The Sustainability Workshop grew out of a desire to design a school from the ground up focused on real world problem solving. Our discussion of what that might look like began nearly a decade ago. Since then, we have become convinced of two things. First, doing authentic work in a traditional high school setting is very difficult. There is a tendency to try and make the work fit into school structure (bell schedules, grade levels, subject areas). We wanted to do it the other way around.
Second, students are capable of remarkable growth when presented with meaningful challenges. This belief comes from over a decade of experience blending project-based learning with green technology in an urban high school. Founded in 1998 as a summer project, the West Philadelphia High School EVX team has spent the more than a decade designing, building, and racing alternative energy vehicles. The team won the Tour de Sol, the nation’s largest alternative energy vehicle race, three times and reached the semi-finals of the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition, outperforming elite universities and well-funded private companies. In the spring of 2011, they won the Green Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International in New York, where their sports car achieved over 100 miles per gallon. The team also won the Clean Energy division of Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Awards, an international competition that challenges high school students to create innovative products using science technology and entrepreneurship to solve real world 21st century problems. Outcomes for individual students are no less impressive. Over the past 13 years, every senior that has graduated while part of the team—about 50 in all—has matriculated into some form of post-secondary education.