Building a catapult that can hit a target at one, three and five meters is a core project of Ben Smith’s engineering class. When the project is assigned, groups get to work inventing a mechanism that will meet the objectives, often coming up with ingenious ideas. But when Smith noticed his students were increasingly asking to work in the hall, he realized they were trying to protect their ideas. If one person solved a tricky issue, other students would just copy her. So Smith decided to introduce a patent system in his classroom.
“We want kids to be collegial, but we also want to reward kids who have a good idea,” Smith said. Smith has been teaching for 27 years in the same room at Red Lion Area Senior High School in Pennsylvania and has earned a reputation as a hard, but fair teacher. He says when he introduced the patent system five or six years ago, it reinforced a culture of entrepreneurism, where students expect as much from themselves as Smith does.
“We have such high expectations for what’s going to happen in the room, so you really have to work if you’re going to be in there,” Smith said. “And I think that’s what kids want.” That doesn’t mean that all of Smith’s students are high-flyers. In fact, his engineering students arrive with very different levels of preparedness. He had one student who could only read at a third grade level, a significant challenge since most of the reading associated with the class was more complicated. But rather than making reading a barrier to the student’s participation, Smith set up systems so the student could listen to some of the reading and voice-to-text so he could speak some of his written assignments.
“By making that accommodation, I think it really empowered him and he felt so much better about himself,” Smith said. The student still had to write many of his assignments, but being accommodated some of the time helped him to see Smith as an ally. And, without anyone telling them, the rest of the students understood their peer needed a little extra help and gladly supplied it.
Once students could patent specific design elements of their projects, they gladly started working out in the open, showing off their solutions. Smith soon realized there was a flaw in his patent system. “If a group had a patent, nobody else could use it. But I realized that was limiting how other groups could work,” Smith said.