Project-based Learning Helps Rural Educators Navigate COVID-19
by Gina DeAngelo
Since schools first shut down last March, educators and students have struggled to adapt to the challenges and responsibilities of remote learning. Unbeknownst to them, a group of educators in rural Greene County, Pennsylvania, had spent the past two years building the skills to meet this moment.
Through the support of the EQT Foundation, twenty-five Carmichaels Area School District educators had been taking part in the Project-based Learning (PBL) Institute, a two-year program designed to foster long-term changes to instructional practice and advance 21st century workforce skills development.
The program was designed and delivered by the education improvement nonprofit ASSET Inc., which has provided innovative, rigorous, evidence-based educator professional learning since 1994.
An adaptable approach
“Project-based Learning can help educators understand the need for flexibility and adaptability,” says Deborah Luckett, ASSET associate executive director and program lead. “It can also help educators leverage resources to create learning opportunities for their students. These skills became particularly valuable during the COVID-19 shutdown.”
Algebra teacher Ashley Shoemaker agrees. “It was helpful to have a different way of thinking and problem solving during a time where we didn’t always have the same resources and weren’t sure what the students completely had access to.”
Ashley Kapp adds that learning doesn’t always have to look the same for everyone. “Students don’t always need paper and pencils to learn; they can learn through experiences,” the kindergarten teacher says. “Which, during the shutdown, is what a lot of our teaching looked like, learning from experiences and not from just a text book."
Classroom to workplace connections
PBL can also help students develop 21st century workforce readiness skills. In 2017, ASSET began to integrate externship experiences in local businesses to put these skills in context and help educators draw connections between the classroom and the workplace.
“Educators tend to have limited experience with the workforce beyond the world of education,” says Luckett. “The externships help them learn about different career paths and gain an understanding of the ways 21st century skills contribute to career success.”
During the program, participants visited businesses like the Heinz History Center, State Farm, and Trib Total Media.
Innovations in practice
Fitzsimmons was surprised to see the way employees used mathematics during her externship at Cumberland Coal. “A lot of the math skills they use, I sometimes don't even think about whenever I'm teaching my kids,” she explained. “It was definitely an eye opener.”
The experience led her to integrate more real life math skills into the classroom. “Before my externship, my mindset was no calculators until they absolutely need it, they should be able to do a lot their head. But after seeing how much technology is actually incorporated into jobs, and how much they need technology, I started using a lot more technology my process,” she explains.
Carmichaels Area School District is working to change the way our community looks at a public education. We are working on a vision that will give our students unique experiences to help build their passions as it relates to their future goals. The work of Project-based Learning fits into those goals by giving our students true experiences that they will use throughout their lives.
The training that our teachers received will drive the education of the future in which students will develop a true sense of learning, driven by their career interests and real word problem solving skills in new and imaginative ways. It will pave the way in our new vision to change the way education is done in Carmichaels, adding career pathways that truly take into account the student through a more personalized approach.
Fred Morecraft, Superintendent
Carmichaels Area School District
“Now, my students are using technology to create spreadsheets and figure out calculations, instead of doing the general paper pencil method.”
The pandemic reinforced these new views around workplace needs and opportunities.
Students often tend to focus on high-visibility occupations like teaching, nursing, or law enforcement, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed them to different careers, says 4th grade science teacher Cortney Mosier.
“Even our little ones started to realize there are jobs they may not have considered before, or that they may not have known about, that are important and essential,” she explains. “Sometimes I think that our kids focus on the big jobs because they don't realize like the world is such a big place and there's so much opportunity. There's a plethora of things out there that they can get involved in.”
The Project-based Learning Institute has made strong impressions on Carmichaels students and educators.
“It's really good to know that our little ones, if we have high expectations for them, are able to accomplish so much more. You just have to give them opportunities. And I think that's what this program did,” says Mosier. “This course really showed that when we give them resources and knowledge and let them expand and be engaged, the ideas that they come up with and the things that they create are amazing.”
Transforming educators and districts
For STEM teacher Nicole Morecraft, the experience was transformative.
“I'm thrilled that the district provided us this,” she says. “It really taught me what kind of teacher I am. I found out that I'm not a book-paper-pencil teacher, I am a Project-based Learning, hands-on teacher. That's how I love to teach.”
The program’s success tracks with EQT’s ongoing efforts to support education and workforce development, says EQT Foundation president Ellen Rossi.
“The commitment shown by administrators and teachers to a new way of learning has proven to be a game-changer for many schools, especially in rural areas,” she says. “Over the past several years, we have seen the focus of learning in many communities where EQT operates to focus more on techniques like Project-based Learning. And the outcomes are proving to be very successful at all grade levels.”
“It’s that type of education that will help to make these students skilled assets to the workforce in years to come.”
A new approach to educator learning
The initiative has also influenced ASSET’s approach to educator learning.
“This program has reinforced just how important implementation support is for educators taking on new challenges,” says ASSET executive director Sarah Toulouse. “Especially now, educators deserve professional learning opportunities that are relevant, adaptable, and accessible.”
Toulouse says that moving forward, ASSET will be focused on remote coaching and learning to help educators build skills and confidence in self-identified areas of practice.
“We are grateful to the EQT Foundation for providing this growth opportunity to educators in Carmichaels Area School District as well as us here at ASSET,” says Toulouse. “It is up to all of us to reimagine the future of teaching and learning, and partnerships like this empower us to work together.”