Real World Learning: Design Challenges

For the past two years I’ve worked with the Parkway West Career and Technology Center (PWCTC) Consortium of Schools and the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) to develop a series of real world Design Challenges. There are some lessons I’ve learned:

  • Identify the students teams as consultants. Make the students aware of the role of a consultant and the importance of addressing the needs of the client. Work with the teacher facilitators to frame the problem in ways that relate to the students and allow teams to work collaboratively.
  • Bring in experts from Day 1. We have each kick-off event at the EIC. Bob Meeder, the CEO of the EIC, arranges for a team of experts, or as he calls them “bosses,” to work with the student consulting teams.
  • Frame the challenge around a Request for Proposal (RFP). In the business world RFPs are the documents that outline the expectations of the client. The consulting team has to address the project based on the client’s needs.
  • Use a human-centered design process to move the project along. I’ve had an opportunity to undergo training through the LUMA Institute. The LUMA framework, developed through a meta-analysis of the best strategies in design thinking, helps to shape the problem more succinctly and provides the focus on the target population.

Visualizing the vote for Concept Posters

Here are some ways I’ve worked these principles into a series of Design Challenges with high school students this fall. To start the challenge the student consultants walk through the Energy Innovation Center and use a LUMA strategy called “Fly on the Wall.” They use the camera on their phones to document everything that they see. At the kick-off they develop questions they need to address based on the RFP. Experts from the business, non-profit, or other arenas, begin to answer the student questions. At the midpoint I bring the students back together. (Between the kickoff and midpoint the student teams work with their teacher facilitators conducting research into the RFP issues. Sometimes the teams get together and other times they go their separate ways.)

For this year’s two Design Challenges I used a LUMA recipe – a combination of strategies – at the midpoint session. For a Food Menu Item Design Challenge where the student consultants from South Fayette, Carlynton, and PWCTC had to come up with their best ideas for the forthcoming EIC Healthy Cafe, I needed a way to identify the best choices. Each student consultant created what LUMA calls a “Concept Poster” for their food item and then had to pitch the idea to their colleagues and a team of experts that included people in the food industries. Each consultant and expert then chose the three best ideas and put dots on the Concept Poster – LUMA’s “Visualizing the Vote.” This combination of strategies narrowed the choices, but there was an issue – could the choices work in a cafe environment in a cost-effective manner? Fortunately, I had a team of student experts who were studying Culinary Arts and their teacher, a chef from the Parkway West Career and Technology Center. The chef with the student consultants then examined the top choices that would be prototyped in the PWCTC kitchens.

Concept Poster to pitch ideas

The second Design Challenge focused on the renovation of an existing space – Innovation Hall- at the EIC. The student consultant teams from Keystone Oaks and Chartiers Valley worked in four teams – lighting technologies, smart technologies, surface technologies, and furnishings. At the midpoint each team developed a “Concept Poster” and then each consultant and expert working on the project responded by placing a red note for a Great Idea, a green note for a promising idea that needed some further thinking, or a brown note for an idea that might not work. LUMA calls this strategy “Rose, Thorn, Bud.” Once the teams received the feedback from the other teams and experts, they had to revise their plan.

In both Design Challenges the LUMA strategies provided great ways to get all students involved in a collaborative manner. The consulting teams had to use communication skills that included visualizing ideas. The teams had to analyze feedback and revise (iterate) their ideas.

We’re not done yet. The final presentations will take place in the next month, but one of the Design Challenges from last year will soon have a ribbon-cutting ceremony.  What’s better than having the student consultants actually see their ideas implemented?

Sharing a prototype

Last year three teams of students worked on the installation of a windmill at the EIC. Consultants from Carlynton High School came up with a very original model using a Hummingbird Kit from Birdbrain Technologies. A second team from PWCTC’s Electrical Studies program devised a storage and power strategy for the RFP, while the third team from West Allegheny developed an educational strategy to instruct visitors at the EIC about wind energy and sustainable energies. In December members from the original Design Team will join Windstax Technologies, key members of the EIC, the mayor of Pittsburgh, and the County Executive of Allegheny County in a ribbon cutting ceremony – a great real world celebration for a challenging real world problem.

Redesigning Learning Spaces

For the second year in a row the K-12 Horizon Report included “Redesigning Learning Spaces” as a mid-term (3-4 year) emerging trend in education. Throughout western Pennsylvania I’m observing not only spaces like libraries take on new shapes and functions, but entire buildings designed for active learning. On November 7 I’ll join Justin Aglio, Director of K-4 Academic Achievement and K-12 Innovation, and Dr. Chris Stone, the superintendent of the Montour School District, at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC), to share a framework for rethinking how to design learning spaces and an experiential activity for conference attendees to discover some of the elements in the new Montour K-4 Elementary School.

Key to any redesign of a learning space is the awareness of “why” we need to rethink how the learning space looks, feels, or responds to the needs of the learners. Prakash Nair, an architect for the Fielding Nair International, has developed four criteria (Blueprint for Tomorrow, 2014):

  • Be welcoming – this includes the colors, furnishings, greenery, or adding a coffee bar with WiFi access.
  • Be versatile – this goes beyond flexibility. It looks at how learning spaces can be reconfigured and rethought to meet needs over time. A versatile space may be an open commons area today, but it may become multiple classroom spaces in the future.
  • Be supportive of varying and specific learning activities – spaces may have different designs based on what type of learning is desired. Collaborative learning requires tables and LED screens that allow for groups of learners to work together, whereas a research zone may have individual tables and no projection needs.
  • Send positive images about activities and behavior – spaces need to showcase student learning. There may be exhibit spaces that have special lighting and sound to highlight student work.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Montour’s new K-4 Elementary School is a great example of the transformation in thinking about the use of space as part of the learning experience. The entrance makes a strong statement welcoming parents, community members, as well as the student population. Every space provides a learning opportunity. Learners in the hallway, in the Minecraft Learning Lab, or in a flexible Maker Spaces are active investigators working collaboratively or on personal projects using design thinking infused with easily accessible technology. Every classroom has a variety of furniture options to meet the needs of different student learning. The gymnasium provides not only a home for sport activities, but becomes a an open learning space. For TRETC it’s the center for vendor exhibits and for the opening and closing sessions. Throughout the building student work is prominently presented.

TRETC 2017 Redesigning Learning Spaces

Artificial Intelligence and Learning

With the growth of tools like the Amazon Echo, IBM’s Watson, or Apple’s Siri there’s been a renewed interest in artificial intelligence and learning.  In this blog article I’ll showcase just a few directions that are part of the contemporary landscape: adapted learning; personalized learning; chatbots and online learning; and new ways to access personal information.

Adapted Learning

According to Wikipedia, adaptive learning dates back to the 1970s. The idea was to create software that could emulate the human ability to adapt to individual learner’s needs creating a more effective learning experience. Adaptive learning usually has four components or “models:”

  • Expert model – The model with the information which is to be taught
  • Student model – The model which tracks and learns about the student
  • Instructional model – The model which actually conveys the information
  • Instructional environment – The user interface for interacting with the system

Much of the initial research came from work at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University. Today products like ALEKS, Knewton, and MATHia demonstrate the power of adaptive learning. It’s interesting to see that most of the work has been done in the area of mathematical learning. While there have been attempts to move beyond mathematics, adaptive learning works best in a very predefined world.

Personalizing Learning

There are many approaches to personalizing learning, but based on my experiences working with teachers, it’s next to impossible to do without digital technology. There have been some recent attempts by Alt Schools and Summit Learning to develop software to make the task easier for the learner and the facilitator. Key to both of these approaches is the use of a variety of data that pinpoints where the learner is on some continuum of skills, the learner’s goals, and resources to help the learner master a set of skills, competencies, or objectives.

Chatbots and Online Tools

The first chatter boxes were based on keywords. Today AI plays a new role opening up more sophisticated ways to engage a user in an online conversation. According to Wikipedia, “Today, chatbots are part of virtual assistants such as Google Assistant, and are accessed via many organizations’ apps, websites, and on instant messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger.” Today, chatbots are often used as part of homework tutorial programs like Nerdy Bot. Chatbots also play a role in grading essays. Hewlett Packard sponsored a competition in 2012 and the winner had 0.81 correlation with human graders.

At Georgia Tech, students were charmed by the teaching assistant, Jill Watson. What they didn’t realize was the fact that their online teaching assistant was actually a chatbot based on IBM’s Watson technology. The Coppell Independent School District (ISD) in Texas is the first school district to use the IBM Watson app to provide deeper levels of personal interactions and learning experiences for its students.

New Tools to Access Information

The Amazon Dot is a new tool for education that uses the technology behind Alexa, Amazon’s tool for the consumer market. Here are some ways Dr. Bruce Ellis suggests to take advantage of Alexa in the classroom:

  • Use Alexa in your classroom to support literacy by having students ask her how to spell a specific word, suggest a synonym, or provide a definition.
  • Social studies students can skip an internet search by asking Alexa simple geography and civics questions.
  • Math students can use Alexa to check their work when they’ve finished an assignment, and science students will find Alexa is great at converting units of measurements.

Arizona State University is one of the first educational institutions to test out the Amazon Dot as a learning tool. Starting the fall of 2017 1,600 engineering students are using the Amazon Dot. The university intends to evaluate the Amazon Dot as a tool that “combines sensing, connectivity and data analytics to inform decision making, optimize operations and energy efficiency, and create a highly personalized campus experience for every student, professor, staff member and alumnus.”