How Classroom Culture Opens Up When Students Can ‘Patent’ Ideas

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.

So, he gave every group points that could be “spent” on licensing patented ideas — a lot like the real world. Students even started marketing their ideas to one another. Smith says points don’t make a huge difference in a student’s grade, but he does factor them into final project assessment.

Some students care a lot about getting patents on ideas, while others are less motivated by the system. And there are always smart and capable students who don’t tend to finish all their work, and consequently don’t get the highest grades. Smith finds it interesting that often it’s those kids who most want a patent, with their name on the wall, and the honor that comes with it. Students can also “sue” one another for patent infringement, where Smith acts as the judge.

To succeed at the catapult project students need a strong spring mechanism, so Smith often gets patents for different latching mechanisms. “That’s a key one because they all have to do that same type of thing,” Smith said. A simple hook isn’t strong enough and many students discover that a string jolts the catapult. Smith said many students design an oiled string or thin rod mechanism.

Another big engineering project is a two-step mousetrap, where the first mechanism triggers a car that hits a second mechanism that starts a second reaction of events. Smith gets a lot of patents for mechanisms to link the two steps, like a longer rod arm to keep the ball moving longer.

Smith also teaches AP physics, a class with very competitive and driven students. In that class, students design their own experiments – an element of the Next Generation Science Standards – and Smith allows them to patent their experimental designs so that all the groups don’t copy the first group to figure out a viable experiment. Smith has found that in his physics class, the girls patent their ideas more often than the boys.

“They’re very protective of their work,” Smith said. He’s not sure if that’s because the girls at his school are powerhouses in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), or if it’s because he explicitly teaches about the many instances in scientific history when men stole their female colleagues’ ideas and passed them off as their own. Either way, the girls hold far more patents than the boys, and when the school’s STEM team won a regional competition it was due in large part to two female leaders on the five-person team, Smith said.

Throughout his long career, Smith has always found that building a strong classroom culture is the foundation for success, and in order to build that classroom culture there has to be a give and take between students and teacher. He gives them some freedom to choose their projects, co-design rubrics and assessment measures, and makes them accountable to one another. For example, he always designates one student as note-taker for the class, using a three-column system. One column is for vocabulary, one for formulas, and one for big ideas.

“The rest of the class can focus in on the lecture,” Smith said. This system means that each student becomes responsible for creating the artifacts of learning for the rest of the class, and they are invested in doing a good job. At the end of the class period, Smith checks the notes to make sure everything is correct, and then posts them for everyone to use.

Smith also keeps a class blog and assigns one student a day to write about what happened in class, the big ideas discussed, and to post a photograph of what they did. This also helps Smith keep tabs on what’s going on in his classroom on days when he’s called away for one of his many other district duties.

Over time, Smith’s class has become more high-tech, but not because his district is handing out technology. The rural district where Smith teaches requires teachers to justify how and why they think a new piece of technology will improve learning. “That guided my approach to the use of technology throughout my career,” Smith said.

Technology limitations haven’t stopped Smith from applying for grants to get tools, especially devices his students can use to measure the world around them. He now has a collection of probes students can check out of the library. Smith is adamant that technology can and is already changing education for the better, but only if teachers remain vigilant about how and why they are using it to deepen learning experiences for kids.

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