3 lessons on innovating in PBL

This Pennsylvania district built a Fab Lab and has been blown away by its success

After 28 years as a classroom teacher, administrator, and superintendent in rural, southwestern Pennsylvania school districts, I left the traditional school setting and began working for Pennsylvania’s alternative education system, serving at-risk and special needs students.

Many students struggle to learn and master concepts in traditional classroom settings. Without a hands-on connection, lessons can be easily lost and remain unhelpfully abstract. I firmly believe that project-based learning (PBL) is one of the best ways to solve this disconnect, so I applied to build a Fab Lab for students in Pennsylvania’s Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1) region. We were chosen, and three years ago, in partnership with Chevron and the Fab Foundation, we launched a campus lab—accompanied by a mobile counterpart—to serve as a hands-on STEM learning center for students to experience and master high-tech tools and concepts. None of us predicted the success we’ve seen.

Students with long disciplinary records and attendance issues started coming to class because they enjoyed it. Those who were frustrated by typical lesson plans and lectures have found the Fab Lab to be a place where their unique learning styles are engaged. Academic progress in a safe, collaborative setting is encouraging students and helping to solve behavior challenges.

Developing this Lab has been a rewarding journey, and I’d like to share some of my biggest takeaways for implementing this PBL approach.

1. There are no shortcuts

If you’re thinking about initiating a shift toward PBL, you’ll need to build the proper relationships and invest time in the initial development. Start small. When I first identified PBL as something I wanted to bring to IU1, it required patience, research, and a leadership team to think through the options that would work best for our students. Our first success was a very small grant for an arts center where students could complete hands-on projects.

When Chevron visited our region and introduced the Fab Lab concept, we knew this was something worth pursuing. In 15 months working with Chevron and the Fab Foundation, we built the physical lab and developed our own Fab Lab purpose and mission—establishing a solid foundation to promote project-based STEM education and career readiness.

2. Establish a culture of collaboration

It’s important to involve diverse stakeholders. Our regional leadership team held planning meetings with students, teachers, parents, administrator,s and custodians—anyone who would be impacted by the new Fab Lab—to talk through and workshop our vision. Not only were these stakeholders integral to the design and logistics of our Fab Lab, but the students especially shaped its identity from the outset.

We kept school staff closely informed and the process flexible.

3. Addressing curriculum and career

We set a culture of responsibility and high expectations for our Fab Lab students. It’s a privilege to be able to learn together and use such amazing tools, and with that perspective shift comes mandatory attendance. Showing up isn’t reserved as a reward for good behavior; it’s part of your job as a Fab Lab student.

Our curriculum enhances technical skills in prototyping and machinery operation, develops essential soft skills like leadership and communication, and provides examples of famous innovators as well as their numerous failures, because failure is an important part of any learning process, especially in STEM. We also look for ways to connect the Lab back to our students’ other classroom lessons, providing teachers with the necessary materials and resources to perform Lab extension activities.

Many of our students remain involved with the Fab Lab through the age of 21. We want each student, when they leave school, to be prepared and competitive for a job in STEM or additional learning. Energy and advanced manufacturing job opportunities are expanding in our corner of Appalachia, and the Fab Lab helps IU1 students develop the skills to be successful in these industries.

The future is theirs

The IU1 Fab Lab was a huge undertaking, and far from a guaranteed success. However, with a committed team and a collaborative, student-centered approach, we designed a best-in-class learning center to get our students excited about STEM lessons and ready for future STEM careers.

It will take a network of support from NGOs, the private sector, and government agencies to ensure STEM programs like the IU1 Fab Lab can grow, expand, and become available to more students, but I can promise you, it’s worth the effort.

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