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Student Powered Solutions (SPS)

Students drive their own learning and build new skill sets by partnering with businesses to solve relevant, real-world problems.

Student Powered Solutions (SPS) elevates teachers and propels students to take charge of their own learning by empowering them as partners with local businesses. Leveraging concepts from Project-based Learning (PBL) and Human-centered Design (HCD) methods, students apply content knowledge and soft skills to design innovative solutions to real-world problems.



HundrED shortlisted this innovation

HundrED has shortlisted this innovation to one of its innovation collections. The information on this page has been checked by HundrED.

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December 2018
The thing I liked about this project the most was that there were no guidelines. We could take this project into any direction that we wanted. We had a freedom that really helped get this project done. We were able to think outside the box and get different tasks done in different ways.

About the innovation

Student Powered Solutions (SPS)

Nothing motivates and engages kids or brings out their problem solving, communication, and collaboration like a real-world challenge. That’s why our Student Powered Solutions (SPS) is so effective. It builds partnerships between schools and businesses to bring authentic learning into the classroom.

Through SPS, students partner with a local company to learn about their operations and a problem they are trying to solve. In their classrooms, students team up to take on the challenge, conducting research, proposing and testing theories, building prototypes, and developing potential solutions. At the conclusion, they make a formal presentation, pitching their solutions to their corporate partners.

These project-based learning experiences give kids a chance to apply classroom learning from almost any subject while also building important “soft skills” such as - communication, collaboration, and problem solving. The business partner benefits too, getting a fresh, youthful perspective that may never have been considered. Businesses also get the chance to promote their career opportunities.  

To facilitate this learning, SPS teachers employ elements of project-based learning (PBL). Buck Institute for Education defines PBL as, “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” Key elements include:

  • an authentic open-ended question or problem
  • student voice and choice
  • research and development
  • crafted prototypes or draft solutions
  • feedback from peers and experts; multiple solution iterations
  • a public presentation of student work

PBL puts students at the center of their learning. And works for students of all abilities, skills, and grade levels.

SPS elevates and empowers teachers with a new pedagogy that engages students as partners in creating their learning. To make SPS more effective and powerful we integrate human-centered design (HCD) methods with PBL. HCD techniques help students become more effective problem solvers and collaborators and they provide teachers with tools they can use to facilitate learning and impactful idea generation.

Schools and businesses in the Pittsburgh region have engaged in “SPS” type projects for many years. Teachers in South Fayette Township School District were among the first to build entire courses around the SPS model. They engaged businesses to provide real-world challenges and formally incorporated elements of project-based learning and human-centered design. Recognizing the powerful impact these learning opportunities bring to students, leadership in South Fayette reached out to the Consortium for Public Education so that we could bring their model to scale across our region. Over the past two years, Consortium staff have formalized training and support for new teachers and businesses adding more than a dozen new SPS partners with many more on board for next school year. We have also expanded SPS to include students from some of the most economically challenged school districts and have demonstrated the effectiveness of this model for all students.

See the post below, "Authentic Experiences for Students" and the video, "Student Powered Solutions in Action" for more information and an example of SPS in action!


Student Powered Solutions in Action
Authentic Experiences for Students
When teams from our Student Powered Solutions (SPS) program presented ideas for reducing or recycling a troublesome waste product at a local ductwork manufacturing plant, one of their suggestions sparked visible interest. SPS presentations don’t always result in ‘aha moments.’ But they do offer business partners fresh perspectives and for students, they offer invaluable opportunities, not least of which is a lens for seeing the relevance of their learning. Teachers find this kind of engagement can spark enthusiasm even among hard to engage students.  In this example, our SPS teams were challenged to find ways a manufacturing company could reduce or dispose of a polyurethane foam that overspills the production line. Committed to environmental stewardship, the company was trucking huge quantities of the bulky foam to a waste-to-energy plant, which was enormously costly to do. One student team researched and tested alternative uses for the foam. They created seat cushions and suggested using it for playground surfaces or as packing material. They even consulted a shipping company to find out if there could be a partnership between the businesses to sell the polyurethane foam to the shipping company for customers to use as a packing material, a solution that piqued the company’s interest. The other team, an engineering class, focused on the production process. They studied the company’s extruder and prototyped new designs. They adjusted variables in the chemical reaction like time and temperature. Through their experiments they discovered that when the temperature was lowered to 50 degrees, considerably less waste was produced. At the final presentation, company engineers respectfully listened but when they heard about the students’ results the atmosphere in the room changed. The engineers leaned in, they asked questions, and reviewed the data. Changing the temperature was a solution that they had never considered and that they might be able to bring to their production line, providing significant savings.Regardless of whether the companies find useable solutions to their problems, students invariably see the payoffs from SPS projects. And companies have piqued the interest of students as their future workforce. “It’s really different from a normal classroom experience where the teacher structures the assignment,” said one teen. “You’re kind of on your own and you have to figure things out, just like you would if you were working.” Communications skills needed to discuss ideas with adults made participating in SPS less like a class assignment and “more like it would be in business,” said another team member. Students also get to see how what they learn in the classroom – science, math, writing, public speaking, etc. —can be applied in the real world. And by working in teams, students learn the importance of skills like communication, collaboration, and problem solving. Skills that students need to be successful employees in the current workforce, and in future jobs that don’t yet exist. Additionally, students get a firsthand look at career opportunities they previously were unaware of or could only imagine.
SPS Handout pg1
SPS Handout pg2
Students & Educators Engaging with Project-based Learning
Importance of Soft Skills
Students being able to identify and develop their soft skills is an integral aspect of Student Powered Solutions, and are skills students will need in future careers and life.
Introducing the Consortium
To learn more about the Consortium for Public Education....

Implementation steps

Learn (more) about Project-based Learning (PBL)

Become familiar with project-based learning (PBL) and how to implement it. There are lots of resources on-line that teachers can use to learn it on their own and many strong training providers, like the Consortium for Public Education. (Buck Institute for Education also offers a wealth of resources and training.) Training providers that can coach you through your first project and connections to a community of practice can be especially helpful.

Identify a business partner and a problem challenge

Find a business or nonprofit in your community that is looking for an opportunity to work with/support youth. (Intermediary organizations like chambers of commerce, trade organizations, the Consortium for Public Education, etc., can be helpful connecting schools with businesses.) During initial communication, we recommend being clear about your subject area focus so as to avoid projects beyond the scope of a given class.  Be prepared with a concise explanation of PBL and why it is valuable for student learning. 

Meet with company representatives to learn more about the work they do and the products or services they offer. Talk about projects they are currently working on. Together, develop a potential problem challenge that is accessible and engaging for students, while also encompassing academic standards or learning targets.  If a business offers multiple challenges, consider boosting student voice and choice by offering a vote on your class’s favorite challenge question.

Prior to the launch of the project, it is also important to identify the specific soft skills and content standards that you want the students to practice and master by the conclusion of the project.

Kickoff with questions and context

The more students buy-in to a project, the better their engagement over time, and ultimately the deeper their learning.  There are many ways to create a hook:

  • Connect the challenge to a relevant student experience
  • Use extreme examples to emphasize urgency
  • Use anecdotes to build empathy
  • Shock and awe
  • Create a sense of mystery

Use the momentum of the kickoff to catapult students into their initial research, generating as many questions as possible.  These questions can provide a road map for the project, including topics for mini-lessons, independent research, and questions for the business partner.  By building a background of knowledge and questions prior to a site visit, the students will be able to maximize the value of that experience. 

Take your students to the business partner’s workplace for a tour and to meet staff (or have the business come to you). Give students the “big picture” to help them build context for the problem they will be working on. Ask the business staff to present the “real-world” problem; talk about their company and the work they do; and share resources, data, and other pertinent information. Prepare students to ask questions. This is also a great opportunity for students to learn about potential career opportunities. Encourage the business partners to talk about their jobs and the path their careers have taken.

Learn, refine, and design solutions

Schedule regular PBL time and work with students to create a timeline for their projects.   For students who are new to this type of learning, we recommend that you scaffold student goals and expectations, while providing regular and consistent feedback.  As students become more comfortable with the process, you can gradually increase autonomy and transfer project responsibility to the students.  In some ways the teacher acts similar to a newspaper editor, checking-in as the students chase down leads, research topics, and develop increasingly complex solutions.  Depending on the topic and/or the age of the students, the facilitating teacher may need to provide some project parameters such as a curated library of resources or lead the occasional mini-lessons on core content.  

Students, especially beginners, often struggle with problem solving and teamwork. Our PBL trainers emphasize the use of Human-centered Design (HCD) methods as essential tools for solving problems collaboratively.  HCD embraces what are known as divergent and convergent design methods; the former helps students to broaden their thinking by gathering large amounts of information or by developing a wide spectrum of ideas.  The latter methods help to organize, narrow down, and prioritize information and ideas.  Divergent and convergent HCD methods, when applied in cycles, gradually guide students to a refined, detailed solution.  

One of our favorite HCD organizations is LUMA Institute, and at the Consortium, we include some of their methods in our PBL training for educators.  However, there are hundreds of methods from which to choose, many of which are found on-line.

Present to an authentic audience to learn & build skills

Model presentation skills for students and provide ample time and opportunities for them to practice.  Clearly communicate the expectations and qualities of a strong presentation, and provide students with actionable feedback so that students can grow as presenters. 

Create a classroom culture that embraces presentation.  As students build a body of knowledge and explore solutions, it is important to do so in an environment that welcomes sharing, constructive feedback, and learning through failure.  Set the expectation that students present (both formally and informally) to their peers (and if possible, adults) throughout the project, as each presentation provides an opportunity for students to give and receive constructive criticism.  In order to foster a culture of shared learning, regularly remind students that any critique should be kind, helpful, and specific. 

When your students have refined their solution and honed their pitch, it is time to make the final presentation to the business.  Invite your business partners as well as fellow educators to attend the student’s final presentation and encourage them to ask questions and provide students with feedback. 

Celebrate and reflect

This is hard work and, because there are no “right answers”, it can be difficult for students to know if they were successful. Find ways to acknowledge the skills students demonstrated throughout the project (e.g., leadership, time management, team-work, dependability, etc.) and in the final presentation.  Students may not realize how much they have learned unless we are intentional and talk about it. Some questions to ask:

  • What skills did they practice and improve on throughout this process?
  • How could they describe those skills and provide real-world examples to transfer to another situation such as , a potential job interview?
  • How will these skills help them as students and future employees?

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