“It would be cool to be an engineer – either biomedical or aerospace – but I’m not sure what I want to do yet.”

– Ian, Liberty Middle School

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Somewhat shocked by this seventh grade student’s specificity in his answer, I continued taking my journalistic notes as I interviewed Ian, one of over 100 diligent students at Liberty Middle School in West Fargo competing in eCybermission, an annual event in which students throughout the nation create innovative solutions for problems in their communities. The program is a web-based science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) competition designed to challenge students in new ways. Ian and his team of three students developed the Slipper Gripper, a device that attaches to cars and discharges sand near the tires to provide grip when its sensors indicate adverse weather conditions. And they weren’t solving these problems in desks at neat rows while listening in lecture-style formats; their problem-solving occurred in open classrooms with tables for discussion and Spotify Top 40 bumping in the background.

Bear in mind that this is still school, but throughout the past decade the field of education has been in a state of transition. With all the flack received by traditional, standardized methods of instruction, some teachers have shifted to more project-based, experiential learning in the classroom. Likewise, as technology has become a more prominent medium for learning, students have begun a search for new ways to obtain knowledge and expertise without burrowing their heads into textbooks. This has been initiated both independently by the students and within their prescribed curriculums, and students in the Fargo area are on the cusp of these ground-breaking changes.

Competitions like eCybermission are government-sponsored programs that allow for technology use and innovation in the classroom, deviating from the standardized test route that is the norm for education in so many other institutions. Brooke, a counterpart of Ian’s, worked with a team to develop an alternative to blood glucose test finger pricks. One of her team members – a diabetic – was fed up with the numerous daily blood-lettings, so the group designed a pod that would allow for a weekly prick that remains in the user’s body and monitors blood sugar levels with an output on a smartphone application. The team was amazed at their ability to go from knowing nothing about the complex disease to developing prototypes and apps that assist in analyzing the effects of it.

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Students at Liberty Middle School are certainly receiving a novel form of education. They learn in new ways, ways that include applied skills and tangible outcomes. Their work on this particular project involved independent research, project development, and time management, but first they had to determine their workgroups for the event, a learning experience in and of itself. Fellow seventh grader Kaitlyn claims the most important things she has learned as an eCybermission participant include group cooperation and the dynamics of an effective team. Her team has mapped out distribution lines for transferring grocery stores’ produce waste to local shelters and soup kitchens. Doing so required learning about collaboration and the benefits of working with three other students who had diverse knowledge backgrounds.

As the students finished their two-month involvement with this program, they also had the unique opportunity to gain valuable public speaking experience by presenting their work to interested customers at a local Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Kaitlyn recounted her memorable experience at the event because a representative from a local food pantry serendipitously passed by and became interested and immersed in discussion with this middle school group. Needless to say, her group thoroughly enjoyed the public recognition for their hard work.

And, of course, this project has been followed by other unique learning opportunities at Liberty Middle School. My day of note taking and interviewing students happened to coincide with You’re Hired, a class exercise in which students were given the full day to solve an issue focused on energy conservation and then present that work to a panel of judges. My interviews with students were during their few moments of free time, and Katy Perry’s voice was audible from the classroom’s overhead speakers.

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While these students are moving on to new parts of their technology curriculum, their projects for eCybermission are currently being critiqued at the state level. If any teams make it past this round, they will compete at the multi-state regional level and then even at the national level in Washington, D.C., for various monetary awards. In any case, technology-focused events like these are appearing all over the U.S., both sponsored by government and by independent entities. Innovation in this realm is becoming a necessary movement, and students like Liberty Middle School’s seventh graders are beginning to learn in ways that will soon redefine education in our society.

Ed. Note: This article is the first in a series that will explore innovation and technology entrepreneurship at local schools.

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Matt Gantz