Making the Grade: Program at CDC urges thinking outside the classroom

Innovation Diploma connects students to real world

The Mount Vernon Presbyterian School hosted a symposium in October 2013 that brought faculty, students, civic leaders and business entrepreneurs together to discuss innovation. The gathering engendered considerable conversation, but the one that made the strongest impression on students was how to they could apply concepts of innovation and change to their school.

“They asked, ‘If school is meant to prepare people for real life, then why doesn’t school look like real life?’ ” said Bo Adams, the school’s chief of learning and innovation. “Out of that, they conceived ideas to bridge real-life and school issues.”

Those questions sparked a new concept at the Sandy Springs school, and after a few months of planning, the Innovation Diploma was launched. The degree allows students to get practical experience at tackling real-world problems with the support of faculty and outside mentors. The program accepted applications last spring, and of the 22 students who interviewed for spaces, 12 were accepted to start the course at the beginning of the August semester.

“Actually, they reported to work,” said Meg Cureton, who directs the program. “Our expectation is that they treat this not like a class but like they’re working at a start-up. We start the beginning of the week with a traffic meeting where we discuss what are our needs are for the week. We build in time for article reading and brushing up on what it means to be creative and innovative.”

Students work on projects that grow out of their own interests and inquisitiveness. The work can be completed in collaboration with other students or faculty; some are individual.

“The whole program is built on the curiosity and passions of our students,” said Cureton. “We’ve spent a lot of time making lists of what they see as opportunities, things they want to change. For instance, one student is working on developing an app for aviators that will function when a plane goes down. Another just discovered her love of art and is toying with idea of having some sort of art business.”

Margaret White, a junior Innovation Diploma student from Johns Creek, found her project by noticing how many students in her classes lose interest in learning.

“While I was sitting in class, I observed how people reacted, and I started asking my friends about it in casual conversation,” she said. “I wondered how we might change that and started looking at different theories around what it means to be excited. Is there a fear of failure? What is student confidence, and how is that promoted in the classroom? This semester, I’m also looking at my own learning and seeing how, because of something I’m interested in, I’m more excited and have more confidence, and my grades have been better than in the past.”

Even though her friends thought taking on the extra work of the innovation courses sounded “crazy,” White was convinced it would be fun. Now, her friends realize that she’s doing real work that can make an impact on a problem, she said. At the same time, the project has also given her a renewed sense of direction.

“I hadn’t thought much about college, but after doing the Innovation Diploma program, I like the idea of solving problems and making the world a better place,” she said. “I now think with my skills, I might be an engineer.”

Making those connections to the real world are key to the program, said Cureton. To do that, students have participated in outside projects with the Centers for Disease Control and Thrive Design Studio.

“The administrators at the CDC told us the students pushed their thinking in ways they hadn’t thought of,” said Cureton. “This program gets our students working alongside other people in the community on problems with real deadlines and real needs.”

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