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Community Involvement - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Students in Sue Mellon's class examine air quality using a Speck particulate monitor.

From building toothpick-and-marshmallow bridges to testing classroom air quality with a Speck particulate monitor, Project-based Learning (PBL) engages students in answering questions about complex phenomena in their everyday lives.

Students develop important 21st-century skills through PBL, including research, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, analysis, presentation and clear written communication.

“What also happens in the collaborative environment is the opportunity for students to learn from each other and hopefully contribute to a team effort in an area that they may not feel they have a lot of skill,” says ASSET Executive Director, Dr. Cynthia Pulkowski. “Because the students are taking more ownership over their own learning, the project should be accessible to all students, allowing them to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter in multiple ways.”

And these skills don’t just benefit them as students—they’re also in high demand from employers, who are seeking these higher-level abilities alongside a general understanding of their content areas.

In fact, at the 2016 U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, Boeing’s former CTO, John Tracy, said that beyond a basic grasp of the sciences, his company looks for people with soft skills like persuasion and the ability to work on a team. Those abilities, he added, “are just as important as the fundamentals of engineering.”

That’s why ASSET enriched its PBL programming last fall with teacher externships, an added component that places educators from all disciplines in the field to observe STEM mentors at work. With generous funding from Arconic Foundation and additional support from Chevron, Covestro and PPG, the program matched 25 educators with more than 20 professionals at nine local companies.

“What is most impactful to me,” says Pulkowski, “is when the educator can add to the list of skills from the time spent with the mentor, such as analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematical and computational thinking, constructing explanations and engaging in argumentation. Hopefully the PBL with teacher externships provides a deeper understanding for the educator resulting in a deeper awareness of the transformative skills for the student.”

She believes ASSET’s PBL program speaks to the importance of ‘student voice and choice.’ And, if executed according to the current research and best practices, Pulkowski adds, PBL “can be a force for creating classroom equity and accessibility.”

ASSET is building on the results of the pilot project to cultivate new relationships between educators and the private sector.

Six months in, we’re seeing teachers apply PBL in innovative ways—whether they’re using the engineering design process to build bridges or empowering students to guide their own research on earth science topics and indoor air quality.  

After completing an externship with 9th Grade Science Physical Teacher Maggie Pentz, and PPG Research Chemist Kristin Nuzzio, 5-8 STEM Teacher Stacie Perez implemented a bridge-building PBL unit in her classroom. The students began by studying the history of bridge development, then analyzed various bridge types and explored the structures in depth through videos and games. After they researched factors that influence bridge strength and stability, the class participated in a design challenge, producing a variety of bridges to withstand weight.

“We were able to find the mean, median, mode and range of the amount of paperclips that each bridge could withstand and were even able to make some general observations from our data,” says Perez, who teaches, along with Pentz, at Liberty Local Schools in Youngstown, Ohio. “Even though I chose our topic and provided the students with a challenge, the students were able to use their imagination and create unique bridges that actually served a purpose.”

Perez says the externship experience—which also gave her and Pentz an opportunity to interact with other PPG staff, including Senior Scientist Jon Martz and Formulations Chemist Victor Georgic—highlighted diverse opportunities in STEM.

“We may not know what specific jobs we are preparing our 21st-century learners for, but we are certain that we can teach them the skills that will enable them to be competitive in future job markets,” she says.

When asked what experiences from their K-12 school years have been most helpful in their current jobs, PPG employees said writing skills, collaboration and comfort with failure were essential.

“All of the above mentioned skill sets are valuable to our students in our classrooms,” says Perez. “Giving them the opportunity to participate in PBL will aid in developing a growth mindset, teaching them persistence, inquiry and resilience.”

Christina Lockard also used the engineering design process to steer her students’ PBL unit. In the past, she had required her middle school students to participate in a second-semester research project on an earth science topic of their choosing, “but students never got very passionate about the assignment,” Lockard says.

“The PBL training inspired me to step this project up a few notches and find a better way to make this project more meaningful for my students,” adds Lockard, a high school science teacher in the Commonwealth Connections Academy cyber charter school.

After working with Senior Research Chemist Peter Lukus at PPG, Lockard came away with the understanding that a strong background in science can be used in many ways.

“The key to being successful in this field,” she says, “lies in the ability to problem-solve and be creative.”

Following the engineering design process, Lockard’s students defined a problem, brainstormed solutions, came up with a plan and found ways to make, test and improve their designs. Dr. Lukus Skyped with the students in December to give them some background on the scientific process and emphasize the importance of creativity.

“So far, I am seeing more interest in the project than I have in the past, and more willingness to take risks,” says Lockard. She was excited to see her students choose projects based on interests that hit close to home. For instance, a student who lives in rural Pennsylvania, near the West Virginia border, is researching the effects of coal mining on local streams. Another student is examining ways to reduce landfill waste through the use of microbes or other natural methods and others are learning about technologies to reduce carbon emissions.

At Allegheny Valley School District, Sue Mellon has been collaborating with 11th Grade English Teacher Kelly McConville at on a project related to indoor air quality. Through the project, the teachers introduced the students to Speck particulate monitors, which they used to examine air quality under various conditions, including a room sprayed with Febreze air freshener.

Mellon, a gifted support coordinator, believes that interdisciplinary research enriches the experience of her students, who used STEM skills like analytical thinking along with collaborative communication and language skills.

Through an externship at Alcoa, she was paired with Ceramics Manufacturing Manager and Materials Engineer Rob Shanta.

Mellon credits the experience with enhancing her lesson plans, which she says “support the notion of turning data into stories.”

She adds, “I was able to go and see real scientists and hear about how important critical thinking and problem-solving is in their jobs.”

Though students are only halfway through their PBL experience, she has already noticed its impact. Mellon says their presentations demonstrate a strong level of engagement and the project has sparked their curiosity as well.

Lockard has seen similar growth in her students.

“The idea of brainstorming and coming up with their own solutions was initially scary for them, but once they opened up, they got creative and are enjoying the process,” she says.

According to Pulkowski, it has been rewarding to see how the first group of students and teachers is applying PBL to real-world problem-solving in physical and virtual classrooms.

“We’re thankful to the PPG Foundation for providing additional funding for our next cohort of teachers, who will begin the program in March. We look forward to learning about and sharing their experiences!” adds Pulkowski.