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d.tech’s Curiosity Project Culture

Ally Shirman | ashirman19@dtechhs.org | June 2, 2018
Photo by Evan Tung

Passion project, curiosity project, whatever you want to call it – it’s a well known staple of d.tech, and is one of the biggest selling points of the school. Prospective families are introduced to the patented pickpocket proof purse, the giant lifeguard chair, and the guitar made from scratch. Community meetings showcase hydrogen-powered engines, go karts, and self-published books. Student panels tell the stories of trips to Puerto Rico and India. But how involved is the school in actually helping create these projects? And why do so many students not have projects?

d.tech has had varying levels of involvement with curiosity projects throughout the years. Starting in half a hallway, it was difficult for d.tech staff to provide the resources needed for many students’ ideas. One example of this is senior Marcus Luebke’s hydrogen powered engine. Ken Montgomery, the executive director of the school, said that if Luebke had started his project at the new campus, “then more could have gotten done here because we have an 8000 square foot DRG.” So the reality is that Luebke did not use d.tech resources to create this famous curiosity project.

Even with the bigger space and more tools, many curiosity projects have little to no involvement from d.tech in the process of their creation. Freshman Samantha Mah wrote and published a book, Fourteen and Facing It, on her own, with no guidance from d.tech staff. “I ended up doing it on my own because I wanted to be independent and didn’t want to rely on anyone else to make it happen” she says. Junior Jared Lin, who created a machine that digitally “mines” for ethereum (a cryptocurrency similar to BitCoin), strayed away from d.tech when working on his project because he feels that, “If there’s too much that goes through the school, then it’s subject to all the approvals.”

On the other hand, seniors Emily Hom and Joelene Latief started their project with d.tech despite this concern, creating a pickpocket proof purse, and obtaining a patent for the product as well. They started the project in Oracle’s wearable technology class the end of their sophomore year, continuing it into the next school year due to the two girls’ interest in presenting their invention at Oracle Open World.

Similar to Hom and Latief, junior Jasmin Texidor found a passion in film after taking the Intersession class on the subject. But once intersession came to an end and normal school resumed, Texidor quickly lost sight of that interest because of the lack of school resources for her passion. d.tech offered film lab day extensions after the initial interession, but ended after the teacher left. Additionally, Texidor explained that she isn’t provided with tools such as video editing software and film cameras. Texidor says she feels that, “d.tech is doing as much as it can,” but thinks that part of the reason they don’t have the things she needs is because of the lack of, “people who were also interested in film,” making it not worth the cost to invest in those tools and resources.

This brings up a good point. How can d.tech fully support each student with the resources they need so that students feel incentivized to explore their interests? According to Dr. Montgomery, the school realistically can’t. “The reality is that if we wanted to fully support ideas to implementation, we’d have a very narrow range of what students are allowed to do. There are 550 students here. We couldn’t hire enough people to give them direct help.”

Instead of providing the exact resources to hand hold students through the steps in their curiosity projects, Dr. Montgomery believes the school should, rather, “incubate the ideas”. “We’ll give you a structure that allows you to explore different interests, you get it launched, and we do our best to support it. But its ultimate success is gonna depend on you.”

What does Dr. Montgomery mean by structure? FIT periods, lab days, flexible scheduling, and reasonable amounts of homework all provide the time that Dr. Montgomery believes can be used for curiosity projects. “I think to do it is the top level of self direction,” Montgomery elaborated. “When you have this to-do list of people telling you stuff to do for your grade, you have to be super motivated to get through all your stuff to get to that [curiosity project].”

Some students get it. Sophomore Victoria Napier says she feels, “like the students who actually create the successful passion projects are students who have self drive and they’re so persistent on it.” Website creator for Mah’s book, freshman Edward Shturman has a strong opinion about this as well. “They’re there to encourage you, and give you the opportunity to let you do what you want to do, but it’s your responsibility to see it through.”

However, many students don’t know how to start or don’t care about starting curiosity projects. A lot of students feel that their ideas aren’t coherent enough for a “real” curiosity project – like the hydrogen powered engine or a computer made from scratch. Dr. Montgomery is aware of this issue, which was why the original name “passion project” was changed to “curiosity project” a few years back. He says he felt that students were intimidated by the old name of ‘passion project’: “‘Passion’ was too high of a bar. Maybe this isn’t going to be your life passion, but it’s something you’re interested in right now.” Hence the newer term: curiosity project.

Even so, some students just don’t know what they’re interested in or how to apply those interests to an actual project. When asked what she would create as a curiosity project if she felt she wasn’t too busy, freshman Keya Nandani replied with an uncertain, “I don’t really know…” In the past, d.tech has tried implementing ways to encourage students to create curiosity projects by having @d.tech teachers talk to their students about anything that interests them. For some, this process worked, allowing staff to direct students to resources that could be useful.

For many students though, staff had trouble figuring out what to do for their interests. Dr. Montgomery described one past student who, “said they really like conspiracy theories. What do you do with that? We realized asking people what they’re interested in wasn’t the right mechanism to get people to do a curiosity project.”

Maybe the way to find a topic for curiosity projects is to look at what inspired others to create theirs. Hom and Joelene’s purse idea came from a family member’s experience of being pickpocketed in Paris. Mah’s book came from a desire to share her personal experiences in a way that would help others. Other inspirations for projects include exploring a casual interest in greater depth, finding a solution to a pet peeve, and getting more practice in a fun hobby. d.tech is always looking for ways to inspire and support student projects, and how the school could do so could be a curiosity project of its own.

d.tech already offers the foundation and freedom for students to pursue a project without dictating the topic or micromanaging the process. It’s up to each student to take the initiative. As Dr. Montgomery says, “If you’re not taking advantage of the way this system is designed, if you’re here to just take classes, then go to a traditional school.”

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