PBL Externships Connect Classrooms to the Future of Work

“Many of the skills and characteristics that employers are looking for in the future workforce are things we can easily teach our students,” said Courtney Coss, Family and Consumer Science Teacher at Greater Latrobe High School in Latrobe, Pa. “These are things like willingness to learn, acceptance with failure, ability to problem solve. Many schools think these skills are inherent in children, but they’re not.”

Coss, along with more than 50 other educators in Southwestern Pennsylvania recently joined ASSET STEM Education to explore ways to help students develop 21st century skills. Teachers and administrators from various grade levels and disciplines participated in the three-day professional development program, titled Project-Based Learning through Teacher Externships. A grant from the PPG Foundation covered all costs for the course.

The program was designed to guide teachers in connecting classroom learning with real-world issues and preparing students for future careers. Educators explored Project-Based Learning (PBL), an instructional method that employs authentic, multidisciplinary learning experiences where students uncover answers and solutions to real-world issues and problems. PBL is student driven, highly engaging and empowers students to take ownership over their own learning. It helps to foster collaborative problem solving, creativity and communication – important skills for future career readiness.

During the program, educators participated in two back-to-back days of professional development on PBL, its positive outcomes and strategies to integrate the practice into the classroom. They then reached out to a local industry professional to partner for a business externship to better understand the skills and demands of a modern workplace.

For the third and final day of professional development, educators experienced the final stages of Project-Based Learning: Feedback and Revision, Opportunities for Reflection, and Publicly Presented Product. Educators took turns giving presentations, offering their most interesting findings and key learnings, while providing individual feedback on fellow presentations.

Many educators echoed a similar sentiment during their industry externship presentations: there is a significant need for students to develop the basic skills most employers are looking for.

The presentations sparked lively discussion among participants about ways they can incorporate these types of lessons into their own classrooms. Educators agreed that students are often lacking characteristics that they’ll need in the future workforce – things like properly managing their time, answering the phone professionally, understanding the impact of their social media presence, and adjusting to a new role or culture.

“There isn’t much leeway to concentrate on other skills in our specific classrooms,” said Melissa Venesky, Biology Teacher at Knoch High School in Saxonburg, Pa. “However, we can focus on things like paying attention to detail or people skills and not always picking your friend as a partner.”

ASSET’s Senior Professional Development Specialist, Deb Spencer led the program and encouraged educators to take this experience back to their students. “Talk to your students about your externship and work with them to translate this experience into meaningful learning,” said Spencer.

“Going through this experience has encouraged me to change some of the things I’m doing in my classroom,” said Courtenay Garrett, first grade teacher at Hampton Township School District in Allison Park, Pa. “I was able to see what these professionals do and what my students need to learn to be successful.”