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Building and Tinkering to Meet Students' Individual Needs

Creating programs to encourage students to build and tinker in ways that meet their individual learning needs was high on the priority list of the speakers for the Tuesday morning presentations here at the second day of the Big Ideas Fest.

The first presentation was from William Brown, the director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in Hamden, Conn. The top priority at the museum is not collecting things, said Brown, but creating inventive people. Students who visit the museum are encouraged to build a variety of projects, including rubber band cars, model boats, pendulums, and other machines. And typically, the students who may not shine in traditional academic subjects, such as spelling and math, are the students who build the best machines at the museum, said Brown. "There aren't places to send kids who are brilliantly talented with their hands, but don't have an outlet" to express that creativity, he said.

Next, we heard from Kiff Gallagher, the founder and chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based MusicianCorps, an organization that links musicians with service opportunities in their communities. MusicianCorps artists and volunteers work with schools to provide music training and education, in addition to working in children's hospitals, veteran's hospitals, and other community venues. Seventy percent of students who have participated in the program say they want to come to school more because of MusicianCorps, and 94 percent of site partners with MusicianCorps agree that the program made their students more creative, the organization has found. Gallagher hopes to expand MusicianCorps to a national level, but so far funding has required the project to stay local. But Gallagher is hopeful about MusicianCorps' ability to scale up. "More and more funders are recognizing that we need to invest in innovative programs that are helping people create the conditions for innovation and learning to actually happen," he said.

Lastly, Beth Harris and Steve Zucker talked about the project they founded, SmartHistory, a website with videos, essays, photos, and other materials to help students connect to art history in an accessible way. Harris and Zucker have recently teamed up with the Khan Academy to distribute the offerings through that platform. The website started when Harris and Zucker, both art history professors at a community college, began to record their conversations about different art pieces for their students. They found that students were intimidated by the official audio tours that many art museums had produced and wanted to provide a more conversational, accessible way to think about and explore art. Seven years later, the pair has created more than 500 videos, which have reached students all over the country and the world.

All three presentations focused on improving outcomes for students in ways that aren't necessarily prioritized in a traditional classroom. The sentiment that when a student doesn't do well in school, then educators should adjust to that child's individual needs versus forcing the child to fit into the structure of the school resounded with the audience, drawing a round of applause from attendees here at the Big Ideas Fest. All three examples focused on making big changes for students on a shoestring budget, starting with a kernel of an idea and working up from there. Failure and having to scale back projects was also a theme that ran throughout the presentations as a reminder that change does not happen quickly or easily but instead in a series of smaller, incremental stages that may ultimately trigger a sea change.

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