Learning by design: North Star Academy students work with Workshop Education

Students at North Star Academy come up with a prototype for a sleep monitoring device as part of the Workshop Education after-school program.

“Playdate with a purpose” is the motto of one Peninsula after-school program that emphasizes design learning and problem solving that’s now present at one Redwood City school.

Workshop Education, founded in 2009, made its way to third- through eighth-graders at North Star Academy this school year. One credentialed teacher to 10 students works on daily study skills workshops to help the student study smarter and complete daily homework successfully. Additionally, during the daily innovation workshops, children apply design thinking to create solutions to problems. Each day of the week has a different focus: writing, science, content study, design thinking and fine arts and units of study change every six weeks, according to the organizers.

“It’s really fun,” said Charlie, a student at North Star. “You get to design stuff and make ideas. We also have free time to play outside.”

In addition to these units, students can pursue independent projects of interest. To make project prototypes, students use office supplies such as tape, index cards, Play-Doh, paper clips, scissors and other items. At North Star, innovation workshops run 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Thursdays and 3 p.m.-5:30 p.m. other school days. The study skills workshops are 1:45 p.m.-3 p.m. Thursday and 2:50 p.m.-4 p.m. other school days.

“They’re thinking with their hands,” said Mira Gillet, the director of design thinking for Workshop Education. “Some kids had never had built anything in 3-D before. They had never been asked to invent or build anything and this is really important for engineering skills.”

At the same time, Gillet works for the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment, or SMILE, project at Stanford University and helps incorporate this into North Star’s Workshop program. With the group’s software, students engaging in reasoning and problem solving while enabling them to generate, share and evaluate inquiries. Students create their own questions based on material they’ve studied or learned and SMILE sessions last 30 minutes to an hour.

“It’s a content agnostic platform,” said Noah Freedman, technology support associate at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. “All results get recorded and questions can be shared with different classes. The value comes from the creation process — the best way to learn something is to teach it. … We’re excited to see it being used. We’ve gotten very positive reactions so far. We’re trying to create something in which pedagogy comes first.”

Other students enjoy the quiet environment.

“We get to go outside longer (than in other after-school programs),” said Rem, a student. “There’s a computer to use and good snacks.”

Another student, Darya, said she likes the fact students get to invent a lot of things.

“We get to follow what we want in life,” she said. “You get a taste of real world problems.”

The workshop teachers make sure not to do any of the work or thinking for the students, said Alexa Frisbie, founder of Workshop Education.

“They build resilience,” she said. “They develop a real fluency in public speaking and get used to fielding feedback to build on. … We tried to create a hybrid with typical other after-school programs merged with intensive enrichment experiences.”

There are also Workshop Education programs at Farallone View Elementary, North Hillsborough Elementary, South Hillsborough Elementary and West Hillsborough Elementary schools. Approximately 150 students attend workshop each month.

For more information on Workshop Education and SMILE, go to workshopeducation.org and gse-it.stanford.edu/research/project/smile.

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