Why teachers should put students to work

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    Simon Hauger: The revolutionary teacher

Simon Hauger: The revolutionary teacher 03:02

Editor's note: Simon Hauger started Philadelphia's "Sustainability Workshop," a program for inner-city high school seniors that's organized around projects rather than traditional curriculum. Students build electric go-karts and solar charging stations. CNN's "The Next List" will feature Hauger on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

By Simon Hauger, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Working with teenagers is wonderful. They are a joy and a challenge. They are youthful optimists who believe in their power, and have boundless energy. Young people don’t know what they don’t know, and rather than making them arrogant, it fills them with hopeful idealism. As teachers, it is our job to make direct and audacious demands on their idealism.

My journey began 14 years ago in an after-school program I created at West Philadelphia High to engage kids around math and science. My students entered and won the Philadelphia Science Fair, something kids from West Philly weren’t supposed to do. Then we grew the program into the Electric Vehicle (EVX) Team. We built a full-size electric vehicle that outperformed top universities in the nation’s largest alternative fuel vehicle competition, the Tour de Sol. We went on to create the world’s first hybrid super-car: an awesome hybrid vehicle that was fast and environmentally friendly. At a time when most people had never heard of hybrids, West Philly students were building cars that were greener than the Prius and hotter than the Corvette. The EVX Team was gaining traction and recognition.

Our team of urban students won multiple national titles putting us in position in 2008 to be the only high school in the world to enter the $10 million Progressive Automotive X PRIZE.  Although we didn’t win, we made it to the semi-finals of the competition. We built and raced two cars surpassing 90 of the original 111 entries. It was a wild ride that won us a trip to the White House.

    But what does this have to do with education? Through the program, EVX students became school and community leaders. They learned about hybrid drive-trains and climate change. They learned about marketing and manufacturing. They became public speakers, bloggers, researchers, technicians, fundraisers, and engineers. They were valued and were doing real work – amazing work.  They were more engaged and were learning more after-school than they were during the school day.

    The success of the after-school program led to the creation of Sustainability Workshop, a project-based school whose mission is to unleash the creative and intellectual potential of young people to solve the world’s toughest problems. By challenging students to solve these problems -- problems that are important to them and to society – we shift the dynamic of school from a set of things adults require students to learn to students doing real work in the world.

    Complex problems require students to develop new skills -- and they  need those skills in order to become successful adults. They are 21st Century skills, critical thinking skills, “soft” skills. They can be messy, difficult and elusive to quantify, but they are skills adults call on every day. If you’ve ever been part of a team at work that had to steer a project from inception to completion, you might agree that we’d be better off calling them “hard” skills.

    At the Sustainability Workshop, teams of students work together to create projects and solutions that address problems that students see in their community and those that are affecting the fate of the planet. Through their project work they develop these “hard” skills which become central to the process of problem-solving.

    And maybe the most fascinating aspect of this work is that the academic skills follow. Most of our students will tell you that they have done more reading and writing this school year than they had done in their entire high school career. Many will tell you they have done real science for the first time, and some will even tell you that they finally understand why math is useful.

    By focusing on real work in the world, our students are solving real problems that need to be solved, while developing the skills and academic competencies they need to be successful adult members of society.

    We make audacious demands on the idealism of the youth. At the Sustainability Workshop, the youth are exceeding our expectations.