Innovation is a remix

It’s an unfortunate reality that universities are divided by academic department, teachers are licensed by content area, and interdisciplinary collaboration is the exception not the rule. This is generally accepted as the norm despite ample evidence that innovation is driven by diverse inputs and combinatorial creativity. Innovation is a remix.

Project Breaker is named so in part because we create learning experiences for young people that break out of the box of conventional schooling. We accomplish this by breaking down the divisions that silo disciplines, that separate institutions, that come between public and private sector collaborations, and that perpetuate an artificial boundary between online and offline learning. Those young people are, as a result, breaking apart that box by asking, How is my learning in the service of solving real-world problems?

When Breaker set about building a pop-up project in Portland, Oregon, it all began with a question: What is the future of stuff? It was a call to action, a challenge intended to engage a wide range of local stakeholders­—designers, maker spaces, business incubators, entrepreneurs, agencies, teachers, academics, and a host of makers and manufacturers large and small. It was an opportunity to connect industry and education in a mutually beneficial relationship. We built on the learnings we gained conducting similar projects in Detroit and New York City to develop a professional development ride-along workshop that would build local capacity to apply our methods within and beyond education institutions.

The Portland community stepped forward to support a diverse team of young people ranging in age from 17 to 25 and, in return, was exposed to the methods of design-driven innovation and the solutions that resulted from it. Our students (we call them Breakers) were high school, gap year, and college students. They were freelancers, interns, and early career professionals. They spent 14 days in May working almost around the clock to design solutions for local makers and manufacturers, and as they did, an unorthodox grouping of university faculty, K12 teachers, and industry executives rode alongside them, intersecting at key intervals to learn with and from the student team and glean their unique millennial insights. In one instance, Nike employees prototyped a leadership training program with one of the Breakers as the end user.

In the Breaker learning model, the challenge is the raison d'être. It inspires students’ intrinsic motivation to perform because it’s a real-world problem for which they can have real impact. The challenge creates opportunities for community-wide engagement because it’s a systems problem with touch points across multiple domains representing diverse stakeholders. Ideally, the challenge taps into an emerging industry, an uncontested market space for which students can create value. Of the many Portland-based solutions the Breakers designed, Bevel connects manufacturers to skilled talent by helping job-seekers identify employers, determine the skills they require, and locate local training opportunities.

The brevity of the program does not seem to lessen the impact on the learner. According to Breaker Emily Carino, this is due to the “physical” nature of the learning. In Portland, like in New York and Detroit before it, the challenge connected a teaching and learning network, or more accurately, revealed an ecosystem that might already have existed but not been catalyzed in the name of cultivating young innovators. If schools are going to prepare students for the real world, the walls of our silos must become more permeable and our teaching resources more fluid.

The Future of Stuff challenge was created in collaboration with the Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab Network where Juliette is a 2013-2014 Edu Fellow. Learn more about the challenge and what’s happening now.