Within the vast public school system in Philadelphia, an alternative kind of education rears its tiny head. This atypical school rebuilds the educational framework—literally. At the Workshop School, students are self-driven, becoming their own inspiration to achieve their goals through their own innovation. Taking on projects ranging from electric car design to soundproof recording studios; the Workshop School allows students to delve into the hands-on mechanics behind their interests.

The idea all started with an extracurricular initiative run by Simon Hauger, who is an electrical engineer turned math teacher. Hauger, who was a teacher at one of Philly’s most downtrodden schools, West Philadelphia High School, gathered a team of students to form Philly Hybrid X (EVX Team). Over a span of 13 years, they went on to win multiple national competitions through their innovative design of electric and hybrid vehicles. The program reached its height in 2008, when the team entered the Progressive Insurance Automotive XPrize, a global competition that awarded $10 million to three teams who could build a low-emissions vehicle capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon equivalent and amenable to mass production. Each team had three-and-a-half years (2007–2010) to build its prototype. Although Hybrid X didn’t win, they did end up rivaling projects with major funding, qualifying amongst large corporations and universities. The team was even recognized by President Obama and honored at the White House in 2010. After this achievement, Hauger and his coworkers’ innovative teaching methods began to be considered more seriously as an educational alternative, and the Workshop School began.

At the Workshop School, students’ afternoons are allotted to traditional math and English instruction, but their mornings are divided into two 90-minute project blocks. Students are able to learn and exercise multiple skills during these periods. More recent projects include turning a classroom closet into a recording studio, wiring solar panels, and designing and building hybrid cars in the school’s three large automotive shops. These projects are designed to be beneficial to students’ communities as well as the world at large.

The way students learn is not the only thing different about the Workshop School. The very concept of progressive learning centers around a one-word acknowledgement of education’s humility: failure. Hauger recalls the time when, during the Hybrid X team’s XPrize work, NASA technologist Bobby Braun came to visit. It was then that Braun spoke a truth often unacknowledged by traditional educators. “He said, ‘When I was a younger member of NASA back in the day, I was a part of the Rover mission,’” Hauger recalls. “He said, ‘We ran into failure every day.’ And he looks up, and looks around, and he says, ‘I imagine you guys are, too.’ And we were like, Are we allowed to acknowledge that?”

Now a co-founder and teacher at the Workshop School, Hauger thrives on this mentality. “What do you learn by following a recipe?” he asks. “The lowest level of any intellectual endeavor, right?” Echoing Hauger’s thoughts, co-founder Matt Riggan says, “Schools, and school culture, are extraordinarily averse to failure of any kind. We treat it as this terrible thing that everyone should avoid. And that has a lot of impact on how students deal with adversity.”

Running the Workshop School remains a challenge due to funding, school capacity and the need for increased local support. Nevertheless, it is not a challenge any of the co-founders plan on surrendering to. Another co-founder, Michael Clapper, knows why he’s engaged and ready to fight for the long-term implications of this kind of school and for education in general: “No one goes into teaching to argue about whether you can go the bathroom or to argue about whether you’ve effectively identified which things are in bold in the textbook. You go into teaching because you believe in kids, and you believe in their possibilities.” The best part is that the Workshop School gives these kids a school in which they themselves can now believe.

Did You Know?

Each XPrize is a high-incentive competition, open to all but requiring extreme ingenuity and innovation. The XPrizes challenge competitors to inspire breakthroughs in fields concerning energy and the environment, exploration, global development, learning and life sciences. Current challenges are the Global Learning XPrize, the Google Lunar XPrize, the Nokia Sensing XChallenge, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrizeFuture concepts for XPrizes are also listed on the XPrize website. These challenges offer multimillion-dollar prizes, capable of projecting winning innovators further into their research with proper funding. Talk about incentive for change!