When students become entrepreneurs, real learning happens

Last spring, our organization received a state grant intended to help schools transition to digital curriculum. We used these funds to purchase subscriptions to Defined STEM for nine of the 20 districts we serve.

Defined STEM’s performance tasks are built from the UBD (Understanding By Design) framework and are introduced with videos of STEM professionals discussing the projects, which allows students to see the performance tasks through the lens of a real career. Each task results in anywhere from five to eight culminating products or activities, all of which address a different cross-curricular topic.

Each performance task also includes clearly defined rubrics for assessing the various products. The projects are designed so they can be modified easily by teachers using something called a Performance Task Editor—basically a tool that lets teachers edit a task, remove or add products, or upload other relevant information.

In another cross-curricular project, students watch a video about Dubai’s Palm Islands, two artificial islands created as resort properties. Working in groups, the students then assume the role of developers planning their own artificial island resort. They must calculate the volume of sand and rock they’ll need to build their island, research the potential environmental impact of their project, develop a marketing plan, and so on.

Moving to a project-based model of instruction represents a big change for educators. At first, some teachers were reluctant to give up the control they were used to having and shift this over to their students. But once they started with a project, and they saw how engaged their students were, they quickly realized the value of this approach.

One teacher told me that her students learned more in one project-based unit than from anything else she had taught all year. Students are likely to remember this information longer as well, because they have internalized the knowledge by applying it within an authentic context.

Using Defined STEM has made it easy for teachers in the nine pilot districts to integrate project-based learning into their curriculum. We’re only in the first year of a two-year pilot, so it’s too early to make any judgments about the initiative—but we’re confident that our student achievement data will show the program has been a success.

In fact, we plan to open a STEM-focused school with a fully project-based curriculum for the 2016-17 school year. Located on the campus of Youngstown State University, the school will be open to students from all across the state.

I absolutely believe that students retain the information better when they learn through a project-based approach as opposed to direct instruction, because it involves them and gets them engaged. That’s what we tend to remember the most from school: those fun projects that made us think—and not necessarily the day-to-day instruction.

What’s more, students are learning about a wide range of potential careers before they get to college. This approach expands students’ horizons and exposes them to new possibilities, inspiring them to pursue careers they might never have considered before.

Jason Braddock is the instructional supervisor for secondary mathematics and STEM education for the Mahoning County Educational Service Center in eastern Ohio.

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