Gould Academy's Ideas Center puts problem solving at the center of learning
A small, private school in western Maine is nurturing some big ideas. A robot that can take underwater photographs and a student-run cafe are both products of Gould Academy’s Marlon Family IDEAS Center, a two-year-old innovation facility where students employ a concept called design thinking—and an impressive array of specialized tools—to harness their creativity and extend learning beyond the traditional classroom.
When I visit the IDEAS Center near the end of the fall 2016 semester, a boy and two teachers are working intently on a robot, but otherwise the sunny space is quiet. Small tables on wheels and simple metal stools dot the cement floor, and a raised area facing several large windows is set up as a lounge. In addition to equipment I don’t recognize, I see a cluster of sewing machines on a rolling cart and a stack of storage bins containing items you’d expect to find in an art classroom: pipe cleaners, dry pasta, and glue guns. In her cheerful office at one end of the room, IDEAS Center Director Sara Shifrin introduces me to Ankey Jin, a soft-spoken senior from Shanghai, China. Jin was looking for a class to complete her fall schedule when she signed up for Design Thinking and Introduction to Fabrication, one of nine courses taught at the IDEAS Center. “I didn’t think I had a creative mind,” she says. Challenged by the class, she gravitated to the center’s woodworking tools and also learned to sew, making reusable shopping bags and clothing. “It was my first time to do something in the woodshop, and I’m surprised I could do that pretty quickly,” Jin tells me. “I’m kind of good at it.”
With rigorous academics and a well- appointed campus in a bucolic setting, Gould Academy, founded in 1836, looks much like other New England college-preparatory schools. Relatively small at just 250 students, its focus on snow sports has long been a distinguishing feature; Gould has its own sophisticated training center at Sunday River ski resort, six miles away from the main campus in the village of Bethel. In addition to high-level competition, Gould’s On Snow program trains student skiers to become instructors for people with disabilities—one demonstration that the school is a place where action is valued, as well as thought. This mission is echoed at the IDEAS Center, which functions as a blend of classroom, laboratory, and library.
The IDEAS acronym stands for Innovation, Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Arts, and Science. Built at a cost of $2.9 million and funded by a multiyear campaign, including a lead gift from the Tony and Renee Marlon Charitable Foundation, the airy, modern maker space on the ground floor of Gould’s Hanscom Hall houses two fabrication studios, plus the Media Room with recording software, a keyboard, and microphones. In the Digital Fabrication Studio, students can use 3D and large-format printers, a laser cutter, and a vinyl cutter to create prototypes of their designs. The Physical Fabrication Studio is an updated version of a woodshop, with computer numerical control (CNC) routers, band and table saws, a drill press, and hand tools.
There’s a broader purpose beyond introducing students to high-tech tools and inspiring them to make things, though. The heart of the IDEAS Center is the Design Thinking Studio, where large, moveable white boards support the problem-solving process developed at Stanford University’s Institute of Design: identifying real-world needs and working collectively, using each participant’s strengths and skills, to create solutions. “It’s all about listening to each other, understanding what the problem is, and having the confidence to say, ‘I think I got that wrong. What did you see?’” says Shifrin. “The design thinking that Stanford promotes is problem solving and innovation through a process of understanding the human need, doing interviews, and low-stakes testing of an idea before you even get to the tool.”
Shifrin is a Gould graduate and the former chair of the school’s English department. Tasked with overseeing the renovation of the library in 2011, she was approached by head of school Matt Ruby, then new to the position, who suggested the library should have a 3D printer. “I looked at him with all the confidence and said, ‘You’re right; we should,’ and then I had to go Google what a 3D printer was,” she says. Shifrin harnessed Twitter, which connected her to someone in the Fab Lab network, a global project launched from MIT to establish digital fabrication labs at a reasonable cost. The concept was impressive, but there was something missing that Shifrin knew was necessary for an innovation center to work at Gould—the connectivity that is part of the culture of the small school. Adding design thinking to the Fab Lab structure was “the magic sauce,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that what we choose to promote is something that a Gould graduate can bring to the table if they’re working in Haiti. You don’t need a 3D printer to make solutions.”
Shifrin’s daughter Mia says the Introduction to Design Thinking course she took last year as a freshman gave her the confidence to open a baking business. The Shifrins spend the summer in the tiny lakeside town of Weld, where the only bakery had closed, so Mia set her business up at the local library, calling it the Book and Crumb. Although she has no long-term plans to become a baker, the skills she gained running the business have benefitted her work with the Gould Goes Green environmental group. “It’s made me more empathic,” she says. “Design thinking is really about finding a need and addressing it.” A dream to start his own clothing line drew Jahbril Price-Noel, a junior from Toronto, to the Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship course last fall. Assigned to identify a need, he and another student came up with the idea of a cafe next door to the IDEAS Center. His initial pitch to a student-run group failed when the group’s questions revealed that he had focused on the logo and T-shirts instead of how the business would function, says Shifrin. “Because they’re peers, not teachers, he really began to understand, ‘I don’t know how to do this. It doesn’t matter if I read the chapter or not. It’s about putting an idea into action.’ He pivoted. Now he’s asking me, ‘When can you drive me to the grocery store to get napkins?’ That’s the perfect question.” The cafe, named SA-KRED Grounds, is due to launch when students return from winter break. “I came in wanting to do more of my stuff and be an individual and independent,” says Price-Noel, a charismatic kid whose focus is basketball. “Now I know, OK, I need a team.”
William Ayotte, known as Billy, is the IDEAS Center’s maker-in-residence. “I function as a project engineer,” he says, explaining that one dot (the Gould term for class period) he might be teaching a student how to make multiple computers talk to each other on their robot, and the next dot he could be showing another student how to use a hand plane in the woodshop. “I believe in relational learning; even though you’re learning about something in woodshop, how wood behaves and moves and how tools work—you might end up using that in building a robot,” he tells me. I meet Ayotte in the Digital Fabrication Studio, where he introduces me to Luis Corona, a sophomore from Venezuela, and Richie Hoge, a senior from New Canaan, Connecticut, who have worked together for more than a year to build a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that will take photos underwater. The project, which is being worked on outside of class, has given Hoge the chance to use his interest in mechanical engineering and offered Corona a way to explore what he hopes will be a future in robotics. “We went through some prototypes,” says Hoge, as Ayotte points out previous versions of the robot on the shelves behind him. “We wanted something that was pretty portable and could be controlled easily by a high school student.” The current version has a plexiglass frame, watertight housing for a camera made of PVC pipe, and an Xbox controller; the team is still fine-tuning it for buoyancy before turning it over to the marine science class. “We’re not just building it because it’s kind of cool,” says Ayotte. “We wanted a mission to actually be able to do something.” Ayotte’s next project will blend his work at the IDEAS Center with Gould’s skiing legacy—he’ll teach a class on building skis. “I’m calling it advanced fabrication, but it’s really a class on composites,” he says. “We’re just using skis as the vessel to get students interested.”
Even with a generous financial aid program that assists families with Gould’s $57,500 annual cost ($33,000 for day students), the academy—and the IDEAS Center—can only reach a limited number of Maine students. Shifrin sees lots of opportunity for statewide impact, however, beginning with Field Guide, a four-day summer workshop in design thinking aimed at leaders in business, education, and community organizations, held on the Gould campus. The schedule for June 2016 included daily sessions with professional design thinkers, “people who do this at Google, at Fidelity, at Unum, where they have an entire innovation office,” says Shifrin, who produces Field Guide with Adam Burk of the nonprofit Treehouse Institute in Portland. She hopes that participants can be catalysts for spreading the IDEAS Center’s mission beyond Gould. “I want this space to be used for those networks to be established, for those creative juices to disruptively collide, and for people to think, ‘I had no idea I could partner with that person.’” She especially sees the potential for design thinking to benefit Maine’s nonprofit sector. “What’s changing in the nonprofit funding world is the larger grantors are saying—rightly, I think—‘You guys have to work out how to collaborate.’ Say you’re asking for $10,000 to build a handicap accessible ramp to a library. That’s great, and what if you also partnered with the high school to have students offering technology workshops to the elderly? That’s more interesting to fund.” Shifrin says she dreams of a “statewide hack-a-thon day where everyone gets trained in design thinking, and they’re deployed across the state” to solve problems. It’s a big dream from a small spot on the Maine map, but I won’t be at all surprised if the innovative minds at Gould Academy make it come true.