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Innovation Institute

How to implement an interdisciplinary PBL high school program?

Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School is a two-year interdisciplinary project-based learning program in high school wherein students grapple with a series of open-ended, complex questions that address some of humanity’s most pressing problems through collaborative and creative processes.

HundrED 2019


HundrED has selected this innovation to

HundrED 2019

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February 2018
Every major project we had was a ride of its own. No ride was the same as any others, because of different group mates, different objectives, and different end products. After finishing each project, there's a feeling that 'Hey, I did this!' that I can sort of get when I do well on something like a test, but not really. That's because my group and I had made something tangible, like a coffee table book or a film or board game. I feel satisfied knowing all the work that goes into something like that. Sure, it feels good when you ace a test, but that's just me feeling great about my grades. These projects make a person feel good about themselves.

About the innovation

Innovation Institute


What is Innovation Institute ?

Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School is a two-year interdisciplinary project-based learning program wherein students grapple with a series of open-ended, complex questions that address some of humanity’s most pressing problems through collaborative and creative processes. It is through each area’s unique content, the application of skills, and the meaningful integration points between disciplines that Institute students develop learning skills needed to generate, evolve, and refine creative solutions to some of the challenges facing modern society.

In an increasingly globalized and technological world, leaders in all areas acknowledge that mastery in critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and communication are essential to our ability to successfully respond to current and future challenges.

Innovation Institute helps students to develop 21st century learning skills (sometimes called 21st century competencies or the 4C's). The program was developed by founding teachers and an administrator who felt strongly that students would benefit from an engaging, interdisciplinary, project-based learning environment.

This program incorporates 4 courses in both grade 9 and grade 10: English, science, social studies, and a design course that is a fine arts elective.

Impact & scalability

Impact & Scalability


Innovation Institute moves away from traditional teaching methods, creating an innovative space for students to learn.


Innovation Institute gives students the opportunity to develop both academically and personally. Students are able to take control of their own learning and are consequently fully engaged in their education.


Innovation Institute are happy to be contacted about their program.

Implementation steps

Develop a Program (Optional)
Interdisciplinary project-based learning can sometimes be done within existing structures. However, developing a non-traditional program takes time, professional development, supportive administration and passionate, dedicated teachers. Our program involves 4 courses so that students are involved in Innovation Institute every second day. This allows Institute teachers flexibility with the schedule in order to meet the needs of students within an interdisciplinary, project-based learning environment.
Backwards Design to Develop a Project

Teachers look for connections between disciplines in order to develop an authentic, engaging driving question (DQ). Parameters for process and product need to be agreed upon. Backwards planning a calendar will help to ensure that instruction and assessment for both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary needs are met. An overview for students and a rubric should also be created and shared soon after the project is launched.

Project Launch
The project launch could range from a couple of hours to a full day. It should be engaging and act as a 'hook' to interest students. It could be an activity, a TED talk, artwork, or even a controversial quote. The launch often incorporates the 'reveal' of teams for the project. This is usually a source of great excitement for students! Teams often create contracts during or soon after the launch in order to articulate clear expectations that will hopefully set the state for a high functioning, productive collaborative team.
Foundational Learning
Students typically need to have some foundational knowledge and/or skills. Sometimes this happens prior to the project in a more traditional way such as attending classes for each discipline, with an overarching theme or connection. However, foundational understanding can also be developed during the project through mini-workshops or teachers checking in with each team. Regardless of how this is structured, it is important that the project is the "main course" - not simply dessert - as explained by Buck Institute for Education (BIE).
Students need direction and time for brainstorming and ideating. Teachers often facilitate discussions with individual teams and ask probing questions to ensure teams are working effectively and challenging themselves.
Collaborative teams should be required to iterate through multiple prototypes, based upon feedback from their peers, teachers, other faculty, and outside experts.
Expert Feedback
Expert feedback is so valuable. Experts can be members from the community who are willing to share their expertise - preferably in person but perhaps also via Skype if necessary. However, 'experts' can also be older or younger students, parents, or other faculty members.
Authentic Product &/or Audience
It is crucial to have an authentic product &/or audience. This could be a 'gala' to which parents are invited to a gallery walk and presentations. It could be creating films to submit to a student film festival. However, students sharing their work helps to ensure the project is engaging and holds them to a higher standard.
Students and collaborative teams should be given the opportunity to reflect on members' contribution with respect to both process and product. Ideally, opportunities for such reflections are happening throughout the project. At the end of the project, teachers should also solicit feedback on what worked well in the project overall and what could be improved for future projects. This partnership between students and teachers is incredibly powerful, and helps to empower students in their learning.

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