As a math and science teacher at a Philadelphia high school in the early 1990s, Simon Hauger grew increasingly frustrated.
After some time, he had come to a painful realization: the traditional education process divorces students from their passions and creative energies.
Very seldom, especially as we get older, you see the natural curiosity little kids have, and, for the most part, the education system squishes that out of them. They become much more proficient at giving the teacher what he or she wants, which is a shame. That clearly minimalizes our ability as human beings, all the great and wonderful things our minds are capable of, and the great feelings of satisfaction we get when we are using our minds in those ways.
As I speak with Hauger, I sense an overwhelming sincerity in his voice. This is a man who cares deeply for children, and he’s heartbroken that up to 50% of kids drop out at many city schools.
“If you look at the data surrounding the kids that don’t drop out, it’s just as depressing,” he says. “It’s abysmal.”
Depending on the method used (and there are many), graduation rates vary. However one crunches the numbers, too many students are failing to reach their potential in Pennsylvania’s public schools.
Eventually, Hauger had enough. To help reverse this trend, in 2001 he launched an after-school program for students to express their creativity through project-based learning. Things started small at first.
Hauger taught inquisitive minds about energy. Students applied this knowledge to building electric go-karts. Then more kids came, and Hauger entered them in national science competitions. One thing was certain—a fundamental shift had occurred in how students perceived themselves and their abilities.
Suddenly, students involved in the after-school program were more engaged during the school day. Many even took the time to develop and practice new skills on their own. All of these developments speak to what Hauger is really trying to accomplish:
“We need to be cranking out innovators, problem solvers, and creative thinkers, people that aren’t afraid to take risks, people that don’t want to just regurgitate answers, and people that are finding their passions in life,” Hauger says. “When you’re working in an area that you’re passionate about, you do your best work.”
In 2011, Hauger took his efforts to the next level. He worked with various school districts to launch The Sustainability Project, a pilot program that draws seniors from three local high schools.
Instead of a typical school day, students report to a beautiful Navy Yard mansion—made possible through the Greater Philadelphia Innovative Cluster, a job-creation organization that uses federal funding for green-technology research.
Each morning, students spend time on various sustainability projects. Hauger tells me about one group, working on creative ways to encourage consumers to replace inefficient light bulbs with brighter, more energy-efficient alternatives.
This is not just some cute, naïve attempt to make a difference. This project is now a full-fledged business. Hauger’s students aren’t just succeeding—they’re flourishing.
Bright Ideas! is a company formed by four high school students to make high efficiency light bulbs affordable to the public. Our company provides a business model powered by innovative software and personal customer services to do just that. Consumers receive an energy audit based on their light usage. Our software package uses this data to determine the best combination of LED and ESL replacement bulbs that optimize energy efficiency and cost savings. Our partnership with a local electric company allows us to provide this service at no cost to the consumer. Once a customer switches to our partnering electric company, the consumer receives this service for free. Part of the savings the customer gets from their lower electric bill is passed onto the customer – the remaining is passed on to our company. This allows us to finance the cost of the bulbs through the customers’ savings.
I’m equally amazed by students involved in “La Casa Verde,” which seeks to build LEED-Certified low-cost homes made from recycled shipping containers.
“By building environmentally friendly, low‐energy, and cool‐looking homes, we hope to provide affordable public housing for the city’s housing agencies and capture the market for modern home developers and first time home buyers on a budget,” students write on their project’s web site.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Stefon Gonzalez, who graduated from the Workshop last year. He led a team that built a hybrid vehicle capable of traveling up to 150 mph and averaging about 100 miles per gallon.
Gonzalez tells me that he enjoyed school, and that he was a typical student. But like others, he had difficulty finding relevance in what he studied. Gonzalez shares with me how before joining the Workshop, he approached Hauger for help, after first speaking with another teacher:
I was in math class one day. I think it was Algebra Two. It was very confusing and very involved math. You had to do a lot of stuff. I was getting confused so I stayed after class with the teacher to get help. Before we started talking about what I needed help with, I asked [my teacher]. I said, “What person uses this every day in their line of work?” She really didn’t have an answer for me…
From that point on, there needed to be a change… I couldn’t put my hands on it at that time. But something different needed to happen. A few weeks later, I asked Simon Hauger the same question. I said, “I’m having trouble in math class. I know you can help me. Before we get started, what person uses this every day in their line of work?”
He told me, “A math teacher does.” That was pretty funny.
Hauger believes that students learn best when their education appears useful. I completely agree, and teachers should always strive to make their lessons clearly applicable to real life.
We teach it in a vacuum and it’s kind of like, “Trust us, at some point…” It’s hard to build that trust because a lot of the stuff we teach is irrelevant. When is it really important and when is it just an adult telling me I need to do these mental gymnastics because they say so?
All the same, I’m conflicted.
Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with Bruce Musgrave, who serves as the assistant head of school for academics at Palmer Trinity School (as well as my editor for SpinEdu). Musgrave has a profound appreciation for education reform, but he brings up an interesting counterpoint.
Until somebody invents a time machine, how can anybody know what she will need to know in the future? Perhaps we should just focus on the here and now, improving our practice as liberal arts educators to prepare students for whatever they may face as adults.
As Musgrave puts it, “Throughout my adult life I have never used a bit of the math I learned after seventh grade. But every day I use the reasoning skills I learned in geometry, the systematic thinking I practiced in trig, and the ambiguity tolerance I developed in calculus—where for the first two thirds of the course nothing seems practical. But around March, we suddenly reached a critical mass of skills and concepts that enabled us to do a host of intriguing real-world calculations we had never dreamt possible. Likewise, in French, I actually quit the subject after French III . . . not knowing at the time that three years later I’d be walking the streets of Neuchatel, Switzerland, able to converse with ease in French—and wishing like crazy I’d taken French IV and V for all that much more facility. Until someone perfects clairvoyance, who’s to say with certainty how what we learn today will or won’t benefit us down the road? Better to keep thinking and stretching, no matter what the subject. Use it or lose it.”
Hauger might well agree. He doesn’t at all support throwing away emphasis on traditional academic subjects. In the afternoon, students engage in multiple disciplines through discussion and topical seminars. Some even take freshman-level courses at Drexel University.
Next year, Hauger plans to begin the transition to make The Sustainability Workshop its own high school. I can’t wait to see what transpires.
Interview transcript (Simon Hauger)
Interview transcript (Stefon Gonzalez)