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Breaking New Ground in Teaching & Learning

What is the future of stuff and why does it matter to Portland? If you track the rise of small piece manufacturers like Spooltown and the strength of high-tech manufacturers like Biamp, and combine it with the growth of maker communities from ADX to Etsy, you might just think Portland is leading the resurgence of American made.

The Portland Development Commission thinks so, and since 2009 has dedicated resources to promoting advanced manufacturing and the athletic/outdoor industries, adding high wage jobs and growth to the economy.

But the growth of the manufacturing sector is only part of the reason why Concordia University, in partnership with The Construct Foundation, is sponsoring a design challenge called The Future of Stuff complete with a temporary basecamp installed in the George R. White Library & Learning Center lobby.

The challenge will be run by the nonprofit organization Project Breaker, an experiential learning program that uses challenges like The Future of Stuff to build community-wide collaborations. From May 4-19, a team of 17-24-year-old students from across Portland will research local manufacturing then design and test the viability and social impact of business opportunities they identify. Inquire about participating in Portland’s first Breaker Project at http://www.projectbreaker.org/breaker-pdx/.

Spooltown’s Dana Hinger said, “If someone can come up with innovative solutions to some of our challenges we don’t see it as competition, we see it as working together to build a solid infrastructure for keeping manufacturing local. Ultimately, that can only make our work stronger and easier.”

At the same time, Project Breaker’s professional development workshops invite teachers, school administrators, executives, designers, and community based organizations to learn with and from the Breaker team as they explore the intersection of challenge-based learning, design-driven innovation, and social entrepreneurship. Similar challenges and professional development training took place last year in Detroit and New York City in collaboration with Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab. In June, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation will sponsor a challenge in Boise, Idaho.

Project Breaker Director and TED Senior Fellow, Juliette LaMontagne, describes the program’s impact this way, “Our projects train young people to create value. A startup business idea is only part of that value, equally important are the agile and enterprising mindsets students develop, a way of looking at problems as opportunities, a bias toward action, the ability to collaborate. These are the skills they need to survive in a fast-changing world with no end of complex problems. Educators know this, but the ‘how’ of teaching these higher order skills in a culture of high-stakes testing can be challenging. Breaker initiates that conversation as we build local capacity for experiential learning.”

Project Breaker exemplifies the kind of innovative approach to transforming learning that’s leading Concordia’s 3 to PhD initiative, a program that leverages community partnerships to close the achievement gap for Portland public school students. Staff from Faubion School, a pre-K – 8 public school and partner with Concordia with deep ties to their teacher training program, will join Breaker’s professional development workshop, which is shaping up to be an unorthodox mix of K12 teachers from across the city, Concordia faculty, and industry executives.

David Kluth, Dean of the College of Theology, Arts & Sciences at CU said, “Faculty like myself are eager to work across disciplines and to explore instructional practices that create real-world contexts for learning. We recognize that we need more of both at the university.” LeShawn Lee, Principal of the Faubion School, believes projects like this will expose her students to, “an alternate view of themselves and an alternate view of the world.”

Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), a startup accelerator out of Wieden+Kennedy, developed a program similar to Project Breaker last year called PIElette that taught startup business strategy to underserved Portland teenagers. PIE’s Kirsten Golden is a lead on the 14-day Future of Stuff challenge in Portland.

When asked if such novice teams might be considered for PIE she said, “We appreciate that opportunities like this can help us attract more diverse applicants. A strong team with a compelling product that meets PIE’s criteria would be welcome to apply.”

With employers putting increased emphasis on creativity and ingenuity, there’s growing demand for opportunities to develop these skills and examine the conditions that engender them. Educators are trying to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist while unemployed millennials are looking for a competitive edge in the job market. But programs like Project Breaker might be the first step on an altogether different path, that of the entrepreneur who doesn’t just fill a job, but who creates it instead.