The Apollo Project: A Large-Scale Effort To Drive Monumental Change In Education

“Information is so readily accessible now that students need more than just practice memorizing. By providing our students with hands-on problem solving experiences in school, we are preparing them to be problem solvers in real life.”

This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine. For the print version, subscribe to Utah Business Magazine and you will automatically be sent a quarterly copy of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong descended a ladder and became the first human to walk the surface of the moon. His words are now immortalized — one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind — his steps the culmination of an exhausting mission decades in the making. It was the ultimate measure of progress. When Armstrong planted an American flag on foreign soil, millions watched open-mouthed from earth. At that moment, it was easy to see the world had changed.

The amount of resources poured into the moon landing were vast, near incomprehensible — money, time, training, brain power. In the end, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made this worthwhile, Apollo 11 a success that stands forever. Seeing the iconic images of human beings walking on another planet, it’s easy to forget: change doesn’t occur in an instant, but over a period of time.

Childhood learning also occurs over a period of time, nurtured by careful preparation and opportunity for each student. In Fall 2016, seven schools in the Alpine School District — including Orem-based Foothill Elementary and then-Principal Joseph Backman — launched The Apollo Project, an attempt to change public education in the same way Apollo 11 altered space travel. Change doesn’t occur in an instant and The Apollo Project reflected this, creating a years-long plan to better engage and teach students through the use of technology and hands-on problem solving.

“For too long, American public schools have focused on trivial learning — I do not mean to imply that the information we have been teaching children was unimportant, but that children were expected to take in information their teachers gave them and then demonstrate that they remembered it on assessments,” said Jeremy Brunner, the new Principal of Foothill Elementary. “Those who did the best job of memorizing information did best in school. The common understanding had been that if schools give kids enough of the right information — if we make them smart enough — they will get into college and be prepared to be productive members of society. Trivial learning has little value in the Information Age. Information is so readily accessible now that students need more than just practice memorizing. By providing our students with hands-on problem solving experiences in school, we are preparing them to be problem solvers in real life.”

To create problem solvers, understanding how to implement technology is key. The Apollo Project is an actionable plan on *how *to use technology, rather than just providing students with computers and turning them loose. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were able to fly a spaceship not only because it’s an incredible piece of technology, but because they dedicated years and years of work towards space travel — technology can only go as far as the user takes it.

The Apollo Project takes the Engineer Design Cycle — imagine, plan, create, improve, ask, repeat — and applies this towards core learning principles. Students are tasked with learning through hands-on problem solving, asked to engage with technology as something other than a replacement for pen and paper. Alpine District leaders, parents, and teachers have traveled to places like Boston and San Francisco to gather ideas and see what other innovative schools are implementing to help guide students. Teachers are also being trained on the best ways to increase hands-on problem solving opportunity in the classroom, giving students the knowledge, skills, and disposition needed for real world application.

“The Engineering Design Cycle has the critically important benefit of helping children learn to grown from experiencing failure,” said Brunner. “We believe students need to develop resiliency, and engineering tasks let our students realize that when they don’t first succeed, instead of giving up, they learn to improve their ideas and to try again.”

Students at Foothill Elementary are lucky enough to have plenty of hardware thanks to the 2015 fundraising efforts of Backman and PTA President Lisa Oliver, who raised $360,000 in 30 days with the help of a $150,000 donation from Vivint CEO Todd Pedersen. That money has gone towards purchasing iPads and Chromebooks for Foothill students, necessary tools for teaching problem solving in the age of technology.

As part of The Apollo Project, Foothill Elementary is always searching for more ways to interact with technology — a partnership with Kids Coding Initiative, a plan to offer coding contests to students, anything that encourages kids to engage with learning on a level beyond simple memorization.

“Technology has been an integral part of our efforts,” said Brunner. “As the new principal at the school I want to focus more on coding as a way to teach critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. One of my goals is that every sixth-grader will create a digital simulation of the solar system. We are in the process of creating a five year technology plan to share with parents, but in the past few years, our students have already learned to create 3D designs in TinkerCad, print 2D designs on a vinyl cutter, write computer programs, program robots, create multimedia projects in iMovie and Garageband, use timelapse photography, and hold video conferences with people in Brazil and Africa.”

Based upon early returns of The Apollo Project, Alpine School District has created a Vision for Learning plan to be used by every school in the district. It pulls from key points of Apollo — the Engineering Design Cycle, integrated thematic units, project-based learning — to craft a learning process that better prepares students for life in the 21st century, awash in information. 17 schools were trained on the process this summer, with the hope to have every school on board in the next 2–3 years.

Again, the most profound moments of change happen over large swaths of time — years, decades, centuries. People marveled at the impossibility of space travel, laughed at the idea of human presence on an orb of light hanging in the night sky. In 1969, Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, helmet reflecting earth in shades of blue and green, and anything seemed possible.

While promising in the early stages, both The Apollo Project and the Vision for Learning plan require time. Students will not wake up one morning as expert problem solvers, armed with skills to navigate the technology-reliant workforce of today’s age. But these plans represent a start. Changing the way students learn is an incremental process, like the monumental undertaking of a moon landing or the slow, drifting descent of a spacecraft. But give it time, and anything is possible.

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