Creating Tomorrow’s Moonshot Thinkers

By Justin Aglio and Esther Wojcicki

This school year, over 1,100 kindergarten through fourth-grade students at the Montour School District, located in the Greater Pittsburgh region, will enter an exciting new school building.

The new Montour Elementary School will share a campus with the Montour High School, and focus on what Superintendent Dr. Christopher Stone describes as “creating a culture of moonshot thinkers.”

What Are Moonshot Thinkers? 

As John F. Kennedy eloquently stated in a 1961 speech about space travel, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Moonshots in education involve goals that are difficult, perhaps seemly impossible, to achieve; however, we need these now and in the future to prepare our students for success.

The first step in this process is encouraging student agency and achievement in the classroom. In order for these two aspects to soar, the role of the teacher needs to change from the lecture model to the mentor/coach model. That is, the teacher needs to change from the “sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.” The more a teacher does for a student in the learning process, the less empowered the student is.

We believe that every child deserves to be taught in a way that enriches their minds, unlocks their true potential and provides them with the skills to flourish in today’s world. This TEDxPaloAltoHighSchool video sums up how, when educators change their classroom culture into an environment where students have more control over their own learning, truly anything is possible:

Get Ready For Takeoff

Today’s students are the first generation who had a mobile device in their hands before taking their first baby steps, and it is a generation where Saturday morning cartoons now take a backseat to creation on Minecraft.

With these caveats in the foreground of our planning, we’ve created a new elementary school environment that is shaped by the literate practices and the social contexts relevant to the lives of children. Montour has established several unique learning spaces throughout the new school including:

  • A full Minecraft Education Lab
  • Upcycle Makerspace
  • Human-Centered Design Areas
  • An outdoor Amphitheater

The entire school was customized through a teacher leadership steering committee that selected creative furniture to engage group discussions and accommodate individual comfort. The furniture selection includes desks for small group instruction, optional seating for students with stand-up desks, ball seating for additional movement and, of course, traditional chairs.

Teachers have selected teacher desks that are smaller than the traditional model and are equipped with wheels to allow for movement throughout the rooms while encompassing unique storage areas for their necessary materials. In addition, each classroom will possess a 75” Promethean Interactive Display Panel using Classflow, along with several whiteboards and cabinetry to serve as writable surfaces. Finally, every K-12 student will have a Chromebook (including special touchscreen Chromebooks for students grades K-4).

Another learning centric space in the new elementary school is a LEGO Makerspace. Students will work alongside teachers to create LEGO learning opportunities that will come to life in a full LEGO themed space equipped and decorated with LEGO learning tools.

Jason Burik, Co-Principal at Montour Elementary is excited about the possibilities of working with LEGO. As a hobby, Jason is world-renowned LEGO artist who has created LEGO masterpieces for organizations such as Nationwide, University of Maryland Baltimore County and Cisco. “LEGO has always been a passion of mine, and now I am excited to not only share my love for education with everyone but also showcase how LEGOs are used to support learning,” said Burik.

In addition, the LEGO Makerspace will be the home of the Novel Research-Based Intelligent Lifelong Learning Apparatus (NoRILLA). NoRILLA is part of CMU Learn Lab, our on-campus research center in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, and is a mixed-reality educational system that bridges physical and virtual education to improve children’s science learning.

Going to the Moon Together

We recognize that the future of education will depend upon very strong local and global partnerships, so we are proud to partner with so many organizations for our new school, including the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers Center, Remake Learning, Carnegie Science Center, Robinson Township Library, and Schools That Can. Knowing students today also need opportunities to develop global citizenship skills, we’ve also partnered with a variety of global organizations including Minecraft Education.

“The power of districts like Montour continuing to redefine and reimagine student experience via using Minecraft: Education Edition is undeniable. We are so excited to be part of the conversation and transformation happening there and hope to share what we learn together with other districts and schools around the world,” Meenoo Rami, Manager for Minecraft Education at Microsoft.


Although the many partnerships will serve as a strength for the school, the biggest available resource is found within the district itself. Google Sites and Google Classroom are used as a community to communicate and collaborate with each other. With our district-wide focus on participating safely, responsibly and respectfully online, we will also continue as one of eight partner districts with Common Sense Education, which offers a comprehensive K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum.

Today’s students will enter an automated economy to do jobs we can’t even imagine. Please join Montour and millions of educators around the world in encouraging them to become moonshot thinkers. Together, we can impact the future of education to make all students successful.

For more, see:

Justin Aglio is the Director of Innovation at the Montour School District. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinAglio

Esther Wojcicki is an education consultant and journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @EstherWojcicki 

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Justin Aglio

Dr. Justin Aglio is the founding senior director for the Readiness Institute at Penn State. In addition to his duties at Penn State, he is a visiting LearnLab fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, Getting Smart columnist, and a member of the Remake Learning network.

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