How we developed a personalized PBL model for STEM

This Texas district is getting students to become active learners, problem solvers, and STEM advocates

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.

2. Engage students in short- and long-term projects.
During the school year, students must complete four short-term Level I projects and a year-long Level II or advanced Level III project. Through these projects, students learn the scientific method and how to use real-world STEM tools such as PASCO sensors and software for real-time quantitative measurement and analysis. Students also develop and practice management skills, which is a key competency in today’s workforce. The teacher’s role in these projects is instrumental; they provide feedback, facilitate students’ progress for deeper and more authentic learning, and intervene when challenges arise.

Level I projects, which are completed in class, target 21st-century skills development. Students can work individually or in small groups, and it typically takes about a week to complete one. Each project is standards-based and aligns with the weekly curriculum’s scope and sequence. To explain the concept being covered, students may choose from a variety of methods, such as conducting a hands-on experiment or creating a video to show to the class. Taking on a teaching role increases their knowledge and self-confidence, and helps them develop positive attitudes toward STEM.

Level II and advanced Level III projects are standards-aligned, cross-disciplinary projects that integrate physics, social studies, and English language arts. The cross-curricular connections and hands-on learning deepen students’ conceptual understanding of the topics they choose while allowing teachers to engage students in new ways of learning. Students complete the majority of these projects outside of the regular school day. As such, teachers meet with students for advising after school, on Saturdays, and via online sessions using tools such as Google Hangouts to keep them on track and provide feedback on their progress.

Even with the effort involved after school and at home, most students view these projects as a fun endeavor. Further, because of the time and effort they invest, they are taking more ownership and responsibility for their learning. These projects also provide an opportunity to build an e-portfolio that they can use when they apply to college.

3. Require students to share their knowledge.
When students complete their projects, they are required to share their knowledge by designing a project brochure, creating a video or photo gallery, writing a journal or essay, or developing a website. In addition, each campus hosts public events such as science fairs, STEM Festivals, and STEM Expos, which provide opportunities for students to exhibit their work and communicate their process and findings with a larger audience. Students also submit their projects to local, national, and international STEM competitions and conferences. Presenting their work gives them a chance to meet community leaders, college professors, and STEM industry professionals, which helps them plan and build a network for their futures.

The benefits of a personalized PBL model
The more students explore and share, the deeper they engage and become natural STEM advocates. Research indicates that students participating in the STEM SOS model have shown an increase in their STEM interest, conceptual understanding, and self-confidence, and in 21st-century skills such as technology, life and career, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. Teachers have also reported improvements in classroom management, classroom climate, and student-teacher communication.

In Harmony Public Schools, where 61 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 24 percent are limited English proficient, the STEM SOS model has proven effective with underserved populations and students who have struggled in more traditional settings. In 2015-16 and 2016-17, all Harmony schools met or exceeded state academic standards set by the Texas Education Agency. District-wide, our college acceptance rate is 100 percent. In addition, the percentage of Harmony graduates choosing STEM majors in college has increased as well.

With STEM SOS, students are solving real-world problems, collaborating, and using digital platforms to share their work. Whether students end up choosing a career path in STEM or not, they can use these skills anywhere.

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