An #HollistonInnovates Update - Part 2 - Solar Ovens at RAMS - a #ProjectBasedLearning Initiative

One of the biggest drawbacks about our #HollistonInnovates initiative is that it leaves many with the impression that innovative classroom practices are new to Holliston and that the innovation that is happening is the result of a “top-down” directive to teachers to “be innovative.”  In fact, neither is true.  Teachers throughout Holliston have always used innovative practices in their classroom but, in many cases, have felt limited by the need to “cover the curriculum.” #HollistonInnovates seeks to remove that pressure to “teach to the test” and encourages our teachers to embrace their innate innovative spirit and unleash it in their classroom.
One example of innovation that has existed for some time is the “Technology Education” (which we call “TechEd”) class at the Robert Adams Middle School.  This class was developed several years ago for the sole purpose of teaching students the engineering/design process,  unleashing our middle school student’s natural curiosity and exposing them to issues about which they might one day become passionate.  Leading the TechEd class is a remarkably energetic and fearless teacher:  Ms. Michelle Roy. She describes her solar oven project as follows:
“This year I have been using an overarching theme called "sustainable innovation" for all three grades.  Matt Cotter (RAMS Social Studies teacher) saw a tweet I made and sent me a link to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals thinking they connected with what we were doing in my class. I posted the following question to my 7th and 8th graders this past week in Google Classroom: Of the 17 goals of sustainable development which goal are you most passionate about seeing met in your lifetime?  They were asked to go to the United Nations link and read about each goal and respond.  They were asked to read and respond to their peers’ thoughts as well.   I then showed them the Bill Gates’ TEDTALKS “Innovating to Zero” where he shares his thoughts on our dependence for fossil fuels.   We read examples I had found from people all over the world who have very different relationships to “trash”.  Examples included Mozambique where entire families live in the giant trash dumps and survive off of what they can scavenge to eat or sell.  They read about a family in New York who follow a “freeganism” lifestyle and find much of their food from grocery store dumpsters.  They had over 10 different scenarios to read and then respond to. They were able to make connections and discuss their feelings about people who "dumpster dive" for a lifestyle choice, for environmental beliefs or for the chance to stay alive. I made the connection to the theme of the year: Sustainable Innovation by only allowing students to use trash or old broken items that we re-purpose when we build our design solutions.  Based on the connections the students made, they decided to use Tinkercad to design a solar oven made completely out of trash. The students will eventually share their designs with their peers, who will give feedback until the best designs are chosen, built, tested and redesigned.  I used my experience in Chad to share how beneficial a simple solar oven made of trash could be for people who live on a dollar a day, with no clean water, no sanitation, and a landscape destroyed by civil war and environmental degradation.  A main cause of death is dehydration due to bacteria and parasites caught through unheated water and uncooked meat.  They have nothing to burn for water and cooked meat kills many microbes.  The connections are REAL and it gives them the opportunity to see that YES they can make a difference.”

When I visited this class, the energy and excitement of the students was palpable in the room.  Students were engaged and connected to their learning.  But what were they learning?   Using the engineering/design process as their guide, these students were actively engaged in collaborative problem solving, working together as groups to develop a sustainable design for their solar oven, brainstorming ideas and actively listening to their group-mates.  They even looked like they were having fun!  But, were they learning?  Of course they were!  They were learning about real-world problems and developing ideas to generate real-world solutions.  They were learning about science and geography and about the role the United Nations plays on our planet.  They were learning about sustainability and re-purposing.  They were developing social-emotional skills such as empathy as they thought through what it is like to live in Chad and hopefully developed an appreciation for what they have here in Holliston.  Finally, they learned that they can, if they want, play a role in making our world better for others.  Perhaps the person who will spark the discovery that helps the world attain one of UN’s 17 goals for sustainable development is a student in Ms. Roy’s class right now.
And what about the teacher?  Ms. Roy reports to me that being able to build these connections with students and watching them working together to solve problems has reinvigorated her teaching.  She concludes her email summary of her unit with this apology:  Sorry if I blathered on : ) I am just really excited about what we are doing together this feels like my first year teaching instead of my 20th.”

This unit represents innovation and project-based learning at its best… and a great example of the type of student-centered, problem-based learning that #HollistonInnovates is all about.


  1. Loved reading about Ms. Roy's class and how she feels re-energized!
    I have been learning about NGSS and how schools and teachers are implementing this student-focused approach to science standards that focus on practices and behaviors. It can be daunting I think - for teachers to change roles to more of a guide and facilitator - and also daunting for students to own their learning. When it is implemented successfully, it can also be energizing and exciting!


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