Another teacher I’ve been privileged to spend a few days with is Bill from SHS down in Bellevue. Bill is a bit of a jack of all trades: science teacher, instructional coach, curriculum developer, technology guru, etc. I honestly can’t remember what his official title is, but he is part science teacher and part education wonk (and I mean that in the best, most complimentary way possible).
Bill and a bunch of his colleagues down at SHS have a little release time paid through a grant, and have been using it to re-imagine their school to address the needs of kids in the 21st Century. They are have decided to emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) fields in particular to help get students excited about new job opportunities in STEM fields and to help make them informed citizens in our new information and technology age.
The easy way to transform your school into a STEM institution would be to get big $$$ from local businesses, a school levy, the Gates Foundation, a federal grant, or whatever and use it to buy tons of laptops, iPads, science labs, and fancy machines that go PING! Taa-daa! STEM School! Of course this approach, while exciting and sexy, doesn’t buy you good teaching (or good learning). You have the same school (and program, and school culture, and teachers, and…), but now just with a lot of fun gizmos. But gizmos don’t equal powerful learning experiences. So instead, Bill and his fellow educators are doing this the hard way. They are re-thinking what good teaching is in the STEM context, and helping to encourage and train their colleagues to use some interesting and innovative new approaches to teaching.
I won’t innumerate all of the cool things I saw at SHS in this one blog post, but I do want to tell you a little bit about the project-based learning that several of the classes are implementing. The way Bill explains it, the curriculum is structured around something called “challenge cycles.” Essentially, they give students really complex, challenging, real-world problems for them to solve – like for instance, “How can you grow the most amount of a food crop with the highest protein content using the smallest amount of resources?” Then lessons are built around the content and skills the students will need to be able to solve the problem. These lessons may include socratic seminars, lectures, reading, research, etc. Projects and assessments follow – i.e., the students try to actually solve their challenge problem, are assessed on their learning and work during the unit, and reflect on their progress.
In the 9th grade science class, students started out with an aquaponics project. The challenge question might be something like “How can you create a human-engineered self-sustaining animal and plant system that can provide nutritional benefits to people?” This opening project is designed to teach students a bit about how science and engineering are done. They also practice a “systems thinking” approach to a complex problems, in this case one that has interacting biotic and abiotic components. Chemical reactions come into play in several places, especially with how nutrients like nitrogen cycle through the system.
The projects themselves take different forms (of course, because they are designed by the students), but most of them look something like this:
Students make a sand or rock bed, and select one or more types of plants to introduce to the container. They set up a water system that runs into a reservoir below. Other organisms are then introduced by the students to the system, from bacteria all the way up to fish. The system interacts on many levels – the fish create nitrogenous wastes which are in turn processed by the bacteria and then absorbed by the plants as fertilizer. Temperature, pH, oxygen levels, and dissolved organic solids can be monitored and adjusted in different ways. Students can make hypotheses about what they think will happen, and then track the progress of their experiment over the course of many weeks.
Right now, Bill and his students are immersed in a study of nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics. They are in the research phase right now. After discussing the challenge question (something about nuclear power), the students decided there were a list of questions that they needed answered about nuclear science. Here is the list that the students came up with:
Bill obviously helped to structure and scaffold their discussions, but the students made the actual decisions about what to learn. This gives them buy-in, agency, and ownership of the process. Now in the research phase, I heard Bill answer more than one student question with something like “Well, you decided that you needed to know this, right? So what exactly are the important parts you need to know, and how do you know where to go next?” The kids were using various resources including text books, the internet, and a fun-looking book called Physics for Future Presidents.
On my most recent visit, Bill and his colleague Keith were planning their next unit on polymers and organic chemistry (yep, these are the 9th graders!). Their challenge question for the unit is going to be something like, “How can you create a custom organic polymer that can create and destroy micelles (tiny bubble-like structures) which can deliver anti-cancer drugs to precisely the correct location inside the human body?” Bill and Keith are working with researchers at the UW who do exactly that, and the UW profs have agreed to help the kids synthesize and test polymers that will bind to the drugs tightly enough to get them into the bloodstream and into the cells, but loosely enough that the drugs can actually be released at the right time. The students will need to learn a fair bit of organic chemistry, and will make important decisions about which kinds of monomers to utilize and how to test the resulting polymers using phosphorescent dyes. Too cool!
There are of course trade-offs in adopting a problem-based learning approach (it takes longer, it can be “messy” on several levels, and it requires a thoughtful and patient teacher), but the potential benefits seem huge. Here’s a little graphic that Bill shared with me, outlining some of the important components of problem-based learning:
One final thing that I think is really great about the work that Bill and his colleagues are doing is that it is “bottom up” education reform. The changes that are going on at SHS were not dictated by the district or mandated in a directive from the school administration. Classroom teachers have been instrumental in asking for change, for helping to secure funding, and for designing, implementing, and coaching each other in these new techniques and ideas. This is not to say that I think there is no place for educational leadership at the district or school administrative level, but merely that teachers (like students) get more buy-in, agency, and ownership when they are directly involved in all phases of the process. Keep up the good work, Bill!