Studio A

What happens when you add  a variety of artists to Project-based Learning with a Design Thinking approach? The result it Studio A. That’s what the Avonworth School District has created for the past two years as part of a summer workshop for educators sponsored by the Grable Foundation. Educators from the Pittsburgh area (and beyond) gather together with Avonworth teachers and students to engage in a series of activities led by experts in Human Centered Design from the LUMA Institute and artists that are part of the Artist Residency program at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

I’ve been fortunate to have joined the activities for both this year and last year. There are few summer programs that not only stimulate educators to rethink how they work with learners, but also provide fun and engaging activities. As adults we forget how important it is to “play.” You need to use your body as well as your mind to express ideas. The Avonworth workshops used the theme of “Civic Engagement” this year. Each artist and LUMA expert developed a lesson around the Civic Engagement theme. Alison Zapata, a visual artist, provided a hands-on session where we learned how to use basic elements of art to create a design for a poster that communicated a civic message. In my case it was about how trees reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Other artists tackled the Civic Engagement theme by using dramatic ensembles to build communities that understand acceptance and kindness or by writing poetry through the lens of another “persona.” In every arts situation we were learning how to work with other people and to look at how our group ideas could solve a common problem.

The LUMA team walked us through a series of scenarios that used the LUMA strategies against the backdrop of Project-based Learning. For instance: how do you get input from students around a Driving Question? As a group we examined a “Concept Poster” that represented student responses to a Driving Question. Our challenge was to give well-rounded feedback using a strategy named “Rose, Thorn, Bud.” In this strategy, each person writes positive comments on pink Post-it notes (Roses), problematic issues on blue Post-it notes (Thorns), and potential improvements on green Post-it notes (Buds).

For two days we worked with the LUMA team and the artists. Then on the final morning we were able to work on our own problems. Artists and LUMA experts were available for private conversations. People with similar interests, elementary teachers, for example, met with elementary students to understand how the process works (or doesn’t work) from their perspective. Teams from schools that wanted to develop their own approach had the opportunity to have their own gathering.

What will I take from the Studio A experience? I’ll continue to refine the Design Challenges that I coordinate for the Energy Innovation Center for Parkway Consortium schools. I’ve already created a new schematic that will add one or two new LUMA strategies that I’ve found on the new LUMA Workplace website. I also plan to incorporate a warmup activity adapted from one of the improvisational art sessions. For the evaluation of the Design Challenges I’ll add a LUMA activity based on “Statement Starters” to gather data about the experience.

Real World Learning

Why Real World Learning (RWL)? The key is found in the Glossary of Educational Reform, “Realworld learning refers to education that is focused on connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and challenges.”

When we start with a real world issue we’re providing a context or connection. Educational research indicates that deeper engagements occur when learners see a relationship or connection to what they are researching, studying, or investigating. When you add an “inter” or multidisciplinary approach, then you create another level of connection.

In my work with learning institutions in the Western Pennsylvania area I’ve observed several great examples of where students and staff are engaged in RWL. In this article I’ll highlight two elements:

  • Students as agents of social change and creative producers
  • Regional Opportunities

Students as agent of social change and creative producer

The Avonworth School District has developed over the years a number of projects that challenge not just a select group of students, but all students at a grade level to solve a real world problem that relates to the school community. According to Jason Smith, the 8th grade Civics Teacher, “After a recent class discussion around racism and discrimination in the country, students took an anonymous survey which showed that 76% of 8th grade students believed that our country was more ‘divided’ than ‘united.’ After brainstorming times and places where the country, their community or town felt ‘united,’ students and teachers cited sporting events and fundraisers as examples.” The students then took the idea a step further and decided to develop a 5K run that would raise money for an Avonworth family that had lost their home and daughter to a recent fire.

The students were divided into teams that included: Promotions, Public Relations, Design, Registration, and Sponsorship. What makes this project more real world and more challenging is the fact that it was not just one Civics class, but all six classes that Jason Smith taught. The students shared, for instance, lists of sponsors, and each team had an alphabetical range of names to contact. In order to promote the event each class had to design a website and then a team of experts selected the best website for the project.

When I observed students working on the project everyone was engaged and collaborating with their peers. This project demonstrated how every student can be an agent for social change and contribute creative products to a common effort.

Another Avonworth project that has engaged students for five years now is the high school Galleries Project. In this case students work hand-in-hand with art professionals from four partnering museums – Carnegie Museum of Art, The Warhol, Mattress Factory, and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The organizations serve as mentors for students throughout the school year. The students select a project and then product artifacts that reflect the characteristics and mediums of the partnering museums. Last year according to Assistant Superintendent, Ken Lockett, the students wanted to address the question, “Who do we value?” So the students decided to change the way valedictorians were recognized as part of a series of photographs in one of the hallways. The students tapped into an Andy Warhol style of silk screen printing. Instead of traditional photographs, each valedictorian looked like an Andy Warhol poster shimmering with bright colors.

According to Ken Lockette, “The students are working on body images with the Warhol team – trying to get their peers to look up to an ideal.”

Avonworth realizes that the power of these real world learning projects. The school district is now connecting with other schools to expose a larger number of learners to the power of real world learning.

Just down the Interstate from Avonworth, students at the South Fayette School District are working on a variety of real world learning projects. In an interview with Aileen Owens, the Director of Technology and Innovation, we discussed a middle school program focusing on sustainable systems, “Seeds of Change,” and a high school set of projects revolving around Student Innovation.

Like Avonworth South Fayette has all of its 8th grade students working on a community-focused challenge. Each team of students has come up with a concept to address the question: how do we build a sustainable community? Students have used Human-Centered Design strategies to identify stakeholders, key issues, milestones, and possible solutions. One group is focusing on a living wall that can be incorporated into a classroom. Another team is investigating aquaponics. Another group of learners are examining solar panels and composting.

In each case the students are engaged in a real world challenge that allows them to be creative producers with an engagement with either their class, school, or community.

At the high school level South Fayette students are tackling innovative solutions to real world problems. South Fayette did not have a curriculum in place to teach Python. A student-led team worked with a Carnegie Mellon University graduate student and an engineer from Google to develop an after-school program and then turn this into a curriculum for classroom use. Next year all 8th grade students will take the Python course developed by their high school peers.

Four years ago a team of students at South Fayette worked with Amanda Gunawardena, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon and Princeton, to create MyEduDecks. Over time new student teams have modified the program creating new iterations. As part of the project students conduct research and then share their findings at professional conferences. The students have presented their findings at conferences at Pepperdine University, Microsoft Research, and Brown University. The student findings are professionally published by Springer, a national publisher. According to Aileen Owens, “The most difficult thing is creating the research project and understanding what the data means.” What could be a more real-world problem?

As part of a middle school program around App Development students had to come up with solutions for community problems. One team of students about four years ago discovered from bus drivers that there was a problem with kids getting on the wrong bus. The original team developed “BusBudE” and today student app developers continue to provide new updates to the software. In the latest iteration the students are working on a version that can be shared with other school districts and a training module so other districts can link the software to their busing schedule. The student app team is also working on materials for parents so the parents understand what the data means.

Bringing the real world doesn’t stop at the end of the school year at South Fayette. Students work on the STEAM Innovation Summer Institute for educators. Students serve as tech coordinators as well as student assistants and teachers. Yes, the students who developed the Python course last summer trained teachers in the use of Python. While the students are the creative producers, the teachers need to understand their role as facilitators and mentors.

Regional Opportunities

Through the efforts of schools like Avonworth, South Fayette, and Elizabeth Forward, educators around the region and across the country can learn more about integrating the arts into Project-based Learning and Human Centered Design, STEAM, or FAB learning. Starting in June and continuing through July there are opportunities at each of the schools I’ve listed. In addition, this year Pittsburgh is hosting the Schools that Can National Forum from May 10-11.

Schools that Can (STC) Forum is an annual, public conference focused on a common theme. Sessions are led and attended by top urban educators from STC schools, innovative educational organizations, thought leaders, industry, and community partners. This year’s theme is: Real World Learning for the 21st Century. On the first day of the conference participants will have a chance to visit examples of projects representing the range of K-12 activities. Sites include Pittsburgh: Allegheny Traditional School, Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, Drew Mathieson Center, and City Charter High School. At each site students will share their “real world” experiences. On the second day the event will move to the University of Pittsburgh where panels of experts will share best practices around Real World Learning.

The Elizabeth Forward School District will host from June 15 to 18 a FAB Institute. Elizabeth Forward is opening its doors to any educator interested in creating or improving their own FAB or Fabrication Lab. Participants will learn real world skills such as: computer-aided design, embedded programming, 3D scanning and printing, and much more for implementation at elementary, middle, and high school levels. Apply online at Pittsburgh FAB Institute.

From June 14-25 the South Fayette School District will host its STEAM Innovation Summer Institute. Sessions for educators working in the K-20 arena (in school and out-of-school) range from one to four days. Topics include: Making for Young Children, Creating Sustainable Mindsets, Computational Thinking, Entrepreneurship, App Development, Robotics, and 3D Modeling for Young Children. This year the program also introduces two new workshops that focus on bringing real world projects into the classroom: Professional Development for Authentic PBL School to Business Partnerships and Teachers in the Workplace.

Last year the Avonworth School District partnered with the LUMA Institute and the Center for the Arts to develop Studio A, a 3 day workshop that integrates the Arts into Project-based Learning (PBL) using Human Centered Design. This summer Avonworth will roll out the second round of Studio A training from July 11 to July 13. Participants will learn new tools in design thinking and the arts to workshop ideas for developing authentic, real world PBL units. Teachers will build skills and knowledge to develop interdisciplinary, project-based lessons/units to engage students in meaningful learning and in applying 21st century skills.

 

A New Year for Educational Technology and Learning Science

I don’t often try to prognosticate, but with some time on my hand, it’s maybe a good time to look at the future of educational technology and learning. With over 40 years of experience in a variety of learning environments – from pre-school to post-graduate – as a classroom teacher, gifted coordinator, and technology coordinator I feel I’ve learned a few things I’d like to share. Along the way I’ve done my share of research as an adjunct faculty member at West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University. Here are some key ideas for 2017:

Redesigning Physical Spaces Impacts Learning

ecs

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

From my early days as a classroom teacher for grades 5 and 6 in Pickens, West Virginia I observed how adding tables and moving desks changed the dynamics of classroom instruction. Recently I had a chance to visit the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit (WIU) in Greensburg, PA. The WIU converted a computer lab into a Maker space. Computer desks were replaced by flexible furniture that was grouped into clusters. According to Tim Hamill, the Curriculum Services Director at the WIU, simply changing the furniture created greater interaction at curriculum meetings. Whereas people in the past sat at their desk and seldom volunteered to talk, now there was a different dynamic – people were sharing their ideas in small groups and then providing the small group sentiments to the larger group.

Elizabeth Forward was the  first school district I visited to really embrace the transformation of a library into a digital media space. The library had limited use by students. With the transformed space that included a sound studio, TV studio, and cafe for students to hang out, the digital media space soon became the place for students to study and collaborate. Other schools soon followed in their attempt to make learning more social and informal. Instead of a room filled with tables and desks, schools,  like the Environmental Charter School,  added couches for students to work collaboratively.

Three summers ago I went to the national Flipped Classroom Conference outside of Minneapolis / St. Paul. As I walked around the pre-conference workshops taking photos I realized there was a totally different learning experience happening in the rooms where people sat in rows versus classrooms with clusters of desks or tables. I pointed this out to Aaron Sams, the co-founder for the event. He decided to do his own walking tour and discovered the same pattern.

Providing Feedback Enhances Learning

For years research has shown that one-on-one tutoring is the most effective form of teaching. The English have known this forever and it’s the key to institutions like Oxford or Cambridge. In recent years we’ve turned to computers to make this happen. It doesn’t require technology, but when you have a classroom of 25 or 30 students you need something to help this happen. In my early days of teaching in West Virginia I used peers to make this happen. In the 1970s we didn’t have the technology, but I had students who could work with their peers to address issues while I worked with larger groups of students. At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)  I had the opportunity to discover the work done by the Cognitive Tutor team that became Carnegie Learning and then the Open Learning Initiative. The Rand Corporation did a major study of the Carnegie Learning system’s math tools and they agreed. Computer based feedback did make a difference. Why? Carnegie Learning, like a good teacher, provided frequent feedback. Students knew when they were successful or they were given suggestions to improve incorrect steps. If the student continued to have a problem, the software found a path where the student had previous success. The role of teacher changes, but does not disappear. The software makes the feedback loop quicker and provides data for the teacher to then make decisions about the student learning.

At CMU I discovered a tool, Classroom Salon, developed by Ananda Gunawardena from the Computer Science department and David Kaufer from the English department. The CMU team discovered the power of social learning using data analytics. Classroom Salon allowed instructors to flip the learning. I could have students read articles, view videos, or interpret graphs ahead of class. I could use the information as feedback about what students already understood or needed to learn.

Personalized Learning Creates Deeper and More Engaged Experiences

From my early days of teaching I quickly discovered that when you provide choices to students, you change the learning dynamic. When I first started teaching we called it “Individualized Instruction.” As a teacher I made the choices for students. During my tenure at the Fox Chapel Area School District (FCASD) as the Coordinator of Education Technology we focused on Differentiated Instruction. Again it was about the teacher determining the best groupings and opportunities for students. In both cases I knew there were some positive gains, but something was missing: student agency. While teaching at CMU I had a chance to teach a course where I focused on Personalized Learning using Technology. I came across the work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey. They honed in on the differences between what I had seen and where personalized learning really could go when you let the learner make their own choices.

Today the Summit Public Schools with a little help from their friends at Facebook have created software to move in this direction. Was it possible to differentiate without software? Yes, but the number of hours and amount of energy necessary is overwhelming. At FCASD I worked with a team of educators who were part of a project called ALEM (Adaptive Learning Model) from Temple University. The program had many merits, but it was not scalable. Today with technology we have the possibility to make learning truly personalized, but we have to start with the understanding that the learner must be in control of many of the choices. For younger children teachers, parents, and other supports will be part of the process. Even at the college level there are needs for supports. However, if the learner doesn’t truly have responsibility for their learning, the learning is not intrinsic. Again we have years of research to indicate the value of intrinsic learning.

Becoming a Creative Producer Should be the Goal

robotzoo

Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While working West Virginia I came across the work of Seymour Papert. I become a Logo convert. I believed every child could construct their own knowledge and use the computer as part of the process. Today we call this computational thinking. I’ve been fortunate to see how the South Fayette School District has used Computational Thinking to empower student learning.

Today we are moving towards Design Challenges where teams of student consultants solve real world problems. Each team takes on a role based on the challenge. The student consultants work collaboratively to creatively produce a product that solves a real-world problem. I’ve worked the past year with the Energy Innovation Center and Parkway West Career and Technology Center to coordinate a series of Design Challenges. I have observed students at work at Hummingbird Makeathons, where older students are challenged to create robotic pets to interact with younger children. I’ve seen the value for all types of students. I’ve always believed that what I did as a Gifted Coordinator was applicable for all students. Build on student successes and interests! Let every student become a creative producer.