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

Math and Science Outside the Classroom

[In today’s world it’s not enough to just target STEM during school hours. I serve on the Board of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) in Pittsburgh, an umbrella organization that provides funding and programmatic opportunities for community and faith-based organizations to work with young people in after-school and out-of-school programs. Several years ago NLA developed its Warrior program where high school students are trained to work with younger and older learners. Today over a thousand learners gain new opportunities through the NLA Warrior program. It’s exactly the type of program that every community should develop. In the following article you’ll discover similar programs around the country. You have a chance to help these projects by donating to DonorsChoose, an organization I use to support programs in the Pittsburgh area.]

April 4, 2017 by William Broman

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Guest Post By Science Everywhere, a collaboration between Overdeck Family Foundation and the Simons Foundation

Teachers across the country and at all grade levels are coming up with fascinating outside-school math and science projects on DonorsChoose.org through the Science Everywhere campaign. Thanks to match funding from Overdeck Family Foundation and the Simons Foundation, everyday donors can double their impact by contributing to projects that speak to them. Projects that still need funding range from a gardening project at a Florida elementary school, to “weekend weather kits” for students in Missouri, to robotics materials for high schoolers in Indiana.

Five projects that need funding to become a reality:

Research shows that outside-school engagement is essential to boosting math and science learning. Viewing learning opportunities as “charging stations” helps to visualize why it’s so important: students who are surrounded by opportunities to “charge up” their learning – attending afterschool programs, going to museums, exploring science centers – can apply the concepts they learn in class to everyday life and develop a fluency with math and science that helps them succeed. Students who live in “dead zones” with fewer opportunities to do math and science outside school can find it hard to keep up.

Science Everywhere hopes to help teachers inspire kids to understand and love math and science in exciting, new ways. The skills young people develop doing math and science – critical thinking, problem solving, experimentation, and more – are incredibly valuable in all aspects of life. Since students spend 80 percent of their time outside of school, these critical subjects should be part of their daily lives. As part of the campaign, the foundations are matching donations from the public to fund outside-school math and science projects submitted by teachers to DonorsChoose.org. At the end of the challenge, five $5,000 prizes will be awarded to the teachers who come up with the best ideas.

Teachers have until April 30, 2017 to submit qualifying projects on DonorsChoose.org to be considered for one of five $5,000 prizes. The winning teachers will be announced on September 5, 2017.

Collaborative Learning Spaces: Classrooms That Connect to the World

[I serve as the co-chair for the CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee. One of our future reports will look at Remaking Learning Spaces. Here’s an Edutopia article that outlines innovative ideas and technology to make those spaces more collaborative and global.]

October 16, 2015

Photo credit: Brad Flickinger via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Editor’s note: This post is co-authored by Fran Siracusa, co-founder of and educational technologist for Calliope Global.

As citizens of the world, students in today’s classrooms seek global contexts for learning. Opportunities for networked and international collaborations are bringing both the world to classrooms and classrooms to the world. With a focus on international standards of instruction, globally-minded programs inspire students to be curious through investigation and reflective in analysis of thought. These pathways lead to the development of cultural literacy by allowing students to examine issues of global significance through interconnected sharing of experience and exchange of ideas. Collaborative learning spaces empower students to work with each other and with students in classrooms of the world to assume multiple perspectives, explore alternative solutions, and thoughtfully solve problems.

By examining the landscape of the classroom, educators can design collaborative learning spaces that will support the teaching and learning of skills needed for the interconnected world of today and tomorrow. By seamlessly connecting pedagogy, technology, and space, teachers can create spaces that promote social learning and maximum engagement. These collaborative classrooms are alive with action — teaching, learning, innovating, creating, making, and exploring. Innovative learning spaces can encourage both individual and collective voices, and, through use of emerging technologies, they inspire students to become skillful curators of their digital worlds. Though there cannot be a single universal blueprint for designing a collaborative learning space, teachers can use the goal of global collaboration to inspire classroom design that allows for connected sharing and learning.

While there are many design ideas that could help drive this transformation, we suggest the following three as a starting point.

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