Lightning in a Bottle…Twice: The Joy of Learning

A week shy of two years ago, students in the first iteration of my inNOVAtion Lab class traveled to Fluxspace, an educational innovation space attached to the headquarters of Corbett Inc in Norristown, PA. The trip, our second in as many months in the prepandemic fall of 2019 (after a trip to the BPHL Innovation Festival), was also the second of two of the greatest events in students’ academic careers, at least as self-reported by the students in attendance at both events.

As one of the few adults who attended these two trips, as their teacher in the inaugural year of of inNOVAtion Lab, as a teacher of 26 years at the time, I agree.

In 26 years I’d had my share of classes that blew me away. But for the most part, that astonishment was confined to the classroom, which is a safe and limited(ing) space. How students fared once they left? Once they stopped playing by the rules of my classroom (however loose I may have set those rules) and moved on? Like most teachers, I rarely knew.

But our first trip to Fluxspace changed that. It became a benchmark for us. It was the place where we wanted to return, the place where some of my students would go on to intern and bring their talents and insights to others.

It was also the place we would not get to return to for two years. COVID made sure of that.

Until yesterday.


Our return to Fluxspace had been something I’d designed for over two months. All the work of the entire first marking period was chosen to prepare students with the skills to succeed and the knowledge to reflect upon. I was intentional in my choices (see * at bottom), and my intentions were, at least in part, to see if it would be possible to capture lighting in a bottle twice.

This, the third cohort of NOVA Lab, made that magical task a reality.

On November 12, 2021, after almost exactly two years, my 35 NOVA Lab students returned to Fluxspace. Primed for a presentation from Drexel University and an afternoon of presentations to panels of parents, professors, and professionals, these students had the kind of nervous energy that any coach wants in his players before a big game.

And what a big game we had.

Chuck Sacco, Liz Herzog, and Barrie Litzky from The Charles Close School of Entrepreneurship kicked off our morning with an informative and interactive look at the Entrepreneurial Mindset. After background information on the traits, skills, and characteristics of the mindset, student teams had 20 minutes to come up with an innovation with social impact.

The two months of background students had in innovation and design thinking proved valuable as teams of designers who’d never worked together before created diverse and approachable solutions to a host of problems from gentrification to unemployment to over-incarceration.

Wait… twenty minutes to solve the world’s problems? Not going to happen, and the students know this. But they also know that they’re the generation next in line, and they won’t miss the opportunities we’ve missed. One team even approached me after the presentations to ask if they could work together to continue their project addressing food deserts.

And while those moments were outstanding, what really stood out was the way the students shifted into their roles as design teams in the afternoon to present their designed solutions to the Build.org National Design Challenge for 2021.

Split into two groups of six teams each with ten minutes for presentations and feedback, these students handled the task before them, to tell the story of their client and their solution, just like design students . I’ve seen design critiques before. My students were part of college design student mid-crits at Philadelphia University in 2012. And that is how I set up these presentations. With only twelve days on-task for this challenge and maybe 8 hours of class time, NOVA Lab students floored their panels with their empathy, research, creativity and professionalism. What’s more, they exhibited something I rarely see in even my own English classes–they brought heart and energy to these tasks. They collaborated like mad, relied on each other, and communicated an empathy for their clients that is missing from most self-absorbed, individual (and even group) work that is done in the classroom.

I don’t need to have 28 years in the classroom to know that when students are intrinsically motivated, the learning is deeper, more relevant, and “sticky.” As I noted in my first post about Fluxspace in 2019, this is the kind of experience that shifts the mind utterly, that reveals something we’ve hidden from students behind tests, and rules, and most of all, grades. . . .

This is the Joy of Learning embodied.

*Below is the basic outline for how we worked through our first marking period. All the work listed has specific timelines and is based on key concepts at the heart of Innovation and Design Thinking for Social Impact.

Community and Culture building, Creativity and Communication skills, Innovator’s DNA and the Adaptable Mind, Design Thinking, and, finally, the Build.org National Design Challenge.

Published by Garreth Heidt

Designerly Minded High School Humanities and Liberal Studies Teacher Faculty Mentor FIRST Robotics Team #7414--PV Retrobotics. Constantly learning, trying to be more a maker and less a consumer of culture. I believe in the infinite value of a liberal education and the power of design thinking to help make the world a better place.

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