovations Academy

Lessons Learned

The classroom should generate the lessons, not the teacher.

Fellows who work with others tend to get more traction on what they’re doing.

Find somebody who has the strengths that you don’t have.


Lesson: The Thiel Fellowship with Danielle Strachman

Step #9 Project: Danielle discusses how to disrupt education with project-based learning

Project-based learning is a way of diving into something and having the educational piece sort of organically sprout from underneath it.

For example, we had, in our second grade class at Innovations Academy, the students got really interested in roly poly bugs and the teacher noticed this. And the first part at our school, because we really talk about child ed. projects, is not that the teacher said, "Oh, we need to learn about insects," or, "We're going to do this project." But she observed them outside and she said, "Gosh, all of them are just going crazy over these bugs and putting them in cups and walking around with them. And maybe we could do a project around that."

So they developed a project where they would actually take some of these bugs and bring them into the classroom and start raising them in captivity and see what they found out about them. And so, of course, they learned about the structure, they learned about the colonization that the bugs were doing. The bugs got really big, actually. They were getting much larger than the bugs that they normally saw outside, because they're just in captivity, getting fed and they were really juicy.

I think they were learning also about what is the difference of when you take something outside of one ecosystem and put into a different ecosystem. They also had little roly poly babies, and so of course there's biology lessons in there and things like that. So there were a lot of things that came out of that project, and it led to other inquiry and discover of looking at other animals and other patterns of other insects and things like that. So it was this organic process of seeing what comes out of it.

One thing that we really like to see when we talk about a project, and I think this has a lot to do with entrepreneurship too, is problem solving. Is starting with a question that can't be automatically answered. It's not like, "Oh, we're going to find out what two plus two is," that's not a project because we know what the answer is. But maybe the question is very inquiry based into something like, "What happens when we take these insects and bring them into a classroom environment that we sculpt? Are we able to keep them alive or something like that?" We don't know exactly what the answer is to that question.

Other inquiry-based questions might be something like, "What effect would there be if you gave everyone in a certain community a camera? What sort of things would come out of it, what sort of pictures would they take, what would they notice about their environment and their community that they haven't noticed before?" And starting with those essential questions and trying to develop basically like, "What would you do on a daily basis to discover the answers to those questions and how would you work with children to come up with those answers?"

So again, it's about the classroom generating these things instead of the teacher saying, "And tomorrow we're doing X." And the teacher is really the master facilitator. The teacher, being older, having the executive functioning skills, is there to really help make that happen and lead it, but not necessarily to be the entire creative charge on it. So that's how I like to think about project-based learning.

Some people think of project-based learning as like, "We're going to color today on a map, and we're going to learn about maps, and we're going to be hands-on." And that's really interesting and I like that, it's just a different dynamic than textbook learning. For some kids, that works great, they're really happy with that, so I don't want to belittle that because that works for some people. But for some kids, being more hands-on works really well. But for some kids, being not only hands-on but also have a choice works extremely well.

I think we're seeing this a lot, especially with the Millennials right now. They want lots of choice, they want discussion, they want to be a part of the whole thing, not just going along with something to go along with it. I think we're going to keep seeing that younger and younger and younger and for generations to come.

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