Real-World Inclusion: How Do Innovative Schools Enhance Student Growth? | Matthew Kressy and Tom Woelper | 6 Min Read

By Matthew Kressy & Tom Woelper, New England Innovation Academy

When we began envisioning the curriculum for the New England Innovation Academy, one of the elements core to our requirements was real-world inclusion. Put simply, this is ensuring that the students at our school are able to take the concepts they’re learning and apply them in real-world situations, whether that is at businesses, nonprofit organizations, or within their communities in other ways.

Real-world inclusion is not uncommon at the university level. You see it all the time–internships or co-ops for example. At MIT’s Integrated Design & Management (MITidm) master’s program, which inspired NEIA’s curriculum, real-world inclusion is an integral part of the learning process. The faculty and staff of the program spend a lot of time thinking about how we can give students the experience of partnering with companies, organizations, or individuals that will give them true, non-academic feedback. In order to achieve a true human-centered design curriculum, we knew it was essential to provide a similar experience for our middle and high school students, though their younger ages present a different set of challenges.

The Why

Students in middle and high school, and even college, often have a relatively clear path drawn out for them. Complete specific steps, check the boxes and achieve success. But this concept goes out the window in the real world, especially if you’re an innovator. On most of the things innovators work on in life, there is no path blazed for them. They need to create that path, figure out what they don’t know, teach themselves new concepts, and then cut a path to see if it goes in the right direction.

It’s challenging, and it’s nearly impossible to replicate in a controlled environment like a school or a university. We could give students a project and tell them to execute it as if they were in the real world. But without those true stressors and elements, they’d almost always be able to figure out a recipe that works on the first try. Real-world inclusion requires that students adjust the recipe continuously.

It also exposes students to new people, often people who are not necessarily just like them, and allows them to work with people they don’t know. While intimidating at first, this develops confidence, optimism, compassion, and kindness in students. These qualities are important to each of us simply in living our lives, and we should encourage any situation where a student gets to build and exercise them. 

Further, the work that students do in a real-world project provides feedback that cannot be replicated in a classroom. They are interacting with professionals who have deep expertise in a particular subject, and they have the chance to learn from them. They’ll see how they practice and apply their process to solving problems. Students will get feedback from real-world project partners that will have a different perspective and maybe even a different tone from what they’d get from a teacher. Perhaps it won’t be delivered in a nurturing way–maybe it will be more matter of fact. It’s a skill for students to be able to learn to handle that.

Finally, real-world programs set up a sort of mentoring situation that could result in long-term relationships and mentorship over time, to the great benefit of students.

Getting Companies Involved

Real-world inclusion sounds fantastic for students, but one pain point for schools is finding companies and organizations that actively want to be involved with the process. At the university level, MITidm has many companies that come to the program, looking for the solutions and innovative thinking that they know are present in the students. For a high school or middle school program like NEIA, it will be key to develop that reputation among potential real-world partners. That means fostering innovation, independent thinking, diligence, and hard work so that professionals want to be involved with the program and see the value even young students can bring to the table.

As we’ve thought about the best ways to foster real-world partnerships with companies and organizations, we’ve recognized that we need to be a part of the community to be successful. We’ve connected with local economic development councils and joined our local chamber of commerce, as well as town committees, to forge relationships and learn more about area businesses and their needs and cultures. Proactive outreach is important; we’ve spent a lot of time reaching out to local groups to introduce ourselves, talk about partnerships and solicit their expertise in terms of what they would look for in a school partner.

In the end, there needs to be a strong value proposition for businesses, and the faculty and staff in the program are equally important. While the students bring the ideas, a school grounded in innovation is going to have a staff with that background as well. Professionals who choose to partner with the school will benefit from faculty and staff expertise and way of thinking, as well as the energy and creativity of younger students.

Finally, for many companies, real-world inclusion is a workplace culture perk. There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in interfacing with young innovators and being a part of building their futures. 

How It Works

Real-world inclusion is as simple as it sounds, and for a human-centered design high school, it means tackling a project (with feedback from professionals and stakeholders in the field) with a human-centered process. The local company or organization provides NEIA with a design challenge. It doesn’t need to be a product, it can also be a customer experience. For example, say a local Boys & Girls Club sought better enrollment in its after-school program.

NEIA students would then tackle that challenge using human-centered design, innovation, and entrepreneurship, talking to the likely customers of the program–both students and parents–and other stakeholders like program managers and teachers, to learn what they’re currently doing and what they’d like to see. Human-centered design requires a deeper connection: students will dig into their subjects’ needs, wants, and nuances.

Students would present the findings to both management at the club and their class, and then start generating concepts and ideas to address the issues they uncover. In a design review, the organization would join to review the concepts and give feedback. This is where a company can provide a reality check on some of the ideas, and where that real-world element comes into play.

The important piece about real-world inclusion at an innovation school is the fact that it is not a club or an extracurricular. It’s integrated into the program and the way that you do things day after day.

Allowing students the opportunity to test their ideas with others outside of the school is an important part of building their character and skills. It provides exposure to new people and challenges them to work with many different types of people in the process. It allows them the satisfaction and validation of an outside voice. It teaches them important skills and transfers knowledge that likely couldn’t be gained at school. And through all this exposure, helps to build empathy and understanding of the experience of other people.

Matthew Kressy is the Founding Director of MIT Integrated Design & Management masters program and Innovation Advisor at New England Innovation Academy. Tom Woelper is the founding head of school at New England Innovation Academy. For more information, visit www.neiacademy.org.

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