Education Innovation

Alumnus puts philosophy of pragmatism to work in the schools
student building a solar-charging phone case

Nathan Pai Schmitt has always believed in the power of education to improve society.

His only concern? Improving it fast enough.

Schmitt wasn’t satisfied with the traditional model—there’s more to education, he argued, than homework, tests and lectures. Students need opportunities to solve real problems, today, and learn real skills—technology, design, engineering, manufacturing.

Now the 2011 philosophy graduate is at the helm of an educational experiment with a mission as admirable as it is ambitious: solving the world’s grand challenges.

Schmitt has cofounded a pilot program in Denver for students who want to make things that improve quality of life, especially for low-income families, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups.

HackSchool provides 30 to 35 high school-age students with hands-on technical training to turn their dreams into real projects: science diagrams that the visually impaired can “see”; electronics that can be built on a shoestring budget; software that will enable people with physical handicaps to use the latest 3-D design technology.

The philosophy of the school echoes the philosophy that is near and dear to Schmitt’s heart: The true purpose of education is to enable people to create real things that make the world better.

In academic circles, it’s called pragmatism. Developed around 1870, this philosophical movement is based on the belief that the function of thought is not to describe, represent or mirror reality, but to be a tool for problem-solving and action. One should act on ideas, testing them in human experiences.

“I’m interested in what it looks like to use philosophy as a powerful engine to make real-world change,” Schmitt said.

He credits philosophy professor Colin Koopman for his transformation. Brought up in a Montessori education that prioritized independence and freedom, Schmitt developed strong analytical-thinking skills. In philosophy classes, he excelled with abstract, complex material.

But Koopman had a different question. “He was the first professor who basically said, ‘OK, that’s nice that you’re really good at all this analytical stuff—what can you actually make with it, in the world?’” Schmitt said. “I realized it’s not good enough to be able to ‘out-analyze’ people. You have to use that to make things.”

His career path never wavered. Schmitt knew that he wanted to work in education, but he wanted to develop a new approach—an educational model based on his philosophical training, based on doing, in which students directly improve the world around them through their projects.

After joining STRIVE preparatory schools in Denver to teach English and social justice, Schmitt started HackSchool with a friend to serve students who had complained about the lack of training for their passion—engineering. They launched the afterschool program as a practical education in technical skills, relying on volunteer teachers and existing infrastructure; they sought crowdfunding support for supplies and promptly shattered their goal, raising $40,000 in less than two months. (Meet tomorrow’s engineers.)

The program serves a low-income area, and stories—such as that of a Latina student named Anahi—have resonated with the public.

A freshman learning English as a second language, she is designing a “smartcane” for the blind that builds on emerging technology. The device incorporates sensors that read and transmit data wirelessly to headphones, giving the wearer real-time information about the environment—street names, businesses and directions, for example.

Anahi built a prototype from scratch, teaching herself the necessary computer coding and circuitry. She won a school contest, then traveled with Schmitt and another student in April to a larger competition in Indianapolis. Schmitt also arranged a side trip to the White House.

“That’s not an average outcome for a student in her situation,” Schmitt said. “Her goal is to alleviate a very specific form of suffering in society through her project. And it serves the dual role of preparing her for her own future.”

—Matt Cooper

Photo caption: Students at HackSchool are addressing societal needs by building devices such as this low-cost solar-charging phone case.

Photo credit: HackSchool