How Classroom Culture Opens Up When Students Can ‘Patent’ Ideas

Building a catapult that can hit a target at one, three and five meters is a core project of Ben Smith’s engineering class. When the project is assigned, groups get to work inventing a mechanism that will meet the objectives, often coming up with ingenious ideas. But when Smith noticed his students were increasingly asking to work in the hall, he realized they were trying to protect their ideas. If one person solved a tricky issue, other students would just copy her. So Smith decided to introduce a patent system in his classroom.
“We want kids to be collegial, but we also want to reward kids who have a good idea,” Smith said. Smith has been teaching for 27 years in the same room at Red Lion Area Senior High School in Pennsylvania and has earned a reputation as a hard, but fair teacher. He says when he introduced the patent system five or six years ago, it reinforced a culture of entrepreneurism, where students expect as much from themselves as Smith does.
“We have such high expectations for what’s going to happen in the room, so you really have to work if you’re going to be in there,” Smith said. “And I think that’s what kids want.” That doesn’t mean that all of Smith’s students are high-flyers. In fact, his engineering students arrive with very different levels of preparedness. He had one …