How Failure and Solving Real Problems Helps This School Thrive

[In this Mindshift article Project-based Learning (PBL)  in the form of Design Challenges is highlighted. I’ve seen the benefits of PBL in my work with several schools in the Pittsburgh region. In the past year I’ve worked on Design Challenges that are real-world issues for the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh. Instead of just one business, the EIC can bring to the table over 100 partners who work and evaluate the student teams as a panel of Experts. Just like the students at the STEM School Chattanooga I’ve seen students who were not considered “Gifted” demonstrate their ability to solve problems, often thinking out of the box. We need to find more ways to have students collaborate and learn how to work with a team to design and solve problems for their communities.]

When Michael Stone was considering a job at the STEM School Chattanooga he was a little skeptical at first. He had been a successful traditional high school calculus teacher and he wasn’t totally sure he bought into the project-based learning model. Proponents always described it to him as though students should do all the work with no help from him — something he couldn’t imagine in calculus. But a tour of the school — led by a student — was all he needed to see what an education there was all about.

The student started off by explaining that the grading policy encouraged students to attempt an assignment, mess up, identify the failure points and try again. This same approach was applied to teaching, and students saw how Principal Tony Donen and teachers modeled this same approach in everything they did. The other big emphasis: assessing process skills alongside content knowledge. Stone knew that if a sophomore could so clearly articulate a vision of education so different from many traditional high schools, he needed to be there.

Stone took a job as the Fab Lab Director and Project-Based Learning Coordinator and became intimately aware of the process skills that formed the foundation for everything happening at the school: collaboration, critical thinking, and innovation. His job was to find partners in the Chattanooga business community who had real problems they needed solved and to coach students as they worked together designing solutions. His main goal directive: grow students into adaptable problem solvers.

Grading to promote from PEF STEM Innovation Hub on Vimeo.

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