Connecting Learning to Real World Problem Solving

For the past ten years Mimo Ito and the Connected Learning Research Network have looked at how young people learn. They realized that there were three overlapping spheres – interests, opportunities, and relationships. At the center of these three spheres is “Connected Learning.” I discovered this powerful look at student learning through my work with the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh. I used some of the principles to develop a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center of Pittsburgh. Recently Mimo Ito and Connected Learning Research team published an updated report on their findings – Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship.

According to Mimi Ito there are three outcomes that demonstrate when Connected Learning occurs:

  • The project sponsors or legitimizes the interests of diverse youth;
  • The learners are engaged in shared practices, e.g. solving real world problems;
  • Learning is connected across settings through brokering and coordination.

Let’s look at each one of these outcomes through the lens of a series of Design Challenges that students in the Parkway West Consortium of Schools participated during the 2019-20 school year.

Learning based on Interests

When I first approach the schools in the Parkway West Consortium, I give them choices. Each of the choices is based on a real-world problem that the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) has identified as a problem where they want high school students to provide fresh insights. The schools receive their first or second choice. Each school approaches this in a slightly different way. One school might look at a course that has a fit. Another school might consider an after-school club or activity group. Another school might open the Design Challenge to any students to who have an interest. In each case students participate based on their interests. For instance: South Fayette High School decided to participate in the “Gems of the Hill District” Design Challenge. They outlined the responsibilities and let students from three classes choose to participate. It was not a required activity. It was based on students’ interest in the Design Challenge.

Engaging in Shared Practices

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

One of the keys for successful connected learning is focusing on real world problems. The EIC each year looks at problems where students might provide valuable ideas. For example: several years ago the EIC developed a Design Challenge around new LEED certification directions to take the building. Even though, the EIC had a platinum status, the management team realized that there were more sustainable opportunities. One of the teams, from Montour High School, focused on the need for more living plants within the building. The student consulting team developed a prototype for a green wall for Innovation Hall, one of the spaces at the EIC.

During the summer of 2019 the EIC management team decided to build on the original idea that Montour had developed and implemented at their high school. This time the high school student consultants from Montour, Chartiers Valley, and Parkway West Career and Technology Center were asked to develop a prototype for a “Mobile Green Wall.”

Learning is Connected Across Settings

The “Mobile Green Wall” provides great examples how the students had to collaborate and work as three teams to solve a real-world problem. The Chartiers Valley team worked on the schematics for the prototype using CAD-based software. The team from Montour focused on the plants and the environmental needs that would be part of the design. The student consultants from Parkway West constructed a metal scale model that incorporated Chartiers Valley’s design incorporating Montour’s recommendations. The student consulting teams had to broker and coordinate their ideas. Quite honestly, there was a time when it didn’t look like the pieces were going to fit together. However, the students persevered and ended up with a prototype that will be used by the Energy Innovation Center in the future.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

2019 TRETC: The Future of Learning

I love going to conferences to network with colleagues and discover new ideas. The Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) in Pittsburgh on October 14 offers a variety of opportunities for educational leaders:

  • Engaging keynote speaker – former Pixar Senior Scientist, Tony DeRose;
  • Over 40 sessions lead by local leaders and innovative educators;
  • Classroom proven strategies that teachers and administrators can implement immediately;
  • Opportunities to network with cutting edge practitioners and local start-ups;
  • Centrally located and free parking – no need for flying across the country or driving for hours to connect with districts and leaders with national and international recognition.

TRETC 2018 ShowcaseIn addition, this year’s conference at the Baldwin High School, near Downtown Pittsburgh, brings a Spotlight on Pittsburgh Innovation. This past year Remake Learning of Pittsburgh sponsored an opportunity for projects to showcase the innovations that they have developed. Over 70 projects from the greater Pittsburgh area submitted a proposal. At TRETC nine of these educational programs will give Ignite Talks and share their success stories. In addition, seven university and corporate projects will join the Innovation Zone at TRETC to highlight their stories.

TRETC has become the premier K-12 learning event in the Pittsburgh region. This year the conference also hopes to draw future educators from local universities and colleges in the region. The conference includes presentations, poster sessions, a student showcase, an Innovation Zone, an Exhibitors Space, and time to network and learn more about the amazing things happening in classrooms and learning spaces around Western Pennsylvania.

Here’s one event where everyone comes out a winner.

Sustainability for Students

For the past few years I’ve had a chance to work on a variety of projects around Sustainability and Education. In 2016 I initiated a conversation with Chatham University, South Fayette, and Fort Cherry School Districts around Sustainable Issues. This led to the Seeds of Change conference that will occur this year on March 4, 2019 at the Eden Hall campus of Chatham. I have also worked on a variety of Sustainability Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh with schools from the Parkway West Consortium of Schools. We’ve looked at food, gardening, water management, and energy issues. I’m just beginning to develop Sustainable Energy projects around solar and other sustainable energies with a local Pittsburgh company, AYA Instruments, and the Community Day School of Pittsburgh.

Sustainability projects are also growing worldwide. Birdbrain Technologies, a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company,  found its way to the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Each year Salesforce.com sponsors an activity around sustainability and recycling. Here’s a blurb from the Birdbrain Chirps that outlines what happened. (Make sure you check out the video at the end of the article.)

Leaders of over 100 governments and more than 1,000 global businesses came together at this annual meeting to create an agenda to improve the state of the world. And with programming and robotics as a vehicle, students were able to have a seat at the table.

Educator Su Adams from the United Kingdom helped lead students in Salesforce’s Davos Code 2019 event, where they were prompted to create a window display to show how they plan to keep plastics out of the ocean. This display was showcased for leaders to see throughout the course of the forum.

“The learning opportunities reached much further than programming alone can achieve, as students were tasked with turning process-based sentences into a visual representation for their collective diorama,” Adams says.

Prior to the event students began collecting plastics in Davos, which were repurposed into new creations at Davos Code 2019. Students used their own shredder and moulder machines to create their building blocks. With the help of the Hummingbird Robotics Kit, models were brought to life to illustrate their messages about plastic reuse.

This project had a monumental effect outside of the World Economic Forum. “Previously, very little plastic was recycled in the local community,” says Adams. “Following a campaign which spanned just 6 months, students affected change at a local government level when the municipality of Davos provided bins for recycling in their local environment. The diorama provided the perfect medium for celebrating the achievements of their campaign.”

By demonstrating better uses for plastic through their robotics diorama, a sustainable impact was made in the community for generations to come.

Adams summarizes, “There were highs and lows, frustrations and jubilance. Everyone experienced the payback that investment of time, effort, and teamwork provide.”

LEARN MORE by watching this video