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Community Involvement, Professional Development & Materials - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

From designing projects that address real problems to cultivating learning environments that inspire creativity and critical thinking, ASSET has long been a pioneer in supporting educators to adopt best practices in STEM education. The 2017 Trends Report from ASSET partner 100Kin10 confirms it.

Among its predictions for 2018, one trend that is expected to gain momentum is integrating STEM with real-world applications—something we’ve been doing for several years with project-based learning (PBL). We’ve recently enhanced the program with teacher externships, which provide opportunities for teachers to visit STEM professionals in the workplace in order to make PBL experiences relevant for students. And ASSET continues to equip educators and students with tools for success through professional development courses and STEM curriculum materials.

Compared to classroom instruction, PBL has been shown to increase long-term retention and sharpen 21st-century skills like problem-solving and collaboration. In the first iteration of the externship program, 25 local teachers and administrators were paired with professionals representing companies including Chevron and Consol Energy, where they designed projects that brought topics like geology and game design to life.

After the first round of externships in August 2017, one teacher told us, “I learned in depth what PBL really is, plus a ton about how it relates to future real-world experiences.”

And David Bajek, a senior geologist from Chevron, engaged fifth-grade students at Tenth Street Elementary School in the Riverview School District with examples from their own backyards: They learned about the role the Allegheny River played in shaping the topography of Oakmont.

Another prediction? The importance of school culture will be widely recognized.

To have a positive impact on student learning, it is necessary to create a healthy climate in which teachers and students are engaged and participants on both sides understand that failure as they problem-solve is part of the learning process.

In a 2016 Education Week blog post, author, presenter and former K-5 public school principal Peter DeWitt suggests that we won’t be successful in instilling creativity, critical thinking, collaboration or communication skills in schools where the climate that doesn’t address the needs of all students.

He believes that teachers and school administrators who focus on establishing a supportive and inclusive environment create a setting where all students can take risks and learn. 

Educator, consultant and author Tom Hieck agrees. In his book, “Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom,” Hieck writes:

Creating a positive classroom environment is messy, uneven, complex, and necessary for all teachers to engage in. At its most rewarding, it provides opportunities for teachers to have rich dialogue with their students as they collectively work to create environments that produce high levels of success for all students. At its most challenging, it creates frustration for teachers as they deal with factors related to demographics, home characteristics, and the existing school culture. At both extremes, maintaining a focus on the learning environment is critical.

Students in healthy learning environments benefit from higher levels of engagement, a stronger sense of ownership over their learning, curiosity, retention of important concepts and the development of persistence—or “grit.” And the importance of grit can’t be overstated: According to psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, grit was the single characteristic that emerged as a significant predictor of success among a range of people facing challenging situations, from National Spelling Bee participants to West Point cadets.

The concept of Three Dimensional Learning from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) provides a framework for understanding the level of engagement students need in order to apply science, technology,  engineering and mathematics  to everyday phenomena. STEM is truly everywhere—from the sunrise and weather patterns to the mechanisms that come into play when we open or close a drawer.

And the benefits of a healthy learning environment also have a positive impact on educators. In a healthy learning environment, teachers find honest, caring and respectful relationships within a culture of trust and respect where achievement is recognized and celebrated. Collaboration is encouraged and communication is free-flowing, and educators are provided with the technology and financial and human resources necessary to accomplish their goals.

As in any healthy organization, one major benefit of a healthy learning environment is retention. When teachers are happy, teachers are engaged. And engaged teachers stoke students’ curiosity, thus retaining their engagement.  

Every day we’re learning more about the many ways healthy learning environments foster ownership of the learning process and engagement with curricula. The support ASSET offers around pedagogical concepts like Three Dimensional Learning, PBL and inquiry-based methods creates a solid foundation on which educators can build healthy learning environments in their own schools. 

But this is just the beginning. As 2018 unfolds, we’ll continue looking for ways to support teachers, answer their questions and challenge them to put ownership over learning in their students’ hands.