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

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

Transformations

Over the holiday season a new Transformer movie appeared. There’s something engaging about the concept of transforming from one concept or shape to another. In education transformations are also quite engaging and worth investigating. This past semester I coordinated two Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh with schools from the Parkway West Consortium of Schools. Each Design Challenge required the student consultants to think out of the box and come up with a transformative set of ideas.

Student teams from Parkway West, Quaker Valley, and Keystone Oaks tackled the transformative challenge of “Rebranding Careers.” How do we rethink the language and images to describe technical workers? How do we change the perceptions of students and parents regarding the value of alternative choices to a college program? The student consultants developed a website with a marketing campaign, an app, and a video to address the transformative questions.

It was fascinating to watch the student consulting teams go through their own transformations. The student teams had to learn to work with not only their own team members, but with fellow consultants from other schools. The design process of moving from a set of questions to a solution requires an ability to listen to a client’s needs. For most students this is a transformative challenge. Our traditional school approach is based on a teacher-focused orientation. Students respond to the need of the teacher who, in turn is trying to look at a standard or final outcome that is built into a curriculum. What happens when you transform this process? How do teachers and students handle their roles as facilitators and consultants?

For the student teams and teachers it takes time to adjust to this challenge. However, the final product for the Rebranding Careers Design Challenge demonstrated the success for the process. What could have been three individual projects,  turned into one website that linked to each of the student consulting teams ideas. The client team from the Energy Innovation Center responded positively to the student products and intends to seek further funding to work on the prototypes shared by the consulting team.

The Bedford Facade Design Challenge had similar positive effects based on the student consulting teams’ efforts. In this case teams from South Fayette, Chartiers Valley, and Parkway West collaborated to generate a three-tiered lighting plan for the original entrance of the Energy Innovation Center erected in 1930 as the Connelley Trade School. The Design Challenge process I use enlists the aid of a series of professional experts who work with the student consultants from the kick-off through the final presentation. For this Design Challenge the Energy Innovation Center brought to the table two experts from the Duquesne Light Company of Pittsburgh. The experts explained at the kickoff that consultants often outline different financial packages in their response to a Request for Proposal (RFP). The student consulting teams took this to heart and delivered silver, gold, and platinum options for the Design Challenge.

For the student consultants the ability to think about multiple solutions was a transformative moment. In our traditional classes we tend to look for one solution that is already known, but for this Design Challenge the notion that there could be multiple approaches for a problem was quite challenging for the student teams. The client team from the Energy Innovation Center, praised this approach. It met the real needs for the project. Now the Energy Innovation Center has a much better idea on the actual costs and what would be associated with each option.

I also wanted the student teams to use a model for the building as part of their presentation. The students don’t usually think about three-dimensional elements to explain an idea. The team of students from Parkway West welded a metal model that became the key for each consultant as they visually explained how each part of the solution would work. For instance, when the student consultants talked about the use of a Lumatrix lighting solution, they were able to point to the model to indicate exactly where the projection system would go.

The key to the final success for the Design Challenge will be the actual transformation for the Bedford Avenue facade at the Energy Innovation Center. The student consulting teams outlined a thorough proposal that included CAD drawings, a cost analysis, and a 3-dimensional model for the site. The Energy Innovation Center will now look at opportunities to use the student ideas to transform the building to highlight the rich history of the building and its bright future as a center for sustainability.