Most Likely To Succeed

North Dakota Innovation Playlist

Try a Project

Make learning relevant and build deep understanding through hands-on challenges

What is the Playlist? The Cutting Ed Podcast

The Wheel Project

Try a Project

Take Action

The Wheel Project

Students can develop essential competencies and be far more engaged when they take on authentic challenges tied to making their world better.

Try a Project

Audio Transcript

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Ted Dintersmith: Hi, this is Ted Dintersmith. I am here to give you a brief overview of Innovation Playlist Item, Try a Project. I travel a lot. I visit a lot of schools, and what I've seen over and over again is when students are given a chance to take on real problems they care about, create and invent interesting initiatives, work on them and follow through, and then present them to their colleagues, it's transformational. Student engagement goes way up. The rate of learning goes dramatically up, and students begin to get this sense that their efforts and their learning can lead to their ability to make their world better. I think at the end of the day, that should be our goal for education in America.

You'll see half a dozen suggestions. Each of them is consistent with our philosophy, which is: "Bring a culture of innovation to your school through small steps that over time can lead to big change." Each of these can be done in hours, a free day, maybe a couple of free days at the most. We encourage you to let students have a voice in how to organize the day, and have a voice in what to do with the results of the day.

You may feel like boy, that's not carefully scripted enough. They don't tell me exactly what to do. Well, that's part of the challenge, and the opportunity here is to take on something interesting. Come up with ideas or proposals for how to make better use of an under-utilized area of space in your school. Flush out those proposals, justify them carefully, which can be both quantitative and qualitative reasoning, present them to your classmate, which gets the communication and collaboration skills.

Have your classmates critique each person or each group's proposal, which really gets to critical thinking and collaboration. Then, begin to look at are any of these doable? Are any of these things we can take forward? Which, really restores a genuine sense of purpose in the learning of students in their school.

We'd love you to take on these projects. These are a half a dozen that I've seen in the field. We would love your feedback, either short write-ups of what you've learned from it, or even better, a short video that tells us what you learned from the experience and the impact it had on your students.

You'll see the things we're suggesting can be a step towards more extensive use of projects in your school. I would not go so far as to say that what we're suggesting is, what most people refer to formally, as project-based learning. We've got some links to that. Those tend to be more extensive, more comprehensive/ They'll require a lot of work on the part of teachers to prep for it.

They can't be done in hours or days. They generally take weeks or months, or an entire school year. There's no right or wrong in this. But if you want to start to bring a culture of innovation through small steps, we'd really love for you to think about things that you can just rapidly deploy, where it's organic, a bit unstructured, and where some of the students will blow you away with what they come up with.

Others may do okay work, and some may flat out fail. You may find the experience great and transformational, or you might say, "We learned a lot from it, but it's not for us." That, again, is our hacking mindset. That is the way we think schools could begin to make progress. We really appreciate your taking this on. We hope that you'll have an experience in your school where a few teachers have an opportunity to do this, and then report back to other teachers what they've learned.

If people get encouraged, it will spread. Again, that's the mindset. That's the perspective. That's the philosophy behind the Innovation Playlist. We hope this is helpful, and I look forward to hearing how it goes with you. Thanks.

Take Action

Challenging projects engage students, and help them develop essential competencies, innovative mindsets, and creative confidence. These bite-size projects are tied to the real world, cut across disciplines, and can be done in a few hours or days. Each calls for students to present their work to others, who offer constructive suggestions (see the Share Your Learning playlist item.

We’d love for you to create a 1-2 minute video capturing your reflections after you “Try a Project,” and email it to us at We’ll curate submissions and use them to help others learn from your insights.

How Might We Improve Our School? (Inspired by U.S. Naval Academy): Students take on this question: How Might We Improve our School? Through discussion, interviews, and observations, students identify opportunities to improve their school, and work in teams to develop specific initiatives that they propose to the class. These initiatives should reflect a clear vision of the idea, its impact on their school community, and the steps needed for approval.

Set Up: Students form small teams. Students have the opportunity to draw on input from group discussion, or by interviewing teachers, administrators, community members, or other students. Allow 2-4 class periods to identify and develop improvement proposals. Students present proposals at a later time.

Bigger Bites:

  • Challenge students to arrive at a mechanism for setting priorities among various initiatives, and then use this process to form recommendations.
  • Have students build out their ideas and make them real in the school.

Heroes (Inspired by Acton Academy): Students hold a class discussion, brainstorm, or socratic seminar on what makes someone a hero. Students identify someone they regard as a real-life hero. Students (alone or in small groups) then develop presentations that support why they selected this person as a ‘hero.’

Set Up: Students take on the following question “What makes someone a hero?” Ask them to reflect on this question over the next several days in preparation for a whole-group discussion. When students have determined the qualities and traits of a hero, have them brainstorm specific heros that match these characteristics and then collaboratively develop their presentations. At a later time,they present their work (a class period, a public exhibition).

Bigger Bites:

  • Students create something (e.g., a slideshow, essay, video, song, poem) that captures the essence of their ‘hero.’
  • Students collaborate to agree on a hero theme (e.g., fallen soldiers, social workers, ancestors) for a classwide project about certain types of heroes in their community. As a class, they produce something that honors heroes who had such a positive impact on their community.
  • Students craft “a gift” for their heroes that represents why they believe this person is a hero. If possible, students invite their hero to class to give their gift to them (skype/facetime are options, too).

What Do You Want to Learn? Students submit suggestions (via post-its, a shared doc, etc.) on topics they want to learn more about. In small groups, students synthesize and cluster the ideas based on common themes and topics. Then, these small groups develop a plan to carry this forward, and present their action plan to others.

For an example of "What do you Want to Learn" in action, watch this short video featuring Steve Staples, Virginia's Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Set Up: Allow several days for students to submit their choices. Then, create a class period where small student teams review suggestions and develop their proposed approaches.

Bigger Bites:

  • Give students an opportunity to make this idea a reality (e.g., a Friday afternoon for pop-up sessions led by volunteer students, teachers, administrators, parents, or community experts).
  • Create moments where students can share their understanding of their chosen topic. Students can share feedback to each other utilizing a feedback protocol such as “I Like…, I Wish…, I Wonder…”

DSC -- Do Something Cool (Inspired by African Leadership Academy): Students have a block of time (24-48 hours) to do something they’re excited about and that, in ways they articulate, makes their world better. Ideally, DSC time is followed by a homework-free weekend, letting students build on momentum.

Set Up: Create a space and provide time for students to participate in a high-energy brainstorm session to cultivate and build on their ideas. Set aside time for students interested in working in small groups to find like-minded collaborators. At a later time (a class period, a public exhibition), students present their DSC initiatives.

Bigger Bite:

  • Turn these into capstone projects, ideally awarding credit for accomplishment.

Underutilized Space (inspired by Legacy High School, Bismarck, North Dakota): During a class period, students take a Discovery Walk around campus, observing and taking notes on “dead” spaces -- nooks & crannies, intersections, wall sections, dark corners, blank areas, or rooms. Students interview potential users and integrate this input into how underutilized space could be reimagined and put to far better use. In small groups, students explore/research creative spaces (e.g., museums, parks) to spark inspiration for how to redesign these “dead spaces” on campus.

Set Up: Students have a class period for their Discover walk, a class period to work in teams to brainstorm and create proposals, and a subsequent time to present proposals. Students may need materials such as notepads or butcher paper.

Bigger Bites:

  • Give students the opportunity to reach consensus on which proposals merit priority, gain approval from appropriate constituencies, and make these proposals real.
  • Students create sketches and prototypes to test and get feedback on their ideas in the real world.
  • Students continue to work through the Design cycle (prototype, iterate, test) until they have final ‘product’ that lives in the school.

Questions, Not Answers (Inspired by Eric Mazur, Harvard University): Have students work collaboratively to develop and generate deep, meaningful questions around a topic they’ve studied in your class this year. Students share their questions with the class. Then, students work in small teams to consolidate and prioritize on what they view as the most insightful questions, and report out to the class with what they selected, and why.

Set Up: Provide time and various exercises to help your students create questions around these topics of study. Have students add and populate their questions in a gallery walk setup around the room. Students can see other questions generated, as well as build upon their curiosities.

Bigger Bites:

  • Each group prioritizes on their best questions, lays out their criteria for “what makes for a great question,” addresses the issue of the relative importance of questions versus answers in a world with Google, and presents their findings to the rest of the class.
  • Make this a daily practice.
  • Have students develop test questions (based on their learnings around what makes a ‘meaningful’ question) for their next exam, discussion, or Socratic Seminar.

More Resources

Over the past two decades, many organizations have done impressive work to integrate project-based learning into our schools. To learn more about project-based learning, check out this article and video. If you’re looking to go further, get to know these organizations:

Improve Our School

Students take on this question: How Might We Improve our School?


Students hold a class discussion, brainstorm, or socratic seminar on what makes someone a hero.

What Do You Want To Learn?

Students submit suggestions on topics they want to learn more about.

DSC: Do Something Cool

Students do something they’re excited about and that, in ways they articulate, makes their world better.

Underutilized Space

Students take a Discovery Walk around campus, observing and taking notes on “dead” spaces.

Questions, Not Answers

Students work collaboratively to develop and generate deep, meaningful questions around a topic they’ve studied in your class this year.

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