CEL, Engineering, and Technology

It has been my pleasure to have been involved with the CEL program from the very beginning and to participate in the envisioning and design of what has become a very substantial and unique component of the SCH curriculum. Within CEL, my role has been to teach the technology-intensive classes, including robotics, electronics, programming, and technical product development.

Predating CEL, and very much in the spirit of what CEL would become, was a program called Challenge, Exploration, and Creativity, a series of experiential courses offered in Middle School for Boys. All of the CEC courses, with some modifications, have been folded into the CEL curriculum. The CEC classes were guided by four key principles. First, we want to challenge students to solve problems that we know they do not know how to solve. This requires them to develop solution strategies in groups or on their own without prior instructions. Second, we want to reduce the cost of failure to encourage students to take risks and try something they’re not certain of. To accomplish this, we make the CEL curriculum pass/fail. Third, we want to give students a sense of agency, so most projects provide an opportunity for student choice. In the end, it didn’t really matter what project they choose to work on, as long as they are committed to it. We are much more interested in the process than the outcome. Finally, we want our students to have fun and for their learning to be joyful.

My first CEL/CEC course was called Creative Problem Solving, which was offered to 8th graders. It involved a series of single-class challenges ranging from the physical (learn to juggle) to the intellectual (solve the Einstein RIddle) and everything in between. One of my favorite challenges, “Fermi Calculations,” was designed after Enrico Fermi, the physicist known for his ability to make accurate projections of complex mathematics in his head. For this challenge, we asked students to project how many blades of grass are found on a typical football field. By estimating the number of blades in a square centimeter, they could easily scale it up using simple math. While seemingly trivial, this problem introduced them to the concept of order of magnitude calculations and how to evaluate whether their answer falls within the realm of possible correct answers.

Following Creative Problem Solving, we added our 6th grade course in LEGO robot design and programming. Again, we use the challenge-based learning model: design and program a robot to pick up “mail” (a small LEGO object with a loop on it), follow a route on the floor laid out with colored tape, and deliver the mail to another location. Students have to program their bots to sense the tape using a color sensor and to make decisions based on what it sees. For the culminating challenge in this course, which is based on Sumo wrestling, students have to design and program a robot to locate and push an opposing robot out of a four-foot circle circumscribed by a white line. The project involves multiple objectives. The primary defensive objectives are for the robot to detect the white line and ensure it doesn’t drive itself out of the ring while fighting back if the opponent tries to push it off. On the offensive side, the robot must use its ultrasonic sensor to detect the opponent and, using a combination of gears, levers, and whackers, try to push it out of the ring. Matches are often brief but VERY intense with much cheering and yelling. After each round, students are allowed time in their “pit” to improve their bots, defense strategies, and most importantly, their program logic.

After a successful launch in Middle School, CEL moved into Upper School with a series of skill-based classes for 9th grade. In my microprocessors class, I am particularly interested in showing students the power and challenges of these ubiquitous little computers found throughout their world, from smartphones to home automation. Using a “learn-by-doing” approach with very little direct instruction, we have students start right in by building circuits and programming a microprocessor using the “C” text-based language. In each class, we introduce a new project that scaffolds on the previous one, while adding a new challenge that asks students to extend their understanding into new areas. We often ask them to create something that we know they do not know how to do, but which we are certain they can figure out if they put their minds to it. The sense of accomplishment they exhibit when the “lightbulb lights up” is terrific.

The ultimate CEL technology challenge is our 10th grade Capstone course. Each sophomore is given an entire semester to pursue a project of their dreams. They can write a book, record a composition, start a business or non-profit, or design a product or service. Based on their choice of projects, students work in one of six “studios” where they have access to mentors, materials, and resources. Many projects end up in the Invention Studio, where we help them design, fabricate, assemble, and program. Whether they’re designing a custom iPhone case to hold an epinephrine injector or a remotely operated submarine capable of diving to 900 feet and installed with two computers, two cameras, and six motors, each student is driven by their passion for their project. Drawing on the skills they learned in their Middle School and freshman classes, they are well prepared to undertake this Capstone challenge, which completes the formal part of the CEL curriculum. Thereafter, if they choose to pursue their Capstone or some other project, they can enter the Venture Accelerator program, which is aimed at helping 11th and 12th grade students refine their products, raise funds, and bring it to market. 

Over the past 10 years, CEL has evolved from an experimental series of project-based classes into a full-fledged internationally recognized PK-12 curriculum that proves the power of opportunity seeking and problem-solving as an educational model. Through CEL, our students are developing the skills and mindset that will enable them to confidently meet whatever challenges may lie ahead. They are learning that the most difficult projects are often the most fun—and certainly the most rewarding, that they can teach themselves the skills necessary to accomplish their goals, and that the only limits on their dreams are the ones they place on them themselves. 

by Peter Randall ’69, P’18, P’18 Chair, SCH Engineering & Robotics, and CEL Faculty


Over the past 10 years, the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) has become a cornerstone of the SCH educational experience. It is a program as substantial in its educational content as in its inspirational impact. In celebration of the CEL's 10th anniversary coming this May, we are publishing a commemorative booklet with the voices of those thought leaders who have had a role in shaping the CEL since its inception. We look forward to sharing these articles leading up to CEL’s milestone event as it continues to provide opportunity, devise creative solutions, effect positive change, and more for the future of education at SCH Academy.

Learn more: www.sch.org/cel

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