Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2016

FUSE Students


The FUSE Phenomenon

By Julianne Beck
The FUSE Phenomenon

Education is “leveling up” in FUSE studios from Chicago to Helsinki, encouraging students to drive their own learning and create their own solutions. Through carefully developed computer-based and hands-on challenges, from building a model roller coaster to designing and printing a 3-D keychain, participants are learning by creating, collaborating and innovating.

As a complement to traditional classroom settings where students complete assigned tasks, FUSE studios invite students to select challenges from a diverse list of 26 options and develop their own solution to their chosen challenge. Each challenge has multiple levels, and when students complete a level, they “unlock” the next challenge and move up to complete the next level, just as they would in a video game.


“It’s a really different way to experience learning,” explains Reed Stevens, a professor of learning sciences. “In school, you are given a way to do things, and you are supposed to learn and practice and get better. However, we also want people to try to figure something out, and if it doesn’t work, try something different and judge for themselves if it worked.”

In FUSE studios, there are no grades, assignments or due dates. Teachers are simply guides, and the participants themselves are encouraged to teach one another after mastering a certain skill.

Stevens, whose research has primarily focused on how learning occurs outside of schools, initially conceived of FUSE studios in places such as libraries and youth centers. He is pleased to see that the program has taken off in those places in addition to schools as part of a daily curriculum.

“FUSE has become a bit of an island within school for kids to have this different kind of experience,” notes Stevens. “It has been an enormous happy surprise … for the kids and their parents and teachers too.”

After two years of pilot testing, FUSE was launched in schools in 2013. Today, there are 135 active studios in the United States, with the program spreading largely through word of mouth and conference presentations. The widest adoption in the United States is in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, where middle school students have two 45-minute class periods per week in a FUSE studio and an option to participate in an after-school FUSE club. This fall, new studios are opening in Heureka, a science center in Helsinki, Finland, and in two Helsinki schools known for progressive education. FUSE is also expanding to Israel. These are the first FUSE studios to open overseas, with more likely to follow in the next year.


Why does FUSE work? According to Stevens, the first step is to provide a challenge that is interesting to a student. From prior research, “we know that kids will pursue increasing levels of difficulty in things like video games if they are interested,” he says. Secondly, FUSE gives students a choice as to whether or not they would like to take a challenge from level one to level eight. “Once they have bought in and finished the first level … they are going to make the extra effort to finish the whole challenge,” Stevens says.

Finally, the opportunity to collaborate drives many participants. Once a student has mastered a challenge, he then becomes the resident instructor for students who are just beginning to learn the same challenge. “In addition to working with others, the most exciting thing about FUSE is that a culture starts to develop where there is communication and exchange,” says Stevens.

Supported by two National Science Foundation grants, Stevens and his colleagues have been tracking students’ interactions with the program since 2011 to confirm all of these understandings. “It’s really about giving kids the opportunity to have things that are interesting to them, things that get progressively more challenging, and things that they get to choose. We’re seeing many other kinds of learning benefits” that are not seen in traditional classrooms, says Stevens. In addition, the researchers have uncovered new insights, finding that “oftentimes it is kids who are low-achieving in the rest of school who are becoming relative experts and getting recognized for knowing something. … They have more control over their own experience, and they take advantage of it.”


Not only is FUSE opening the doors to a new style of learning, but it also is leading students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines who may not otherwise have chosen to pursue those areas. “The way we design the challenges is pretty different from curriculum development,” Stevens notes. “We’re really trying to design challenges that appeal to kids’ interests, but then in the process get them involved in other science, technology, engineering, math activities.”

Extra effort has gone into creating challenges that appeal to female students, who are underrepresented in scientific and technological fields. For example, the researchers changed a computer coding challenge from programming a robot for an obstacle course to train- ing a robot as they might train a pet. The result was an increase in the number of females choosing to pursue the challenge. In a related effort, FUSE recently partnered with a professional jewelry designer to develop a jewelry design challenge aligned with the real-world tasks of the profession. “We’re trying to make the challenges with partners so that we know we are really tapping into something that is contemporary,” Stevens explains.

Once a challenge is completed, students may create their own task. Some will combine skills from completed challenges or develop a team within their studio to work together toward a shared goal. Seeing this level of collaboration and self-driven learning brings a smile to Stevens’s face, and to the faces of teachers who lead the studios and have become accustomed to the chatter and noise that develop in a busy FUSE studio.

In addition to the global growth of FUSE, the program also is expanding to low-resourced schools in Chicago, with a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Along with providing the FUSE innovation to more students, Stevens anticipates expanded research opportunities. “Each time we take it into a different context we get to learn new things,” he says. True to its name, FUSE is sparking new thinking in education and learning.