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  • Writer's pictureRyan Bani Tahmaseb

Engineering Change: The WPS Summer Leadership Institute and MIT’s Edgerton Center

Updated: Jun 10

This post is part of our ‘Reinventing Education' blog series, where we invite you to explore experiential learning opportunities in Greater Boston and embrace the potential for a new kind of educational ecosystem where learning thrives everywhere, not just in schools. We’re excited to showcase our fabulous partners for the upcoming WPS Summer Leadership Institute, building exciting connections and celebrating the collaborative spirit that drives educational excellence and positive social change.

Welcome to the second part of our blog series! We're excited to continue sharing the powerful experiences awaiting participants in our upcoming Summer Leadership Institute (SLI). This three-week program runs from July 8-26 on our campus in Newton Center. High school students will visit some of Greater Boston's most innovative spaces, learn real-world leadership skills, and begin to develop their own community impact projects. Today, we spotlight the prestigious Edgerton Center at MIT.

Committed to expanding hands on-learning at MIT and beyond, the Edgerton Center focuses on providing well-resourced shops, high-speed imaging technologies, and their brand of Maker/STEM education for K-12 academic groups. The shops range from machine shops to makerspaces, and they are open for individual projects as well as for their student teams, such as those that build race cars, rockets, and robo-boats. The imaging technologies are taught in a class known as “Strobe Lab” where students capture lightning-fast events in still or slow-motion images. K-12 students and teachers know the Edgerton Center for programs that encourage curiosity and skill-building in science and engineering—there are daily STEM field trips for local students, the Engineering Design Workshop in the summer, and K-12 Maker professional development (PD) where educators learn how to bring Maker/STEAM/PBL practices into their classes.

We recently spoke with Diane Brancazio, founder and leader of the K-12 Maker Lab at the MIT Edgerton Center. The mission of the K-12 Maker Lab is to help schools provide meaningful learning experiences through creative projects with personal relevance and cool tools. The essential skills they promote include the ability to frame and work through challenges, seeing mistakes as part of the learning process, making connections to social, environmental, and technological issues and collaborating effectively. In the process, students become aware of the technologies and careers that are available to them. The K-12 Maker Lab helps facilitate the inclusion of Maker projects in regular academic courses for all students. Educators can use the resources on the K-12 Maker website to set up and operate a Makerspace or to find projects they can adapt for their specific needs. Teachers and administrators participating in their PD learn how to lead Maker projects effectively and establish a culture of student-focused hands-on project-based learning.

Through her work with students and educators, Brancazio and her team strive to make learning truly practical, allowing students to apply their knowledge beyond the classroom. Brancazio says, “The holy grail of education is when a student leaves school and can look at a problem, different from the problem posed in school, and say, ‘I can figure this out. I learned enough in engineering class, and I'm going to try to figure out how to fix my own bicycle, for example.’”

One of the key ways to help students learn practically and effectively is by learning by doing, or as they call it at the Edgerton Center, experiential learning. Brancazio notes that this project-based style of education means students are actively involved in constructing their own learning, which can be quite powerful. “When you are doing something creative—creative in the sense of actually creating something—you’re engaging your brain in more ways,” Brancazio says. 

In experiential learning, the significance of making mistakes cannot be overstated, as it’s an integral part of the iterative design process. “There's no better way to learn,” Brancazio explains. “Unfortunately, we tend to only use negative words like ‘fail’ and ‘mistake.’ At the Edgerton Center, we like to use the word ‘prototype,’ as in, ‘let’s create a prototype and learn from it.’”

Experiential learning benefits not only students but also teachers by providing them with valuable insights into their students and the effectiveness of their curricula. Brancazio says, “A teacher might say, ‘Well, I facilitated this project, but everybody got hung up on this part.’ So the teacher might iterate a bit and say to the students, ‘These parts were really fun, but what parts were confusing?’ And then they’d be able to work on that for the next class. So the teacher learns from what they’re doing, too. It's about seeing what works for you and building on what you're good at. And if it doesn't work, you don't start from zero—you tweak things.”

At WPS, we work to create strong connections between schools and communities while equipping students with the skills to devise innovative solutions to real-world problems. This mission is perfectly aligned with Brancazio's belief that “Making democratizes STEM.” Brancazio explains, “Oftentimes traditional schooling can fall into its own world of ‘just learn these things.’ But with experiential learning, you learn to use tools that professionals use, such as laser cutters and CAD (computer-aided design) software. Because when you’re working on a project in the real world, you're not just reciting facts about something that you learned. When you’re creating, you're getting a sense of how people work in the real world—working in teams and contributing.”

Given that our Summer Leadership Institute is designed to encourage connection, creativity, and purpose among our student cohort as they strive to address real-world issues in their communities, we’re thrilled that our students will have this incredible opportunity to work with Brancazio and the MIT Edgerton Center. This collaboration perfectly aligns with our goals of encouraging practical learning and community impact.

Brancazio says that her approach with SLI students this summer will revolve around honing the skills the program aims to cultivate, with a particular emphasis on the ideation phase of design thinking. Ideation is a process where participants generate an abundance of ideas through methods like brainstorming as they work to solve a problem in an open and non-judgmental environment.

This part of the process can be challenging. “It can be tricky to free your mind for ideation,” Brancazio says. “You need to have the wild ideas that lead to good ideas. So we’ll give SLI students some specific techniques for ideation. The approach will be, ‘Try it this way, try it that way, and see where those ideas take you.’ It’s going to be about trusting the process. I’m going to give students processes to try—not just one—and allow them to just trust the process and play it out.”

Brancazio explains that the nature of her work with SLI students will differ from what she typically does with teachers and students, where they focus on building an object or artifact. The SLI students will be working to start longer-term projects, which Brancazio says is “awesome,” as this gives her an opportunity to focus on a systems-level approach to solving problems. She looks forward to exploring these approaches with SLI students so that they will become better equipped to brainstorm and problem-solve individually and collectively, aiming to help them innovate and find viable solutions.

MIT’s Edgerton Center is clearly the perfect spot for our Summer Leadership Institute students. Our students will acquire future-ready skills, equipping them to address real-world issues in their communities. We eagerly anticipate the innovative ideas they'll generate!

Learn more about the K-12 Maker Lab and the MIT Edgerton Center.

Join us for the WPS Summer Leadership Institute and discover a transformative educational experience! Applications are open now.

Ryan Bani Tahmaseb is a learning coach, curriculum developer, and author. He champions student choice, believes in the extraordinary potential of every learner, and is committed to harnessing the transformative power of meaningful relationships between educators and students.

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