In Woodstock, High School Innovation Lab Teaches Constructive Failure

  • Woodstock Union High School senior Julia Kowalski, 17, tightens a bolt while building the base structure for a playground that will provide a platform for the activities designed and built by students in the Innovation, Design, Engineering, Action (IDEA) class in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. The class is taught by Max Vanatta, an education fellow from the NuVu Innovation School in Cambridge, Mass., and partners Woodstock students with students at a school in Turkey to create the playground. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Peter Borden, right, looks up prices for components of an in-ground trampoline as Isaac Emery, left, takes notes during their IDEA class at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Woodstock Union High School seniors Lily Walker Money, 17, left, and Julia Kowalski, right, prepare to use a laser cutter to make parts for a model of Walker Money's playground component in the school's innovation lab in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Seniors Peter Borden, 17, left, and Isaac Emery, 18, right, work on their design for an in-ground trampoline in the Innovation Lab at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Students in the IDEA class are currently working in small groups to create playground games and activities that they will design, model and build as part of a collaboration with a sister school in Turkey.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/19/2018 10:00:07 PM
Modified: 11/20/2018 11:22:24 AM

With its sherbet-colored walls, its free-roaming teenagers, its bins and boards and shelves arrayed with tools of nearly every imaginable description, the innovation lab at Woodstock Union High School feels like the sort of place where anything can happen.

Students who frequent this high-tech space quickly learn that one thing, at least, is certain to happen: failure. Not the abstract brand of failure heralded on motivational posters, nor the very real and bitter-tasting failure of dead ends and deflated dreams. Rather, the failure students experience in Max Vanatta’s Innovation, Design, Engineering and Action (IDEA) class is a deliberate and dynamic part of the learning process.

Take, for instance, the modernized monkey bars that senior Max Dodson and sophomore Riley Shepherd are designing to be used in a new playground structure outside the school, as part of a unit called “morphing playgrounds.” In a more failure-phobic arena, their first prototype might have been smashed or stashed somewhere out of sight. Here, it’s regarded as an “iteration” and regularly used for reference.

“The first one was too big and too crazy. It wasn’t too cash money,” Dodson, who lives in Barnard, explained in teen-speak (translation: it wasn’t very cool) during class on Thursday, as he surveyed the cardboard-and-wire model he and Shepherd had first created.

Putting your ideas out there for others to critique and then thoughtfully incorporating that feedback is possibly both the hardest and most valuable aspect of the project, said Dodson, one of 17 students in Vanatta’s IDEA class, which is offered through a partnership between Woodstock Union, which educates secondary students from Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Pomfret, Reading and Woodstock, and NuVu Innovation School in Cambridge, Mass.

“You make something, and then everybody looks at it and says, ‘this isn’t realistic,’ ” he said. “It’s the whole progression of the engineering process.”

This process-over-product approach can be revelatory for students who are accustomed to seeking that one correct answer, said Vanatta, a teaching fellow from NuVu who leads four different middle- and high-school classes in the school’s innovation lab, which was completed last spring. The partnership is funded by private grants. “The iterative process allows you to create something, get feedback, synthesize that feedback … and try again,” he said.

If the process is the point, the products themselves are pretty cool. After building a base structure out of wooden beams outside the school earlier this month, the students began working in pairs to design possible equipment for the structure.

In class last week, Dodson and Shepherd were laser-cutting strips of wood and attaching thin dowel segments to create a sort of monkey-bar-walking-bridge hybrid. “You can monkey bar under them or walk on top of them,” Dodson explained, before sitting down with pen and paper to crank out some old-fashioned math problems that would ensure the model was made to scale.

Nearby, senior Sidney Pilot was working on a laptop, designing a 3-D printable hinge for a climbing wall with an adjustable incline. Using a model made of cardboard and thin nylon rope, Pilot demonstrated how climbers can use a pulley system to change the angle of the wall or even invert it for a completely different challenge. Like Dodson and Shepherd, she and her partner, sophomore Chase Christiansen, were perfecting their idea through an abundance of trial and error, facilitated by peer review.

“There were so many protoypes,” said Pilot, who lives in Pomfret.

To expand their panel of peer advisors and add a cross-cultural element, the class is partnering with Karam House, a community innovation center in Reyhanli, Turkey, that offers high-tech classes and a well-stocked workspace for Syrian refugee youth. About once a week, students video-chat — with the help of an interpreter — with their Karam House counterparts, who are working on the same playground project to be used in their community.

Feedback from Karam House students has proved helpful in several of the projects. For example, John Saggese, a junior, and Aaron Wilson, a sophomore, incorporated ideas from their peers across the globe to make their bungee-style tire swing more structurally sound.

The students will leave their mark on each other’s projects in another way as well. After all of the models are complete, the instructors from both classes plan to select three ideas for each playground structure — two from their own class and one from their partner class. Students, with help from Vanatta and co-teacher Andrew Smith, will then make and install the equipment.

Ultimately, then, these ambitious and experimental projects need to work. Along with being feasible and affordable, the equipment chosen for construction will, of course, have to meet stringent safety standards for playground equipment, Vanatta said.

Though they’re aware of these realities, the students don’t feel overly restrained by them. They’re encouraged to think big at the outset and then address things like size and safety as they go.

One concept they are encouraged to keep at the forefront of their planning is universal design — the aim of creating environments that can be used by everyone. People with limited mobility can tailor the incline on Pilot and Christiansen’s climbing wall so they can reach the summit, or flatten it out and create a different challenge, Pilot explained.

Likewise, Dodson said the monkey-bar/bridge can accommodate a variety of users. Saggese and Wilson are working on a model of an adaptive swing seat that will hook to their tire swing with a carabiner, and senior Molly Thompson is designing a swing based on the concept of a bronco rider, which can be operated using your arms, legs or a combination of both.

Along with being accessible to people with disabilities, the completed structure should reflect the needs and interests of anyone who might want to use them, Vanatta explained — in this case, middle and high school students. One of the designs the Karam House students are working on is a game that offers a cognitive/fine-motor challenge as opposed to the physical challenges common on elementary school playgrounds.

Rather than being limiting, the notion of usefulness can inspire students to think creatively, and that’s especially true when the core concepts are their own.

“It’s amazing how much more motivated the students are when it’s their idea,” said Vanatta, a Colorado transplant and rock climbing enthusiast with a background in architecture and design.

One of 10 teaching fellows deployed from NuVu to schools around the world, Vanatta brings the same multi-disciplinary, collaborative, student-centered approach to all of his classes here at Woodstock. His other classes are currently building sensory boards for the High Horses Therapeutic Riding Program, designing “client plans” for Vermont’s endangered species, creating seed vending machines where local large-scale farms can sell excess seeds to hobbyists or tourists and engineering a bike that grinds coffee beans.

Not all of the students who enroll in the classes dream of careers as inventors or engineers — and few probably know what they’re in for. But learning to think big and fail hard is a lesson anyone can use. “I think it really promotes creativity in useful ways,” Pilot said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at or 603-727-3268.

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