Educating at the Speed of Change

For her senior-year capstone project, Anne Havlik ’17 tasked herself with the ambitious goal of building—from scratch—a solar-powered computer. She knew it would be a challenge but, given her interest in technology, it would also be a good opportunity to teach herself new skills. In her mind, Havlik envisioned a laptop powered by solar panels that could fit in a backpack, combining portability over rough terrain with a renewable power source for use in areas of the world where reliable power is unavailable. Nothing like it exists in the marketplace today.


It actually takes a lot of work and probably some failure. It builds grit.


She wasn’t too far into her research for the project when she ran into a hurdle. Or a major roadblock, more like it. “I was doing a phone interview with Patrick Keily, who is a senior project strategist at We Energies and works with a lot of renewable energy,” said Havlik. “He told me that I would need upwards of 30 pounds work of solar panels to power the type of computer I wanted to build.” Rather than a backpack, Havlik’s computer would have to be transported by wagon—not exactly the model of portability. It was a turning point for her project, but she didn’t realize it at the time. “It was a bummer, because I knew I couldn’t build it the way I initially wanted to. But I also felt challenged to be innovative and come up with a new design to work around the problems I faced.”


The ability to think innovatively and tackle tough problems head on are exactly the type of skills that students gain at USM. One of the ways in which USM teaches these skills is through design thinking. “Design thinking is a process we use to get students to solve problems that matter to them,” said Director of Innovation and Exploration Nikki Lucyk. “Students identify a problem and look at it from different perspectives. From there, they examine and research potential solutions. It’s an opportunity for us to harness their creativity and use it to find solutions to problems they care about. When they are connected to the content, they retain it.”

The portable computer designed and built by Anne Havlik ’17 for her senior-year capstone project.

Havlik’s capstone project is an example of the design-thinking process at work. But it is not limited to Upper School students. In the Lower School, 4th-grade students spend a year researching a topic of their choice and then present their findings to other students and parents during Tower Week in April. Middle School students also participate in Tower Week, and put design thinking to work on a wide range of projects of their choice, from coding a website to building furniture, soap-making, and much more. The Lower School and Middle School even have dedicated spaces for tinkering, called the Wildcat Creation Station and Nerdvana, respectively, which are used by students on a wide variety or projects. “I think a lot of the Lower School and Middle School teachers would agree that learning a skill has more lasting value than memorizing things,” said Tom Mussoline, Middle School academic technology coordinator.

Large-scale projects, like the Tower Week capstone projects that 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade students work on are complex and open ended. “It isn’t a study-for-the-test-and-then-it’s-done type of class,” said Elaine Griffin, Assistant Head of Upper School and Upper School English teacher. “It requires students to keep looping back to make something better. It actually takes a lot of work and probably some failure. It builds grit.” Grit, as it turns out, is an essential component of success. In his book “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough noted that what matters most in a child’s development “…is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”

Caroline Van Bell ’21 (left) and Maahum Jan ’21 constructed a bench in Nerdvana for the Lower School butterfly garden.

For alumna Kelly (Baumgartner) Fitzsimmons ’89, the USM education her two daughters receive today is much different than the one she experienced at USM. “We still had the same caliber of phenomenal teachers that they do today,” she noted, “but the curriculum approach was pretty straightfoward—lots of homework and memorization. I don’t remember much out-of-the-box thinking in terms of pedagogy. I see the School today as a learning laboratory. It is so fantastic how willing and open USM is to implementing new ideas and creating a framework of curiosity and a love of learning.”

Fitzsimmons has founded six start-ups, four of which were in information security. She currently serves as co-founder and managing director – strategy for Custom Reality Services, a pioneer in the world of virtual reality filmmaking. “In my world of virtual reality, Moore’s law is very much alive and well,” she said, referring to the Intel co-founder’s prediction that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. “The speed of change is exponential. It’s real, and it’s happening. We’re living in a world today where I couldn’t tell you what the good jobs are going to be in 10 years, much less 20.”


By reworking my original plan, I ended up with a better design in the end.


That presents an exciting opportunity for USM. While we may not be able to teach to a job that does not yet exist, we can use design-thinking techniques to prepare students with skills that will serve them well in any career, in any industry. “We have to teach kids to be strong in the diplomatic arts—how to advocate a position, research a problem, engage in debate, and be comfortable with a clashing of ideas and not see it as off-putting,” said Amy Riley, an education consultant and academic dean with Independent School Management, with who the School has recently worked. Added Fitzsimmons, “The skills of being self-directed, asking for help, formulating a good argument, putting an idea together and then selling it—those aren’t going away. There are real-world applications in 20, even 50 years that will require them.”

Having the ability to stick with a problem and see it through to the end is a major component of design thinking, and a vital way in which USM students gain those important skills. Fitzsimmons experienced this with her own daughters, whose USM teachers worked with her to master the art of failing. “Her teachers noticed from early on that she could grasp concepts very quickly, but if she failed at something it would be disastrous. They very deliberately encouraged her to accept and overcome failure, to keep her excited about learning. Now, several years later, she’s much more curious. And she has the tenacity to push through the hard stuff. In fact, she’ found that the hard part of pushing through is actually kind of fun.”


Despite her setback with the solar panels, Havlik was determined to design and build a computer that was both portable and solar powered, so she went back to the drawing board. “I played around with the idea of a battery that could be charged with solar power, and then having the computer run off the battery instead of off the solar panels,” she said. In addition, Havlik took a closer look at each component that was used to build the computer, including finding a more energy-efficient hard drive and motherboard. “Not only did I have to research each component to make sure it was energy efficient, I have to ensure that they were compatible, too” said Havlik. The end result is a computer that functions like a normal PC, including operating Windows 10 with Wi-Fi connectivity, but runs off of a battery that is powered by one solar panel weighing just a few pounds. “By reworking my original plan and pairing down the computer components into something smaller and more efficient, I ended up with a better design in the end,” said Havlik. “If I had gone with my initial plan, I don’t think the finished product would’ve been as good as it is.”

While researching and building her project, Havlik set up shop in the House of Technology, which is a dedicated space in the Upper School for building, project creation, and experimentation. “It was so nice because I could leave my stuff in there and work on the project when I wanted to. I was even able to charge the battery by setting up the solar panels near the window,” she said. As part of the Our Common Bond campaign, USM is building a new, expanded space, named the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration, for this and other types of creative projects. The new House of Technology will reside within the Lubar Center.

Anne Havlik ’17 worked on her capstone presentation in the Upper school’s House of Technology.

The merit of design-thinking courses is well documented, but what about students who want a more traditional, structured class? And what about faculty members who prefer to teach that way? The cornerstone of a USM education is its strong curriculum, which includes giving students the freedom to choose how they prefer to learn. “Everyone learns differently, but the main goal is to learn as much as you can and have it stick with you,” said Havlik. “I had the foundational knowledge that I learned in AP Physics and AP Computer Science, which I relied on when I had to go out and teach myself a lot of things on top of that for my capstone. Open-ended and traditional classes are both equally valuable in my mind, but they’re two different types of learning.” Havlik also relied heavily on her English and art classes while working on the capstone. “As a high school student working on this project and trying to solicit help from outside sources, I had to set the tone that I was serious about it. Having proper spelling and grammar in my emails, using the correct salutation, proofreading—those were really important. I also drew a lot of sketches of what I needed and how I wanted to build the computer, and art class helped a lot with that.”


More people will view a PK-12 education as the most worthy investment for their children.


Although students in every division have the opportunity to take an open-ended course if they choose, traditional classes are not going away. Nor should they. Through traditional courses, students learn a valuable skill that many pre-internet-age adults take for granted: concentration. “Let’s say we’re reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in AP English,” said Griffin. “I don’t allow students to have their computers out; it’s just themselves and the book. We’ll begin by reading out loud and discussing the language, and then they might analyze the characters. They are required to annotate. I can’t control if they’re texting while reading at home, but I give Sparknotee-proof quizzes that require students to actually read the book. I think having 30 pages of reading homework, plus quizzes and required annotations, trains them to do an exercise that is different than something they would be asked to do on the computer.”

While USM has wholeheartedly embraces the use of technology in school—students in grades 3-12 bring their own computing devices every day—it has not disregarded the importance of solid, foundational knowledge and skills. “Preprimary-through-grade-12 institutions operate on the premise that there are skills every human needs to develop,” said Riley. “If I can’t read, write, digest information, and understand math, I’m not going to succeed no matter how much is on the internet.” These basic skills—reading, writing, math, and science—that are so critical to establishing a baseline of knowledge, are not taught in college. “The PK-12 setting becomes the most important educational environment because it addresses those finite sets of skills,” said Riley. “It stands to reason that more people will view a PK-12 education as the most worthy investment for their children.”

It’s impossible to predict what the world will look like in 20 years, and that can be a frightening reality for students and parents alike. But although we may not be able to teach them job-specific knowledge, we can certainly prepare children with an aptitude for learning, communicating, and solving problems—skills that will serve them well in their careers and lives. While the way in which USM students learn and the tools they use are keeping up with the rapid pace of change, the curriculum is rooted in a solid foundation of tradition that has benefited students for more than 160 years. Rather than being oppositional, the two schools of thought strengthen each other and make for a more well-rounded educational experience. “USM operates from a place of ‘and’,” said Lucyk. “This is important, because to solve the world problems, you have to understand how they impact humanity. You need to know how to communicate, to understand history, to listen, and to be a creative thinker. If you can do those things, you can do anything.”

Many Paths to Many Possibilities

With the new Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration scheduled to open in August, USM is excited about the many ways in which students will use the space. Although it will house the Upper School’s House of Technology maker space, the Lubar Center is intended as more than just a place to design, tinker, code, and make.

Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration at University School of Milwaukee.
Rendering of the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration, opening in August 2017.

Inside its walls, students will participate in purposeful and playful investigation of their own interests and ideas in order to build skills in asking questions, seeking answers, challenging themselves, solving problems,  and taking action. The Lubar Center will allow students in all grade to practice curiosity, observation skills, connective thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving. It is expected that, in its first year, the space will welcome more than 300 Upper School students who will have at least one class in it, with every Upper school student being exposed to the space in one way or another throughout the year. In addition, every Lower School and Middle School student will also have a chance to explore, create, play, and learn.

The Lubar Center will be complemented by the existing Wildcat Creation Station in Lower School and Nerdvana in Middle School. Innovation will permeate all classroom spaces in new and exciting ways—and all USM students will be equipped to embrace and tackle problems and challenges in ways we never dreamed of. These many paths of innovation will become a tangible part of USM, and will lead to many exciting possibilities for our students, both now and in the future.

View more renderings and a fly-through video of the new Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration by clicking here.

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