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.

Alexa, What’s on the High School Menu Today?

When the Montour School District launched America’s first Artificial Intelligence Middle School program in the fall of 2018, many questions arose. Why middle school? Why teach Artificial Intelligence? How? (Just to name a few). But, as a student-centered and future-focused district, the thought process was not if we should teach AI, but what if we don’t teach AI? Also, why isn’t everyone teaching AI?

To better answer these questions Dr. Justin Aglio, Montour’s Director of Academic Achievement, and I met with two eighth grade students who were part of a special project that tapped into AI. The students provided great information about the “why” and “what” for learning about Artificial Intelligence and Justin added some key elements explaining how the program will grow in the upcoming years.

Tema and Aidan, two of the four eighth grade students, really played up the fact that it’s not about teaching AI in school today, but why hasn’t anyone started sooner. The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” report from the World Economic Forum points out that we need to understand our changing environment, challenge our assumptions, and continuously innovate. Schools and all institutions will need to begin to think about the impact of AI and Robotics. It’s not only jobs that will be affected. It’s our moral code; it’s our training for all learners to become informed citizens for the 21st century.

For K-12 schools that means we need to rethink how we define and evaluate learning. Montour is one of school districts who are rethinking what graduates in the 21st century need to know, understand and do. Montour believes that all students need to become data fluent. They need to know how to analyze, interpret and create data to solve problems. They need to be able to design frameworks to solve real world problems using data. Learners also need to understand the underlying processes and ethical issues behind modern technology. In Montour that’s exactly what students discover. Through a Media Arts course developed by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) all students investigate moral issues related to Artificial Intelligence. Topics for the Montour course include: algorithmic bias called gender shades, the trolley problem, or ethical matrix design.

However, as Tema and Aidan pointed out that doesn’t explain how AI works. You need to get behind the modern 8 ball and discover how to use AI to solve a problem. We don’t want students to become just better consumers of AI; we want them to become better creative producers using AI. So what’s a problem that middle school students have on their minds? The Montour middle school students wanted to know what to expect when they head to high school.  It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s something different to develop a “skill” for Alexa to explain what to anticipate at the high school level. Amazon provides a developer’s kit that the Montour students used. The Montour team first conducted a survey of their peers and then used the data to develop the questions that would be part of a pilot project with Witlingo. Each of the four students in the development team not only conducted the research, they also recorded their answers. So, today when you ask for Montour “Hey Google, talk to Montour High School,” or “Alexa, Launch Montour High School,” you now can learn about the high school program through the research and voices of Montour students.

While the middle school program has had great success, it’s not enough to just drop AI in the middle of a student’s life. What will prepare students for the world of machine learning? According to Justin Aglio you need to arouse student curiosity at the elementary level. So next year Montour will include in its elementary program Experiments with Google AI to introduce students to AI concepts and traveling AI robots around the school that interact with students.

Once you have the students asking questions and conducting research, you want to have them go further. At Montour high school students will soon have mentorships with companies, like Google or Argo. Students will have opportunities during their Personalized Learning Time (PLT) to take additional courses, such as AI4ALL’s Open Learning program.