Before starting fifth grade at Hygiene Elementary, Henry Brooks and Marlo Epstein had already traveled around the world and beyond, visiting Egypt, Australia, Japan, and Italy. They had even ventured to the depths of the sea and the far reaches of the solar system. Such seasoned world travelers may conjure images of airline food, baggage checks, and passport control lines; however, Henry and Marlo’s adventures came to life through the power of their own imaginations – and the inspired creativity of their classmates and teachers.

For the past 13 years, the entire Hygiene Elementary community has boarded a flight of imagination on HawkAir that transports them to a new destination in the world – or rather, an elaborate and imaginative learning experience where the entire school is completely transformed. What was once a school gym might now be filled with sand, as papier-mâché fish swim above, or a hallway might become an extravagant bazaar filled with spices, silks, and lanterns.

“You can find adventure and the creativity of the world right in our own school,” shared Henry. “It is so inspiring to think that there are other people around us, outside of our country and across the sea, who are probably doing the same things that we are.”

Leading up to the moment that each class of Hygiene students boards their flight, all grade levels undertake a year-long learning journey to more deeply understand the history, culture, people, and traditions of their chosen destination. They also go through the design-thinking process to ideate and prototype solutions to global challenges that their country of focus may face, such as wildfires (Australia) and rising sea levels (Italy).

“To me, it really inspires you to think outside the box because normally you’d have to travel to that country, but our school literally makes the country come to us,” shared Marlo. “The imagination and creativity are really what starts it, and the other things come to life to make the idea real.”

Our Mysterious Minds
The power of imagination and the inner universe that fills our minds is as ancient as humanity itself, with Aristotle believing it to be the foundation of all knowledge. In learning, imagination is critical not only in creativity and problem solving, but also in strengthening empathy and the ability to perceive ideas and concepts that are not based on our own lived experiences. It is our imaginations that drive our curiosity and exploration, leading us to retain new knowledge and gain new memories.

For Violet Oliver, a junior at Niwot High School, the cycle of imaginative curiosity that leads to discovery has been at the heart of her learning from the first time she peered into a new world through her microscope. “We don’t know what lies beyond our earth, but we also don’t know what lies within it,” said Violet. “Much like an explorer might want to keep searching for new things, that’s the kind of feeling I get, except it is all confined within the space of a tabletop.”

Inspired by biology and the microscopic world, Violet’s deep sense of exploration has led her to her current research project, bridging biology and neuroscience with technology. Violet and her classmates on the Neuroscience Team at the Innovation Center are investigating and prototyping the use of virtual reality (VR) to improve mental health. Alongside industry partners, UCHealth and Rendever, these high school students are creating virtual reality experiences that promote joy, empathy, and a sense of connection.

Violet’s neuroscience work at the Innovation Center has also led her to an internship at the University of Colorado Boulder, supporting research in using brain scanning technology to measure brain activity when exposed to virtual and augmented reality technologies.

“There is the neuroscience piece and the VR piece, which to an onlooker might initially seem like two completely separate fields, but once you have enough knowledge in both worlds, you can combine them and get a sort of symphony going,” said Violet. “The mind and memory is its own little world – it is so incredibly complex – and the fact that we are able to influence how the mind perceives things through memory and emotion is powerful.”

Just as imagination helps us visualize and understand worlds beyond our own realities, it can also strengthen and influence our understanding of ourselves and those around us. This has been the foundation for much of the learning taking place at Soaring Heights PK-8 in Erie. As a STEM school with an emphasis on neuroscience, Soaring Heights students begin their educational journey learning to understand how their brains receive and process information.

“What neuroscience does for us, in many ways, is to foster an understanding of how our brains work to better prepare students for the many situations they may experience as they go through life. Students can recognize what they need to be successful, but can also recognize that in others,” shared Cyrus Weinberger, Principal at Soaring Heights. “It also provides an incredible opportunity to propel kids into the scientific process in ways that nothing else can.”

On any given day, classrooms in Soaring Heights are full of energy as students engage in design-thinking challenges, utilize robotics and computer science technologies to learn about inputs and outputs, or measure their own physiological responses to different stimuli through EKGs.

“Every student, no matter if they are in kindergarten or eighth grade, has Innovation Time every day, and that’s a time to let them explore and be imaginative,” added Anna Mills, Innovation Coordinator at Soaring Heights. “I have not only seen this increase their creativity, but by having that time to be imaginative, they bring that mindset into their everyday lives.”

Increased empathy, thinking about challenges from other perspectives, greater authentic collaboration, and enhanced self-awareness and regulation have all been positive outcomes for Soaring Heights students.

“When students can visually see what a person’s brain is doing, they can understand how situations or solutions can impact other people, which leads to empathy,” shared Mills.

Back at Hygiene Elementary, increased empathy and creative thinking have also been significant outcomes of the HawkAir experience and are key components to advancing student achievement and success.

“Empathy and the whole design-thinking process really starts with an idea – every invention has to start with that spark,” said Renee Collier, Principal at Hygiene Elementary. “I think our students at Hygiene really understand that their voices and actions make a big difference, and that carries them through to see the final outcome of working together all year.”

This year, travel preparations are underway to visit the United Kingdom, but not before a year of design-thinking activities and exploration lead to a deeper sense of place and cultural understanding.

“Ideas are practically endless, creativity is practically endless – you can’t have a wrong idea,” added Henry. “As a kid, we can still find a way to make the world a better place.”

If the power of imagination makes us infinite, students across St. Vrain Valley Schools demonstrate limitless potential to advance the future of our world.