How we developed a personalized PBL model for STEM

How can schools and districts prepare students for college and careers in STEM? Is it by asking them to passively read a textbook or listen to a teacher lecture? Or is it by challenging them to actively engage in projects that attempt to solve real-world problems?

In Harmony Public Schools in Texas, we want students to become active learners, problem solvers, and STEM advocates. We want to increase their knowledge, skills, and interest in STEM, and balance student-centered teaching with state and national standards. To do this, we developed a personalized project based learning (PBL) model called STEM Students on the Stage (SOS)™.

STEM SOS, which was developed with a $30 million Race to the Top grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is a rigorous, interdisciplinary, standards-focused method of STEM education that encourages students to develop and share their STEM knowledge and investigations. We now incorporate this personalized PBL model into all of our STEM courses.

If your school or district wants to engage students with real-world STEM learning and help them develop the competencies required for success in higher education and the workplace, here are a few tips to get started.

1. Replace traditional labs with hands-on projects.
Student projects are vital to the STEM SOS model. Inquiry-based, hands-on projects bring out students’ natural curiosity and engage them in meaningful, rich, and authentic learning environments. In our middle and high schools, students work with their teachers to choose their projects. This practice brings student voice and choice into PBL and increases student agency and ownership of the learning process. Then, during each grading period, students must complete specific PBL Tasks for Level I, Level II, and Level III projects, which are listed on our PBL resource website.


3 budget-friendly ways to take science learning outside

As teachers, we’re always trying to find new and exciting ways to make our class content more relevant and engaging for our students. Fortunately, science offers many connections with what’s right outside our classroom doors. Whether we’re measuring water quality, exploring experimental design, or collecting biodiversity data, moving the instruction outside onto school grounds helps my students make connections between science and the environment they live in.

Technology makes these mini-field trips more manageable and meaningful. With tech tools, we can easily organize and share the data outside, which saves time for deeper discussions and reflections. Also, outdoor learning is more budget-friendly, because the apps are available on devices we already have. There are many exciting and innovative ways to get students outside and learning with technology. Get started with these three ways to explore the great outdoors.

1. Use apps that collect scientific data

Science Journal is a lab-sensor app that uses your Android or Apple phone or tablet to collect scientific data: light, sound, motion, and more. As teachers, we’re used to getting creative to give students the best learning opportunities possible, but we are often faced with tough decisions because of budgetary constraints. This app allows for more experiments and less constraints, using a tool we already have.


Can today’s new technologies totally revamp learning?

As wearable technology, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) become more mainstream and more available to educators, many innovators are looking at how combining such technologies can impact classrooms in the future.

What if a piece of wearable technology could sense a student’s stress and offer access to mentors and coaches with just a click of a button? Or imagine a group of students curious and eager to learn more about another culture. What if they could use AR to interact with groups of students from different countries to work on a shared project without ever having to leave the classroom?

A new publication from KnowledgeWorks, Leveraging Digital Depth for Responsive Learning Environments, explores the potential future impacts of using wearables, AR, and VR in the classroom and other learning environments. The report also encourages educators to develop a critical filter to sift through the hype and determine the value and use of these new technologies.

“Often educators are given market-driven approaches to implementing technology in the classroom that end up being ineffective,” says Katherine Prince, senior director of strategic foresight for KnowledgeWorks. “It is our hope that educators can use this research to think critically about how they can use emerging technologies to benefit their students’ unique needs.”


Bringing the 5 Cs into your classroom

The learning spectrum is broad: On one end, there’s the student who loves a challenge; at the other exists one who consistently doubts his or her ability to successfully complete that challenge—and there are countless other types of students in between. Whether students are best suited to a traditional lecture, independent reading, or working with peers in a more visual environment, it’s well known that no two learn in the same manner.

Unfortunately, the way educators teach is not conducive to the different ways students learn. While schools traditionally measure success on the product of learning (i.e., results from standardized tests, school rankings, and percentiles), they often neglect the process. As it stands, students are continuously monitored and measured via state-issued tests and assessments that focus on how well they can repeat information verbatim. This learning method does little to teach children important life skills like collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, and often, students forget the information they learned faster than teachers can say, “Pencils down.”

Should educators keep trudging through “product”-based education, disregarding children’s natural abilities to learn, or shift to a more formative learning process to help students excel in their chosen field of study?

Learning is a journey, not a destination: It’s time to treat it as such

Differentiated instruction is one solution to this problem, but it is impractical to implement at scale; school districts and educators face major roadblocks in terms of time and cost required. This leaves educators using a teach-to-the-middle strategy, resulting in holding some students back from reaching their potential and others struggling to keep up. While educators often grade students based on how well they’ve synthesized and memorized information, the innate process of learning and curiosity is far more important to help students succeed.

Changing the status quo

How do we foster change in such an ingrained legacy system of education? The best place to start is at the classroom level, where teachers can begin to shift their instructional practice and see real-time feedback on successes or opportunities for improvement. Instead of teaching the same lesson plan to an entire class, educators should focus on the 5 Cs—collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical and computational thinking—to foster greater learning.


Computers may help K-8 math teachers understand students’ thought processes

Cornell University computing and information sciences researchers are working on computer software that may help K-8 math teachers with grading math assignments.

Researchers will present their research at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 21-26, in Montreal.

“I’ve been interested in working on techniques for automatic education and trying to make teachers’ lives easier,” says Erik Andersen, assistant professor of computer science. “Teachers spend a lot of time grading, but grading is more complicated than is the answer right or wrong. What the teachers are spending a lot of time doing is assigning partial credit and working individually to figure out what students are doing wrong. We envision a future in which educators spend less time trying to reconstruct what their students are thinking and more time working directly with their students.”

Andersen has been working with Sumit Gulwani of Microsoft Research on “doing cool things” with programming by example. “The work is trying to reverse engineer your thought process. We build an algorithm that infers and reconstructs how the student is doing their homework—we are translating intent,” says Andersen.


What research says about virtual reality in classrooms

While we’ve been inundated over the past few years with the promises and potentials of virtual reality (VR), it’s been tough to slice through the hype to find facts, especially the kind of trustworthy research on VR adoption, effects, and learning potential educators need. Our new Common Sense research report, Virtual Reality 101: What You Need to Know About Kids and VR, helps bring some clarity by summarizing the existing body of studies.

First things first, VR has yet to be widely adopted. Only 21 percent of households have a headset and one can assume this percentage is far lower for classrooms. Even so, VR continues to fascinate us with its possibility, and it’s especially popular among kids, 70 percent of whom (ages 8 to 15) express interest in it. Since teachers are always looking for new ways to excite students, some innovative, well-supported educators have been experimenting with VR thanks to relatively low cost platforms like Google Cardboard or any of a number of sub-$100 budget headsets.

If you’re one of these pathbreaking educators, or just VR-curious, how can you make sure your lessons are grounded in best practices? Here are five key tips.

1. Be especially selective when it comes to what students play.
VR can provide students with experiences that feel very much like actual life, especially when it comes to young kids. This means that when it comes to content, you should choose experiences that you’d want your students to have in real life. The good news is that well-chosen, pro-social experiences might help students build key social emotional learning skills.


K-12 computer science education makes strides

Efforts to ramp up computer science education in K-12 schools have intensified across the nation, and with good cause—most future jobs will require some form of computational thinking.

According to stats, only 15 states have created K-12 computer science standards. In 35 states and Washington, D.C., computer science can count toward a high school math or science requirement; this is up from just 12 states in 2013.

In a 2016 Gallup report, 84 percent of parents, 71 percent of teachers, 66 percent of principals, and 65 percent of superintendents said they believe offering computer science is more important than, or just as important as, required courses such as math, science, history, and English.

The report notes that U.S. students need more support from parents and stakeholders in advocating for computer science education. U.S. schools and districts need more qualified teachers and more funding to increase the likelihood of advancing computer science education at the rate needed to keep up with workforce demands.

Supporting teachers

Strengthening U.S. computer science education relies partly on investments in teachers.

Teachers are often reluctant to teach computer science classes because they feel unqualified to do so. A partnership between and ISTE aims to change that and addresses the need for high-quality professional learning around computer science education strategies. This is the first refresh of ISTE’s Standards for Computer Science Educators in seven years.


How does culture impact our ability to learn?

When educators think about diversity in the classroom, culture may be one of the characteristics that crosses their mind. But as they select their curriculum and develop their lessons, most teachers are not accounting for how culture will impact a student’s ability to participate and learn, says Almitra Berry-Jones, Ed.D., nationally recognized speaker, author, and consultant on the topic of culturally and linguistically diverse learners at-risk. In her edWebinar, “Cultural Relevance and Academic Equity in the Age of ESSA,” Berry-Jones explained how understanding the impact of culture, adopting a student-first mindset, and creating multiple points of engagement with the same content will help teachers move toward academic equity in their classroom.

First, Berry-Jones discussed culture—the values and beliefs students bring to the classroom. Culture is a social construct, not genetic, and most students have at least three: home, peer, and school. The language and behaviors for each one is different, and for many students, the language at home is so divergent that entering school is like going to a foreign country and speaking a new language. For example, students may come from a home in which children are told to be seen and not heard, so speaking up and participating in class seems wrong to them. Or, what some teachers see as a behavior disorder is just the contrast between the culture at home and at school.

Also, educators need to think about students who don’t “speak the language of school.” There is a connection between the poverty level a student grows up in, the educational achievement of the students’ parents, and language. Poverty often creates a developmental burden that manifests in a word gap and populations of kids who are not ready to learn. More important, there is also a feedback gap because most of these kids’ interactions with adults have been negative. The students arrive in kindergarten not understanding the role of the teacher or how to develop a positive relationship with him or her.


5 ways to ensure cultural inclusivity

Have you ever wondered what goes into developing a culturally-inclusive curriculum?

The audience that Reading Horizons serves is diverse, and our footprint has grown significantly in the last decade as K–3 teachers and students from all over the country use our product for emerging readers and remediation. Our curriculum has generally met the needs of educators and learners, but a few years ago we learned that we had not spent enough time ensuring that we weren’t unintentionally excluding people or perpetuating stereotypes and biases. If a reader can’t identify with any piece of our material or software, we are doing them a disservice. That’s when we made a company-wide resolution to focus on cultural inclusivity at every step of the writing and publishing process.

Our goal is to make sure that, no matter where a student is from, their age, their ethnicity or religion, they feel like the program was written for them as much as anybody else. Guided by cultural inclusivity, we not only rewrote our existing material, but we set up systems to make us more intentional in how we developed new curriculum. Here are the lessons and steps we took.

Change with the times

We were always aware of diversity in representation, but we were more concerned about having themes that would appeal to kids and about using terms that would tie back to the sequence we use in introducing various skills. There was a lot less concern about potentially hurting someone with a word or an image.

A good example of how quickly attitudes toward cultural inclusivity have shifted—and one that applies to many publishers—is how to represent Christopher Columbus. A few years ago, nearly every educational publishing company referenced Christopher Columbus in their curriculum. Today, in many areas of the country, Columbus’ role in U.S. history is taught in a completely different way, a way that makes even recently published books seem out of date and out of touch.


The best edtech PD isn’t about technology

Schools and districts spend billions on edtech, even while questions continue to swirl around whether such investments yield solid returns. Few companies can reliably ensure the educational outcomes that teachers and administrators expect, and according to one estimate, only 35 percent of edtech tools purchased are actually being implemented.

Barriers to successful implementation often have little to do with the technology itself or teachers’ comfort with technology overall. Instead, success is impeded by a lack of strategy on how to integrate the technology into the classroom. Even as they spend up to $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development (PD), schools and districts have underinvested in quality PD that focuses on the skills and know-how educators need to make edtech effective in the classroom. It’s not from a lack of demand, though—research nearly always suggests that educators are asking for more and better training.

District leaders must meet this demand and provide the very best edtech PD by focusing less on the technology itself and more on fundamental pedagogical strategies that can bridge the divide between investments, implementation, and outcomes.

Focused instructional decisions

The promise of edtech stems, in part, from its ability to generate data that can inform instructional strategies. Data can inform small-group instruction, help teachers pair students, identify gaps early, and even challenge conventional wisdom about how and why learners construct knowledge.

Whether that means using AnswerGarden to collaboratively build a word cloud to assess how a class is absorbing material or using Perusall to review a group of students’ “confusion report,” there are plenty of tools teachers can leverage to make data-informed decisions about their instruction.

Effective PD should share best practices and tools that will support teachers in maximizing their instructional time by using the information they get from those tools to become laser focused on students’ specific needs.

The collaboration conundrum

Education can be an isolating profession. Teacher-innovators often feel like they are working in a vacuum that offers few opportunities to engage with and learn from the experiences of their peers. That’s not surprising when so much of their PD seems to ignore the value of collaboration. Just 9 percent of professional-learning opportunities offered to teachers have collaborative formats.