Children as young as 10 are encouraged to solve the world's problems at a school created by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Musk, the founder of Tesla electric cars and private rocket builder SpaceX, pulled his five sons out of a school for gifted children in Los Angeles and headhunted a teacher from the school to start a school focused on solving real-world problems.

That teacher, Josh Dahn, will speak via videolink to a conference on neuroscience for educators in Auckland on May 13.

His school, Ad Astra ("To the stars"), has only 31 students aged 7 to 14, mostly the children of SpaceX employees. The children learn maths, science and English, but Dahn says what makes the school different is its problem-solving classes.


"Conventional schools - even schools that are considered to be high-performing, schools for highly gifted children, schools for those that show a great love of learning - generally those schools are failing our kids," he told the Herald.

"It's a very passive education. It's not active."

At Ad Astra, the children are presented with real-world problems such as how to design a healthcare plan for veterans with a limited budget, or how to decide what kind of restaurant to lease out your building to if you want to create a neighbourhood that will enhance the value of the whole area.

Students use Excel and Google Sheets to analyse data and use algorithms to work through the effects of various options "while also having an appreciation of the limits of data".

The problems are aimed at the predominant age group of 10 to 14, with slightly different problems for the 7 to 9 age group.

"Certainly with robotics and those sorts of things, younger students participate quite well," Dahn said.

Tesla electric cars founder Elon Musk personally funds Ad Astra School. File/Photo
Tesla electric cars founder Elon Musk personally funds Ad Astra School. File/Photo

Dahn began his teaching career working from 2008 to 2012 for Teach for America, a charity that puts new graduates from top US colleges into schools in low-income areas. Although Ad Astra now serves only an elite, and is totally funded by Musk, Dahn says he believes the same approach could work for all children.

"I think, for all students, part of their day should be engaged in meaningful conversations about these problems that will be facing their generation," he said. "It's important to grapple with these problems as early as possible."

The organiser of the Auckland conference, Paul Blackman, said recent discoveries in neuroscience showed that developing the "executive function" part of the brain, which deals with planning, makes the most difference to a person's success in life.

A famous study of 1000 people born in Dunedin in 1972-73 found that children with more self-control enjoyed more health and wealth in adulthood.

"Self-control is about planning. High-level executive function is about planning and goal-setting," Blackman said.

He said teachers and parents could help children to develop executive function, overriding more primitive instincts such as "fight or flight", by ensuring that children's lives were predictable, guided by strong relationships and anchored by physical affection.

• The NZ Educators' Neuroscience Conference at Auckland University will also hear from local and overseas neuroscientists. Cost $35.