Like any typical school day, on the morning of May 30, 2019 students clambered off buses, backpacks and binders in hand, and headed into school. But this day wasn’t a typical day. Students from Connecticut IB Academy, Sunset Ridge Middle School, and O’Connell Elementary School eagerly joined in a school gymnasium to share their innovative ideas on how to address the United Nations Sustainable Goals. Poster boards, artwork, and scalable models filled tables while students presented their big ideas to peers and community stakeholders.
This was Ideas Festival.
Ideas Festival, originally named hAPPy Schools Expo, was started by 2016 Bezos Scholar, Shubham Pai. After participating in the Bezos Scholars Program and attending the Aspen Ideas Festival with his educator Jill McNulty, Shubham was inspired to connect students from International Baccalaureate (IB) programs within the district to share pioneering app ideas. During the first year of his community change project, Shubham worked with peers at Connecticut IB Academy to mentor students from Sunset Ridge Middle School in developing apps that inspired empathy and action. Student teams presented their apps at the hAPPy Schools Expo to fellow students and their community at the end of the year.2016 Bezos Scholar Shubham Pai with East Hartford Public Schools Superintendent.
Shubham reflected, “I was inspired by all the students who presented at the Expo. One group of students created an app that connected students with their teachers, then the teachers with their students’ parents. Their principal mentioned that this was similar to an app called the Remind App, which sends messages to groups of students and is used in many classes as a useful tool. The fact that this app was created by a student, and the Remind app was created by an adult shows that students have the capacity to actually solve real-world problems. These students are bound to create the next iPhone, the next million-dollar company, or the next major scientific discovery. They are my inspiration and hope for the future.”
After helping to support the first-year event, Sunset Ridge Middle School Design and Technology Teacher, Dana Kinel, and Connecticut IB Academy Design Technology Teacher, Fran Ferrall, were eager to become more involved and help inspire students to use design thinking to pursue passion projects outside of school hours. In the second year, they served as mentors for the new student leader: Huzaifa Khan.
Fran was inspired to hear design ideas from a young person’s point of view. Fran shared, “I like that kids can actually design something and create the change that they want to see.”
In its second year, hAPPy Schools Expo became Ideas Festival with high school senior Huzaifa and educators Dana and Fran leading the charge. The trio expanded the breadth of project themes by showcasing how student’s technological solutions related to global opportunities identified in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Huzaifa shared, “Focusing the festival on the UN Sustainable Development Goals provided a more concise theme.”Students presenting their big ideas during the second year of Ideas Festival.
Students from both schools discussed United Nations Sustainable Development Goals throughout the year. Meetups fostered more collaboration and opportunities to share ideas between students from different grade levels and Ideas Festival itself was a big success.
“As a leader, Ideas Festival has actually made me take a step back and be a different kind of leader,” explains Fran. “I like the idea of students running things on their own and this whole entire project was really done that way. This has really helped me take a step back to see what the students can do, because it’s about them.”Educator Dana Kinel, 2017-2018 student leader Huzaifa Khan, 2016 Bezos Scholar Shubham Pai, and Educator Fran Ferrall.
In its third year, Ideas Festival continued to grow and evolve. Student leader Sriram Ganesh, with continued support from Dana and Fran, expanded Ideas Festival to include all IB student grade levels from elementary through high school in the East Hartford Public Schools District.
“By including O’Connell Elementary School, we wanted to strengthen relationships between different schools in the East Hartford Public Schools District and the community,” shares Sriram.
Each of the participating schools adapted their curriculum to include aspects of Ideas Festival in their design thinking lessons, thus solidifying one of the team’s long-term goals around creating a sustainable event.
Festival content has also evolved to include social and economic development issues on a global and local scale.
“East Hartford has a high poverty rate,” notes Sriram. “By promoting awareness and action, Ideas Festival addresses these issues in the community. Through the curriculum implemented at each of the three schools throughout the school year, students worked to identify problems within their community and beyond. After identifying needs, students worked to address these problems and designed possible solutions.”
“Everything that I teach and everything kids do in design class is tied to the design cycle: investigating, planning, creating, and evaluating,” notes Dana. “I’ve seen students really use design and design thinking to persist through issues and problems, and to overcome obstacles when they’re designing solutions to problems and solutions to present at the Ideas Festival.”Sunset Ridge Middle School students share their idea for a sustainable solar heater during the 3rd annual Ideas Festival.
“After participating in Ideas Festival in 5th grade, students will continue to participate in the event every year until they are in the 12th grade,” shares Sriram. “Students will build on solutions created in the past or create new solutions that fit into the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We want to encourage students to participate in the festival each year. We hope to influence students to be open-minded and build their path towards college.”
And what do the participating students think of Ideas Festival?
Elizabeth and Andrew, students at Sunset Ridge Middle School (pictured above) loved the challenge! The duo was eager to share about their project and why they wanted to take participate. Andrew noted, “Our teacher inspired us to create an invention that could help the world. I think a solar powered heater would be really beneficial to our community.”Students participants in the 3rd annual Ideas Festival with student leader Sriram Ganesh (center).
Putting on Ideas Festival was no small endeavor. During his senior year in high school, Sriram met with principals from all 13 schools and District officials to share his idea of expansion and worked tirelessly to get the buy-in of school officials.
“Mostly it was challenging getting everyone in the same room because of schedules,” laughs Sriram.
So what’s next for Ideas Festival?
“Each year we want to expand and grow. We want to include all our students in the District,” shares Sriram.
By the spring of 2020, the team plans to increase participation to all 13 schools in East Hartford Public Schools District — 3 high schools, 2 middle schools, and 8 elementary schools.
“The motto of East Hartford Public Schools is that ‘Effort Matters, Work Matters, and Communication Matters’ and within the District, the IB learner profile traits are to be ‘be open-minded and to participate in teams.’ Having different people from different grade levels come together to present ideas aligns with these goals. It’s really impactful,” shares Sriram.
As Ideas Festival expands its reach, Dana and Fran will continue to support student leaders planning the event and the students who tackle big ideas to present at the Festival.
“I would tell anyone that’s considering doing something like this to do it,” explains Dana. “It’s an empowering experience for educators AND students. We imagine and push ourselves out of comfort zones to create really awesome solutions and projects.”
Fran’s advice to adults, “There’s no negative to supporting a student who wants to do a community change project. Kids pick up on things that we don’t necessarily notice. There have been projects that kids saw as issues that I wasn’t aware were issues. And they said ‘I’m going to solve it, and this is what I’m going to do about it.’ If young people want to solve a problem in your community, by all means, just let them.”