It’s important, every once in a while, to let your ideas fly. You get them from time to time — your students do too. They get these flights of fancy, these moments of inspiration. Some ideas can be really exciting; they can invigorate your class. Of course, not every idea deserves to escape from the walls of your classroom. Time is tight and curriculum maps are ever so stern and dictatorial. But whenever you’re able to catch those moments of wonder and run with them, you create learning experiences that students will really remember.

One of the great elements of professional development at Van Andel is that we get to test our ideas and our resources out in our model classrooms. Our Student Programs team delivers a wide range of world-class educational experiences, from field trips to semester-long learning cohorts. One thing we’ve discovered is the value of investing some time and effort in taking student work into the community; it’s one of the key principles of our Blue apple projects. When students are empowered to use their learning to make an impact, it deepens their engagement, bolsters their sense of ownership, and helps learning to stick. Here are a few examples of what we’re working on right now.

City-Sized Solar System

This summer, we worked with Girl Scouts at a camp called “A Journey Through a Life in Space.” They learned all sorts of fascinating things about outer space, from the science of spaghettification and black holes to the beauty of nebula as they slowly form into stars. One of the key take-aways from the camp is that outer space is unimaginably huge, and that we are unbelievably small.

One of our teachers was struck by the inspiration to create a scale model of our solar system to help drive this point home, and the idea took off. We could work with businesses and organizations in the city to host our planets so that they’d be the right distance from the sun, which we in turn could host at our school. The girls researched the planets and created infographics to accompany each scale model. They selected and painted the planets, and we had great success finding host organizations. You’ll find that, too — your community LOVES to help you and your students learn!

Now, all around Grand Rapids, Michigan, there is a solar system. When you visit the zoo or the museum, or when you poke your head into a children’s shop, you’ll encounter some of the girls’ planets. It’s a wonderful example of how a little idea can play out into something solar-system sized!

Fundraisers and Innovators

Now, we’re working with new cohorts of students, and we’re in the middle of applying this idea as well. Our students who are learning about species diversity are working toward a fundraiser where they can create an educational experience for adults, teach them about some endangered animals, and help to raise funds to have a real impact on saving wildlife around the world.

Our students are learning about natural disasters and how humans can mitigate their impact by doing something awesome, too. They’re working to invent their own devices that can help reduce the impact of a natural disaster. They’re harnessing the power of youthful creativity to try to come up with something the world has never seen. And then, they’re pitching their inventions at a Shark-Tank-style competition where one of the creations will have a prototype professionally designed. We’re working to partner with a local college to have students working in industrial design advise and create the prototype; it’s great practice for them, and a great way for students to get some expert assistance.

Your Turn

In all of these cases, the authentic nature of the work fills the class with passion and vigor. Students — and teachers — enjoy coming to school each day because their work is interesting and relevant. Taking your work outside the walls of the classroom can be truly transformative.

When you get excited about an idea — when your students get excited about an idea — there’s a tendency to let it fall by the wayside because of all of the pressing minutiae of a typical school day. But it is 100%, completely worth it to invest the time, at least one time each school year, to help your students take their learning outside the walls of the classroom. You’ll be glad you did.

*Image courtesy of NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

For more free educational resources, check out out these teacher-tested strategies from Blue Apple!