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

What Happened at #TRETC2018?

Each year the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) shares the best in the learning realm for K-20. This year’s event occurred on November 6 at Baldwin HS, just outside the city of Pittsburgh, PA. Mike Moe, an edupreneur from Silicon Valley kicked off the event by looking at the Future of Work and the challenge for K-20 education. According to a Tweet from @Kinber:

Michael Moe @michaelmoe Co-Founder of ASU + GSV Summit @asugsvsummit this morning’s opening keynote on Reigniting the American Dream at #TRETC2018 #TRETC18 @pghtech.

Following Mike’s on point keynote, over 500 participants headed to workshops. TRETC has honored regional and state award winning educators for the past five years. This year featured presenters included: Matt Dancho talking on “Teaching in the Creative Zone;” Rachel Gatz looking at “Building Gender and Racial Equality in Tech;” Melissa Ungar using Scratch and Hummingbird Technology for 3D Storytelling; and Joe Welch, “Promoting Student Voice.”

Discover some of the presentations, including Justin Aglio’s presentation on “AI in K-12”  thanks to SIBME.

Here are some of the comments from Twitter about the sessions:

Gregg Russak exclaimed, “Really fascinating and informative presentation on Teaching and Learning in AI at TRETC 2018 .”

RJ Baxter shared, “Cyber Civility: It’s more than just Cyberbullying.”

Dr. Stanley Whiteman reported, “Great job today ⁦@MsUtley86⁩. We had a #PackedRoom at #TRETC2018 for #VR #GoogleExpeditions”

Melissa Butler related, “Shared ideas today at #TRETC2018 around engaging students in reflection about knowing/not-knowing as part of learning.”

Kevin Conner added, “@nhsdwelch sharing How I See It: Promoting Student Voice with Storytelling at TRETC 2018.”

In addition to presentations in the morning there were three workshops. Kelsey Derringer from Birdbrain Technologies worked with a packed house of over 50 adults and kids from Baldwin to create a Tiny Town using the new Micro:Bit Hummingbird. Mike Moe interacted with a team of student entrepreneurs from the Fort Cherry High School. Finally, Jody Koklades and Lisa Anselmo took people on an Edtech Smackdown.

During the lunch period TRETC participants interacted with exhibitors on the main level, People also headed downstairs to an Atrium to visit Student Showcases, discover emerging ideas in Poster Sessions, and engage in conversation with Innovative Projects and Companies.

The conference wrapped up with a reflective opportunity in the TRETC Cafe led by Dr. Jordan Lippman. Participants looked at the issue of digital equity and identified key questions that came out of the day’s activities, especially on how to prepare all students for the Future of Work.

 

 

Developing a Collaborative Culture

Corporate leaders highlight the need for a new generation of workers who can creatively solve problems by collaborating with other team-members. It’s imperative that our K-20 educational systems provide opportunities for learners to engage in a variety of strategies that help them to frame a problem, analyze information, synthesize that information into knowledge sets, and then evaluate and iterate their work realizing that there’s a good chance that the there will be need for another round of problem-solving. I had a chance to experience a good example of this type of process led by TeamBuilders Group, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm, and Point Park University. The seminar represented the mixing of the problem solving approach of Human Centered Design that’s employed at Point Park with skill building approach to collaboration that’s used by the TeamBuilders Group.

Setting the Stage: Agreeing on Norms

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

To start the seminar Jordan Lippman and his TeamBuilders Group initiated a conversation around Norms – what should be the agreed upon conditions for collaboration? Examples Jordan shared included: Be present, listen mindfully, share thoughts respectively, invite help from your team, encourage everyone to participate, and trust your team. Jordan then asked the group to add their thoughts to the list of team building conditions. It’s extremely important to make sure everyone agrees to the rules of the game. Without norms trying to work collaboratively becomes a competition where some people take control or dominate. I can remember so well as a student how I became the person in charge and ended up doing most of the work.

Solving the Problem

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

For the next set of activities Eric Stennett from Point Park University took the lead. The original group was divided into three teams of four people. For the initial activity the participants were challenged to brainstorm “problems” that they faced in their educational roles. Participants were instructed to put each idea on a Post-It Note. Then each group had to cluster their ideas based on some common thread and then name each cluster. Eric “took the hood” off to explain the rationale for each exercise as it related to Human Centered Design (HCD) developed by the LUMA Institute in Pittsburgh. The group used the technique of “Affinity Clustering.” The next step tapped into the HCD strategy of “Visualizing the Vote” where each person had four large dots to place on the clusters that he/she felt were most significant problems. Three problem areas came to the forefront: Building Systems, Creating Equity, and Developing Bridges.

At this point people were given choices – form new groups to develop a strategy solution for one of the problems. It was interesting for me as an observer to see how the new groups functioned. In the process roles were not assigned but by reinforcing the norms, care was taken to ensure equitable participation. I’ve learned that when you keep groups no larger than ten, you have a better chance to engage each person. When you set ground rules that everyone agrees upon, you even the playing field and allow everyone to be not only a contributor, but also an active listener.

Reflecting

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Often a team-building process ends with a solution and there’s no opportunity to discuss how to use what’s been learned or to evaluate the process. For this seminar the group reformed into a semi-circle and spent the necessary time to process the experience and think about next steps. Jordan Lippman used the opportunity to highlight the “Trust” model developed by his team. One of the shared problems came from one of the Point Park administrators – how do you get a team of colleagues who already know each other to collaborate? The seminar included a diverse group of people who didn’t know each other and were open to accepting the “norms.” What happens when you have a group that has a history of not collaborating? It was fascinating to hear how the group used the morning experience to address the problem – start with norms that everyone can agree upon, think about using “protocols” that help the process, and have someone in the group take on the role of a facilitator.

#CollaborativeCulture is a great way to #RemakeLearning – Ani Martinez

As I think about my work with high school students around Design Challenges I can see ways that I will improve my process based on this seminar. I will make sure the “norms” are clear and explicit. I’ll make some of the strategies I use more explicit so the students can build on the process. I’ll give more time for the student consulting teams to reflect and think about how they’ll use what they’ve learned in the process of the Design Challenge. Most importantly, I’ll go back to Fred Roger’s thought: Deep and Simple is Far more Meaningful than Shallow and Complex.