For Mt. Blue Regional School District educators Jake Bogar and Travis Tierney, the concept of innovation in education was front of mind long before the pandemic disrupted their classrooms in 2020. Bogar is a pre-engineering instructor at the Foster Career and Technical Education Center (which serves students from Spruce Mountain High School, Mt. Abram High School, and Rangeley Lakes Regional School, in addition to Mt. Blue), while Tierney teaches high school English at Mt. Blue and, outside of school, facilitates the Youth Expedition To Ignite (Y.E.T.I) outdoor experiential recreation program. Both already were recognizing gaps and challenges in the traditional education model when the pandemic laid those issues bare in schools across the country.
That desire to drive positive change inspired both to sign up for the very first innovation course offered through the Maine Department of Education’s Rethinking Remote Education Ventures (RREV) program. Hosted by the University of Maine’s Foster Center for Innovation, the birthplace of an innovation curriculum that has been adopted by companies and other universities around the world, the first Innovation for Educators course brought together 40 teachers and administrators in two sections, representing regions across the state. UMaine’s course (one of a number of innovation courses being offered by higher education partners throughout the state), is a prerequisite for Maine educators to apply for awards under a transformative $16.9 million CARES Act grant intended to inspire educators to creatively reimagine how we deliver education in Maine.
Tierney and Bogar are seeking a RREV award to bring an outdoor leadership and recreation program, building on the Y.E.T.I. model, under the umbrella of the school.
What does innovation in education mean to you?
Tierney: “A few years back, it was a lot of that Ken Robinson Changing Education Paradigms stuff that kind of awakened me. I jumped into project-based learning, which, for me, was a real eye-opener as far as how passionate kids were. The days where they came to present were easily my most exciting school days. The experiences I was having with my kids outside in my Y.E.T.I. group were really, really meaningful and deep, and they were happening outside of the classroom.”
Bogar: “My background is in mechanical engineering. For me, innovation is providing the opportunity and the environment for kids to really research and explore, create new ideas, test them, not be afraid to take those risks. That’s what I’ve been trying to build over the last decade in this pre-engineering program that emerges out of the science program at our school and that has tons of tools and opportunities for kids to realize their ideas and then test them out in a place that’s safe where they can take academic risks.”
What are some of the opportunities you’re seeing emerge from the challenges of the pandemic?
Bogar: “I think one thing it showed is that we can take decisive actions and try things, and that kids are incredibly resilient, and so are educators. I’ve had some of my students reaching out to experts [in different fields] and finding that people are really open and willing to [connect]. Realizing those opportunities, and using communication technologies effectively, to bring people closer together is great. And, again, just that idea of taking some action and trying some stuff. Hopefully not sliding back into the inertia of traditional schooling.”
Tierney: “I’m an opportunist. We have all these amazing tech programs on our campus, and just because I’m an English teacher it doesn’t mean I don’t want to expose kids to those types of things. It was a little bit maddening that kids were going on these trips [through Y.E.T.I.] and learning all kinds of amazing things that didn’t directly relate to school in the old school [model]. RREV seemed very much like a foot in the door when it came to introducing that for a credit system within our own school where kids could do the same types of things. We have a small pilot class that’s starting up next year. It’s in the course book, and I’ve already had a lot of interest from students. Hopefully that expands — we’re looking forward to that, as well as to building a space here on the actual campus to house that program out of. We have some amazing opportunities on our campus for interdisciplinary collaboration and I hope that pushes forward [here] and in education in general.”
What did you take away from the Innovation for Educators course at UMaine?
Bogar: “Speaking from my perspective, because I am an engineer, I feel like [the innovation course] has kind of made some of the technical tools that engineers use to solve problems more accessible to teachers. The course teaches systemic thinking for problem solving, and that is a super useful tool if you want to realize any ideas in the institutions that we’re in. To really frame stuff as a system and start to tackle that, to understand where your death threats are and your opportunities are, that’s helpful and useful.
“I love the PDSA cycle, that is: Plan, Do, Study, Act. That is really useful for kids to just do one small thing, and then ask yourself, what did you learn? I used that with a lot of my kids in their projects this year. And meeting other people from around the state and interacting with some great mentors and instructors, it just felt really awesome to be involved in something like this during this time.”
Tierney: “For anyone who has tried to introduce innovative ideas or new things, you often run into a lot of roadblocks. Oftentimes, they’re financial. Oftentimes, it’s a mindset. We’re not ready to do that or scheduling is an issue — all these things that can get in the way of doing things in a new and interesting way in big schools like this. The quote that stuck with me [from class] was: ‘A system will assert itself. Whether it’s a good system or a bad system, it will assert itself.’
“This course in particular has been really, really helpful to have you prepared to pitch ideas to students or to other teachers, or to parents, administrators, school board members and to be prepared to answer all the questions that will come at you. Not to mention the networking that went on — we met a lot of really fantastic people through the course who are doing similar innovative things around the state, who I did not know prior to taking the course. I didn’t expect to meet that many people, so that’s been kind of awesome. We were given a license to dream, and it’s been hard to dream over the past year, so that felt good. It felt really good to do it with other people who were doing the same thing.”
This article was submitted by University of Maine Office of Innovation and Economic Development in collaboration with the Maine DOE as part of the Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign. The Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign is an avenue for Maine schools to celebrate successes and share innovative ideas, practices, and models that can be adapted and easily implemented by other Maine schools. Stories are not an endorsement of specific materials, services, or practices and are not intended to promote learning programs that are of cost to students, families, or schools. To submit a story or an idea, email it to Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org.