All aboard and Full STEAM Ahead!
The educators over at Bates Middle School in Sumter, South Carolina have been working hard laying tracks for the past year in order to bring their exciting project to fruition. By combining Project Based Learning (PBL) and a curriculum focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) and working with local businesses they are hoping to create a new generation of students who are prepared to be in an agile and competitive work force. One of the brilliant concepts behind this project is that nothing exists in a vacuum. You can’t well understand engineering if you don’t have a good handle on physics. You can’t code a videogame without understanding the underlying code. And you certainly can’t have music without math.
The Full STEAM Ahead project aims to remove the traditional isolation of subjects through the use of the “Critical C’s” of Collaboration, Cooperation and Communication which are emphasized with project based learning through interdisciplinary activities.
Now that they are a year in, let’s see what has transpired.
Bates teachers, led by the Transforming Learning Together (TLT)
mentor teachers, in the first stage of this initiative begun by identifying large-scale student learning goals for the year. They then researched new teaching approaches in order to integrate STEAM and Project Based Learning to help them achieve their goals, along with developing “action plans” for each year’s practice. The belief was that art can spark creativity in young scientists and engineers, develop observational abilities, and strengthen collaborative skills. One of the guiding questions for this project is ” How can we improve instruction, pedagogy, and student learning across the curriculum through the use of STEAM and PBL?”
So how do they propose to do this?
They began by having their trainers and the TLT team attend a PBL and STEAM workshop that spaned six sessions. This team returned to Bates to lead the entire staff through a STEAM Project Based Learning activity in order to familiarize everyone with the methods. Teachers investigated and utilized critical inquiry to work through this challenge. The thinking was that teachers will experience everything that the students do, giving them the tools to help elevate the projects as well as answer previously unanticipated questions. Teachers then guided students through one PBL unit in the first year of implementation.
A year in… where are they now?
They started off by providing professional development to their teachers during the first semester of the school year. STEAM lessons were developed to be a part of the regular curricula as well as embedded in Project Based Learning. The second semester brought about school-wide PBL units. Then on March 24th, there was a school-wide PBL Kickoff to begin the grade level units. This is where things really began to take off. For this initial thrust into the unknown they gave each year a different subject field to dig into. Sixth graders explored the guiding question: “Are animals placed in captivity at an advantage or disadvantage than those in their natural habit? Why/ Why not?”
The kick-off was a field trip to the Riverbanks Zoo. The 6th graders researched the question and created suitable habitats for animals of their choice. The 7th graders explored the guiding question: “How can we be prepared for the unexpected?” Dealing with the preparedness for natural or man-made disasters was the focal point. The Red Cross, Fire Department, EMS, Disaster Management, Police Department, Shaw AFB and Salvation Army each set up a station to explain their role in disasters and how the community can prepare for disasters in the future. Students researched a disaster and prepared community service presentations on disaster preparedness. Eighth graders explored the, very relevant, guiding question: “Can separate be equal?” This question dealt with the Civil Rights movements of 1960 -1990. Guest speakers, Nathaniel Briggs (Briggs vs. Elliot) and Artrell Benbow (civil rights activist in Summerton and Sumter) spoke to the students of their personal experiences. This culminated with the 8th grade Drama class presenting a skit about the infamous Orangeburg Massacre. Students then rotated rooms to watch films about civil rights, explored civil rights virtual museums, and participated in gallery walks. Students researched the civil rights eras of 1960’s through the 1990’s and created projects to address the guiding question. The PBL classes occurred every Tuesday and Thursday beginning March 28th and ended in a PBL Excellence Fair held on May 4th at 6:00 pm at BMS to showcase student work and presentations.
What are some challenges facing STEAM/PBL learning?
For as exciting as this method of PBL learning is, and it’s clear that it’s starting to work; students and teachers on the whole are more engaged in their study areas… it’s not without it’s challenges. One of the biggest cited in the report is that not all of the teachers have bought into the STEAM /PBL concept. This makes communicating those ideas to students that much harder. Further professional development is needed in order to ensure more participation by teachers. They have also had some difficulty setting up model classrooms so we are hoping teachers observing other teachers will assist in this. But as more teachers undergo professional development and find the merit in this method of teaching the easier it will get. And year two has some exciting things in store for the students. One word: Robots. We look forward to hearing about their experiences with Robots.
How might Robots, cross-cultural references and civil rights intersect?
Let’s mix up that engineering and art a bit, shall we? The term “robot” came from a Czech play called Rossums Universal Robots and is derived from the word “robotnik” which means slave. It’s about a robot who is forced to work for a shady company that then rebels and leads to the extinction of the human race. It’s bleak, but not without hope. But it’s a good lesson and a challenge for students on how we should be thinking about a newly created servant class. Just some food for thought.
- STEAM, not STEM
- STEAM Rising: Why we need to put the arts into STEM education
- Project-Based Learning: PBL is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge
- Project-Based Learning: Students actively investigate solutions to complex, long-term challenges, often in groups
Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning
Teaching, despite being surrounded by literally hundreds of human beings on a daily basis, can be a very isolating profession. An educator could be likened to being a single island in an archipelago. While they are a part of an entity larger than themselves the vast gulfs that separate them keep them from fully benefitting from each other’s resources. Coupled with the daily slog through textbooks, homework, and testing, it’s easy to see how a teacher’s passion for education could wane. Is collaboration with other teachers a way to improve teaching and learning? The educators at San Francisco Community School (SFC) proposed exactly that in the Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning project funded by McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation.
What exactly is Project Based Learning (PBL)?
According to the Buck Institute for Education PBL is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.” You can learn more about types of PBL from John Larmer at Edutopia. Put more simply, it’s learning by doing. PBL is a model that shifts its focus away from a teacher-centric approach and emphasizes student directed assignments. With a focus on relevant assessment and real world relevance, PBL is a very exciting alternative for both students and teachers to traditional classroom learning.
What are the benefits of PBL for teachers and students?
According to the National Education Administration, PBL “makes learning relevant to students by establishing connections to life outside the classroom and addressing real world issues. In the classroom PBL gives teachers an opportunity to build relationships with students by acting as their coach, facilitator, and co-learner.” In the past few years the increased access to technology in schools, even underprivileged ones like SFC, makes this type of learning much more accessible. The large format of the projects also lend themselves to being easily shared between teachers and with parents who are invested in the student’s learning process.
How are the educators at SFC implementing PBL?
It’s not an easy approach, especially if you have limited resources and time. According to the original proposal by Jessica Fishman, who is spearheading the project, “The Collaborative Planning Project (CPP) will allow SFC teachers to work together for three days in summer study groups to establish essential learning objectives, develop long-term project-based curriculum and develop common learning strategies for the coming year.”
The teachers used the text Understanding by Design by Wiggins & McTighe as their guide as they work through the ideas of backwards design and the building blocks of project based learning. The teachers were also be divided into groups based on grade ranges so that, when sharing, they could manage and engage each others needs and expectations as students moved through the school. This collaboration will create essential bridges between educators so that ideas and proposals may flow more easily between them.
After two years of implementation, where are they now?
Jessica Fishman was happy to report that the project met or exceeded all the goals they had set.
According to the proposal the goals were as follows:
- Project-based learning methods to support student learning in real-world, meaningful challenge-driven projects.
- Teachers will identify and develop performance-based assessment opportunities and rubrics that are aligned to the projects and indicate the extent to which students have mastered the essential learning outcomes.
- Culturally-relevant instructional strategies designed to engage and support students who are traditionally under-served by public schools.
- Vertical alignment and calibration of expectation and rigor K-8.
By working in their individual grade level groups the teachers created concrete plans for their fall cycle. Not only did they create a solid collaboration plan, they created a set of assessments along with K-8 vertical integration and alignment. The problem they’ve run into both years was that very few teams had time to do initial planning. As a result, many teams were forced to meet again over winter break to finish their planning for the spring. The extra time spent in each others company only strengthened the personal and professional bonds between their educators. Now, with the project plans in place, it’s a much smoother transition for new teachers joining the project.
When teachers are able to truly collaborate it opens up worlds of opportunities, not only for the students, but for the educators as well. There is no reason to cease learning, especially when one is a teacher. The benefits of project based learning are clear, but the added collaboration between educators will only amplify that effect.