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The Salamander Project: Redesigning Creativity in Education

The Salamander Project will repair and regenerate the missing element of public education: creativity. The project will model a 21st century classroom through transforming a neglected library at Locke High School into an Innovation Space while developing the HackerSpace in a Box ‘Creativity Generator’ to foster students’ exploration, critical thinking, and collaborative problem solving.

"What will public education in Los Angeles look like in 2050?” If the current system remains as resistant to meaningful reform as it has for the past half century, then 50% of our city’s ninth graders will fail to graduate with a worthwhile diploma and face a lifetime of limited opportunities. For anybody who cares about the future of the city, the question should be two-fold “What do we want Los Angeles to look like in 2050? How do we need public education to transform to get us there?”

Public education must accept that a model developed to meet the needs of a nineteenth century manufacturing-based economy is no longer viable in the 21st century. It must evolve to meet the needs of an economy shifting to creativity and invention in almost every field, from medicine and manufacturing to agriculture and politics. Public education is doing little to prepare students for such an environment.

The Salamander Project addresses two challenges to such an evolution. Firstly it considers the future of the school library. The school library has declined in importance and its relevance called into question. Many new schools are built without libraries. Many existing libraries are unused anachronisms: forgotten and neglected spaces filled with outdated books. The Salamander Project will redefine the purpose of such ‘dead space’ and adapt it to the evolving needs of schools, students, and teachers.

Secondly, the project explores how to inject, or seed, creativity in the classroom through the development of ‘Creativity Generators’ such as HackerSpace in a Box. The last few years have seen an explosion in the digital education marketplace. Hundreds of companies are developing innovative new classroom applications of technology. However, the industry is still in its early stages, with little appreciation for the challenges of wide scale adoption. Many teachers, even forward thinking early-adopters, struggle to understand how such innovations can be realistically incorporated into their schools. The Salamander Project will provide teachers with the opportunity to explore and pilot a new education tool— HackerSpace in a Box— that inspires creative thinking processes within a collaborative, project-based learning environment that will model a realistic vision of a 21st century education.

The project comprises two distinct phases:

PHASE 1 Through a week-long series of innovation workshops, two groups comprising visionary thought-leaders in the education and design fields will address two key questions: 1) How to build the ultimate “creativity generator” and ‘seed’ creativity within the learning environment; and 2) How to create a physical space that encourages collaboration and creative problem solving.

No Right Brain Left Behind will, along with their partners, Sparkling Science, will further develop an innovative digital learning tool and creativity generator called HackerSpace in a Box. Currently, HackerSpace is comprised of an Arduino-based circuit board called the Makey Makey, electro-conductive paint, and copper tape. This open source creativity kit enables students to create customized computer interfaces from elements in their surroundings by connecting electro-conductive objects and surfaces to the circuit board. Currently, HackerSpace requires facilitated workshops with teachers and students before it can be implemented in the classroom. In order to increase adoptability, No Right Brain Left Behind will redesign the experience to enable ease of use for teachers as well as students, and start developing a comprehensive curriculum. Meanwhile, a group led by The Third Teacher+, an educational design agency, will consider the conversion of the school library at Green Dot’s Locke High School into an Innovation Space and produce a comprehensive design brief.

PHASE TWO From June to August, the design brief will be developed into an interior design for the remodeling of the library into an Innovation Space. Concurrently, No Right Brain Left Behind will develop the next generation HackerSpace in a Box and associated curricula and lesson plans. Remodeling will take place in July. Teachers will be trained in the Innovation Space in August. From September to December, Green Dot will pilot the next-generation HackerSpace in a Box within the Innovation Space throughout the semester. Education specialists from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and USC’s Rossier School of Education will observe lessons and provide feedback.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Over the past 12 years, Green Dot has grown from a single 9th grade class of 140 students in Inglewood to serve 10,300 at-risk students in 18 schools across Los Angeles, half of them turnarounds of LAUSD’s lowest-performing schools. 90% of students graduate with 76% going on to attend college. Green Dot’s dramatic expansion has been fueled by a commitment to ‘doing what it takes’ to break down the barriers that prevent students from thriving. Our first five schools were located throughout Los Angeles, with an emphasis on diverse neighborhoods that were underserved by traditional public schools. In 2012, those schools scored an average 764 on the Academic Performance Index (API), California’s primary measure of accountability; higher than both district and state averages. The schools are among the highest performing ‘minority’ schools in California.

In 2008, in collaboration with teachers and the community, Green Dot won control of Alain Leroy Locke High School, one of the lowest-achieving schools in the nation. Four years into the transformation, the Locke schools scored over 600 API compared to a pre-transformation score of 511. In 2010, Green Dot launched a new strategy to address the chronic attainment levels of incoming 9th graders through the opening of high-quality middle schools, two the result of a takeover of Henry Clay Middle School, ranked as the worst middle school in California. Concurrently, LAUSD invited us to take over David Starr Jordan High School, located in the heart of the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts. Early indicators suggest that students at these schools are already experiencing significant gains under the Green Dot model.

Joining Green Dot, No Right Brain Left Behind brings expertise in design-centered problem solving. NRBLB started a movement in 2011 that highlighted the wide-scale concerns for the country’s creativity crisis and the desire to find solutions. During a seven day innovation challenge, NRBLB asked the best in the creative industries to develop ‘creativity generators’ to be used in the classroom. Renowned innovators and experts including Sir Ken Robinson, Yves Behar, Daniel Pink, Deepak Chopra, and Scott Belsky joined the cause. Over 150 world-class companies such as Frog Design, BBDO, Wolff Olins, and Saatchi&Saatchi developed over 300 concepts. The winning concept received in-company funding to bring their concept to action.

NRBLB has been awarded accolades by Core77Design and The Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce; presented at events such as TEDx, Art Directors Club, and LiveWire; and been featured in FastCompany, GOOD Magazine, Core77, BrainPickings, Design Mind, and Art Rebels. To date, NRBLB has built a strong coalition of companies, design schools, education networks, and creative professionals able to develop scalable, low-cost, and adoptable innovation tools that enhance creativity inside and outside of classrooms.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Green Dot Public Schools and No Right Brain Left Behind will be joined by a variety of design and education partners in the development and implementation of The Salamander Project. The following companies have so far been approached to be involved: The Third Teacher+ studio of Cannon Design, an educational design consultancy within the global architecture firm, Cannon Design; GameDesk, a research and educational game developer; Sparkling Science, a Swedish educational product developer; MinecraftEdu, the educational version of the popular world-building game.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

The Salamander Project will be evaluated by Green Dot’s experienced Knowledge Management Team through a variety of physical documentation alongside quantitative and qualitative data at each phase of development.

Phase 1: Design

Phase 1 will be assessed through the quality of completed documentation. Working groups will develop 1) A working prototype of the next-generation HackerSpace in a Box, and 2) A comprehensive design brief for transforming the Locke High School library space into a 21st century innovation hub.

Phase 2: Implementation

Phase 2 will be assessed through the ability to construct the Innovation Space to specifications, on time, and within budget and the quality and adoptability of the HackerSpace in a Box curricula and lesson plans. We have set a goal of 20 teachers to take part in initial training and 500 students to enroll in the semester-long project.

Phase 3: Outcomes

Student outcomes will be evaluated through the use of the Torrance Test for Creative Thinking, one of the most-respected assessments in the field of divergent and critical thinking skills. Students will take the test at the start of the semester to establish benchmarks and at the end to gauge growth. Additionally, Green Dot will gauge teacher engagement and measure participating student progress through analysis of student test scores in California Standards Tests (CSTs) to assess more general academic growth.

Beyond quantitative test score data, qualitative assessments will include teacher and student surveys and in-depth interviews. Questions will focus on perceptions of improved engagement with curriculum, creativity, participation, test scores, and understanding of subject matter.

Phase 4: Documentation

Green Dot and No Right Brain Left Behind, together with our collaborators, will document the process through film and interviews with designers and participants. Progress towards the larger goal of inspiring and motivating broader change at the city level will be evaluated through the number of visitors and observers to the Innovation Space and requests for the development blueprint to create Innovation Spaces at other locations.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

The Salamander Project will excite, inspire and motivate students, parents, and school operators to rethink the future of Los Angeles and its public education system and kickstart a meaningful, bipartisan, reform-focused dialogue.

At the end of the grant period, The Salamander Project will have built a fully functioning Innovation Space at the Locke campus and conducted ‘creativity generation’ activities with 500 students. Beyond the grant period, No Right Brain Left Behind will continue to work with Green Dot to further develop the HackerSpace in a Box while building an online community with content, lesson plans, and inspiration where teachers using similar devices and DIY learning can upload their findings and classroom experiments. Green Dot will partner with other product developers in the creation and piloting of new digital learning tools, curricula, and lesson plans while providing a demonstration site for others in the education community to glimpse the possibilities of the future of public education in L.A.

Just a month ago, the Los Angeles School Board elections inspired only 6% voter participation across Los Angeles, despite general awareness that our public schools are in crisis. Voter participation in the communities most dramatically impacted by poor political decision-making is even lower and illustrates a resignation to the idea that the status quo is unalterable. More than ever, the city’s communities require inspiration and motivation to believe that something better is possible. Already, Green Dot invests significant resources in educating and training the adult communities in which we work to equip them with the tools necessary to become empowered and authentic agents of change. The Innovation Space will allow parents to access ‘Creativity Generators’ themselves and connect with other communities just as their children connect with students from around the world. The Salamander Project will show parents that a successful, positive, and thriving public education is a very real possibility and in doing so, inspire greater optimism and civic engagement.

Beyond our own students and their families, the Innovation Space will host visits and demonstrations for other school leaders interested in developing similar spaces of their own. The project will result in an affordable ‘blueprint’ of how to replicate the Innovation Space at other schools across the city. It is our hope that a network of such Spaces would connect students, teachers, and communities from across Los Angeles and contribute to wide-scale collaboration and understanding. In providing a working model of a truly 21st century learning environment, we hope to excite, inspire and motivate others to rethink the future of Los Angeles and its public education system and kickstart a meaningful, bipartisan, reform-focused dialogue.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Professionals agree on the core skills required to thrive in the emerging fields that will define the 21st century: collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. But the current model of public education was never designed to address the ambiguities and nuances of such skills. Rather, it has relied on the conveying of concrete facts with little room for personalization or individual expression.

But children are born curious; creativity comes naturally. Unfortunately, for many children, the effect of public schools is quite opposite, described frequently by kids as young as six as ‘like being in a cage’. Though trial and error are necessary prerequisites for inquiry—scientific and otherwise—questioning and ‘permission to fail’ are frequently banished from the classroom. Testing with computerized grading can’t distinguish between a probing response and the ‘right’ answer. To hear young people tell it, our nation’s public schools are making war on imagination and creativity.

We envision a public education system of 2050 that doesn’t simply pay lip service to collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity as isolated subjects, but embeds them within the core instructional and operational framework of the school. We envision a public education system that from Kindergarten through college, personalizes the learning experience of every child, allowing each to discover and pursue their passion in partnership with likeminded peers. We envision the classroom transformed into a collaborative studio environment that facilitates dialogue between students, teachers, mentors, and advisors from across the world. We envision the teacher as an expert facilitator and curator, selecting and synthesizing an online world of content for their students’ consideration and guiding students’ critical assessment and understanding. We envision the school as the physical hub of the community, bringing people together and nurturing empowered citizenry even as it operates within a globally connected network of students and teachers.

In 1999, Green Dot’s founders looked at a map of Los Angeles and tried to identify the schools with the basic technology required in the new century: green dots indicated those that were prepared; red dots indicated those that weren’t. The map was overwhelmingly red. Our mission is as simple now as it was over a decade ago: to turn red dots into green dots. The Salamander Project is a natural extension of that mission, seeding a vision of a 21st century education and facilitating its growth throughout the Green Dot network of schools and beyond throughout the district.