It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, wait a minute… It’s a drone, and if you’re in the hallway of the middle school at Union Township, you’d better keep your eyes open, because a drone may be aimed straight at your head.

In fact, that’s what happened to Union superintendent Nicholas Diaz not long ago. A student flew a drone that almost hit him. But instead of finding the fledgling pilot and marching him to the principal’s office, Diaz took out his cell phone, snapped a selfie, and posted it on Twitter.

“Drone selfies!” Diaz exclaimed. “That’s awesome!”

Diaz and teacher Kerry Foote say they appreciate loud talk in the air, bright yellow and orange colors on the wall, and students sprawled on the floor or sitting on couches while they cut out cardboard or scribble on the wall. It’s all part of how the students designed their Innovation Labs, which in September won the 2019 School Leader “Exemplary Program Award.”

Amid all the chaos, there’s some serious learning going on, Diaz explains, for children functioning at every academic level. Here are some of the concepts at work:

Students collaborate with each other. The program has some talented and gifted children involved but also made a special effort to engage kids who hadn’t been successful in school. Talented students work side-by-side with special needs students, learning different perspectives from each other.

Younger students are mentored by high school students. Students from the nearby Hunterdon Academy high school help design and build the projects.

Students ask community residents what problems they want solved. In response, the students try to build something that will answer a need.

For example, a local nursing home asked for help in locating patients with dementia who might wander away and not know how to find their way back. The students used a dime-sized piece of metal from a smart watch and linked it to a tracking app. The idea would be to set off an alarm at the nursing station when a patient, who would have the device in a wallet or a pocket, wanders too far or falls out of bed.

An animal shelter asked for an indestructible dog bed. That one was a little harder because dogs can be very determined, Foote said, but the students did their best. They cut open the biggest tire they could find and lined it with a quilt that was tied to the tire with a sheet. To distract destructive dogs, the students attached toys to the bed.

At the elementary school level, an entire wall is a whiteboard where students can scribble their ideas. At the middle school, a wall is made out of clear Plexiglass where the students can write their thoughts.

“It was all very collaborative, very social. They got to decide what kind of problem they wanted to solve,” said Foote. “It’s messy, with things all over the place. It’s a lot of fun.”

 The Innovation Labs program was started with a $9,300 grant from a local telecommunications firm, Century Link. The grant was matched by the Union Township Board of Education, Diaz said. The funding helped renovate unused classrooms.

The 2019 School Leader Awards drew 17 entries from school districts across the state. The Union Township School District was named the “Exemplary Program,” taking top honors for its “#The U’s Innovation Labs.”

“#TheU’s” is Union Township’s Twitter handle.

Three other districts received “Outstanding Program” School Leader Awards – Jackson Township, Ocean City, and Paterson. The school districts were honored during Workshop 2019 at the Atlantic City Convention Center. Programs were judged on their level of innovation, how well they meet the specific needs of students, the relationship of the program to the state’s curriculum standards, and program results.

While Foote and Diaz said they were pleased to receive the top honor in the School Leader award program, Diaz said he is most proud of something his students have learned that isn’t high tech at all.

Asked to identify, in a word, what students get from the program, he said, “Empathy.”

“That’s the number one thing we’re trying to get kids to feel,” he said. “The innovation’s great, the design’s great, but in the end, I think the most important thing is teaching kids to be empathetic. We’re trying to get kids to understand how it feels when we are trying to help others, instead of ourselves.”

Alan Guenther is NJSBA assistant editor.