How can we improve student engagement?

The first time I met Larry Bock (shown above), he was pitching to our high school to participate in the first annual science festival in San Diego.  He was bringing together the science community and K-12 schools.  Part of the "pitch" was his hope to showcase a hands-on project that could be exhibited in an "Aids quilt type" fashion at the culminating event at Balboa Park.  He believed in Project Based Learning.  Before he left, I showed him student exemplars of gift boxes that were turned into electronic board games inspired by the childhood game Operation.  I've done that project for the last 4 years, so I had a handle on all the costs to potentially scale it up.  Next thing you know, Larry roped me into helping him.  He has that effect on people :-)

Operation Balboa was a go!  Basically, the human body was divided into about 200 gift box sized sections by students from 13 participating middle & high schools from 5 different school districts.  They created high resolution (anatomically detailed) "Operation" style games.

  HOW CAN WE IMPROVE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT?   Teacher Autonomy.  The interesting (and crazy) thing about the project was the autonomy given to the science teachers.  After giving them a half-day hands-on workshop, we wouldn't see them until the day of the festival, which was 4 months later.  It was up to them during that time to design and execute a project that not only taught significant content, but also engaged their students.   Student Voice & Choice.  We did visit one classroom before the festival to video a teacher and her students to help market the festival on KPBS.  We seriously only hoped that a few of the boxes were done and somewhat presentable, so we were totally blown away when we saw the high level of creativity and quality of ALL boxes.  The teacher guided the students through the creative process to make something that was unique and important to them.  The students were eager to have you play their games, so they could talk what they did.   Public Audience.  The walls of the classroom were covered with projects that students have done in the past, so we asked one of them why this was any different.  She simply said, "We get to bring them to Balboa Park."  The students were engaged (aka working their tails off) because this was the first time their work was going to be displayed in public to an authentic audience.  And oh boy did they show up.   Larry got permits for a projected 12,000 attendees to experience the science booths and performances with Operation Balboa at the heart (pun intended).  Over 50,000 people showed up from all over the county and the state.     Kids of all ages couldn't resist the buzzing & the learning.  After the success of the San Diego Festival, Larry went on vacation, but not for long.  Nearly 6 months later, I read an article about President Obama talking about a Science Fair/Festival at Washington D.C.  So I text messaged Larry and asked him if Obama was talking about him.  Larry texted back, "I think he is."     I looked at the picture with the article and saw Larry having a Forrest Gump moment with Obama.  CRAZY!  Kudos and congratulations to my good friend Larry Bock because this weekend is going to the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival.  Obama kicked off the event and he actually gives advice on how to help with student engagement.  
    They are projecting 1,000,000 people to attend.  ONE MILLION!!!  Now that's an audience!