You are here

Friday, September 15, 2017

In August, ASSET STEM Education launched Project-based Learning through Teacher Externships, an innovative program aimed at matching educators with STEM professionals in order to connect classroom learning with real-world issues and problems.

Twenty-five educators gathered at ASSET over two days to engage in no-cost professional development exploring project-based learning (PBL) before being released to participate in half-day externships at STEM-related businesses where they would observe, first hand, the challenges their students likely will face in future careers and the knowledge and skills required to tackle these challenges, as well as opportunities to bridge classroom learning with the real world. To date, five educators have completed their externships and currently are receiving ongoing mentoring from their STEM professionals as they guide their students through a project around solving an actual industry problem.

Over the coming months, we will profile the educators and their STEM mentor professionals as we check in on their progress.

Candace Robick, Tim Kotch, and Shelley Ranii

Shelley Ranii of Alcoa; Tim Kotch of Norwin School District; and Candace Robick of Grand Canyon University

An educator-consultant with more than 20 years of experience inside and outside of the classroom, Candace Robick is CEO of Solutions Based Learning, which provides coaching and strategic learning solutions for corporations, schools, and home-based environments. She also serves as a faculty site supervisor for Grand Canyon University, working with preservice special education teachers and principal candidates. Robick earned her PhD in special education, leadership K–12, curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and holds four master’s degrees, including one in public management from Carnegie Mellon University. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English education from Washington & Jefferson College and holds multiple administrative certifications in Pennsylvania.

A 27-year veteran of public education, Tim Kotch is assistant superintendent of secondary education for his alma mater, Norwin School District, in North Huntingdon, Pa. Previously he served as principal and assistant principal as well as a mathematics and computer science teacher and department chair at Norwin High School. He began his teaching career as a middle school mathematics teacher in rural South Carolina after serving six years in the U.S. Army. Kotch earned his superintendent letter of eligibility certification from the University of Pittsburgh and currently is enrolled in the Doctor of Education Program at Pitt. He received his Master of Education and principal certification from California University of Pennsylvania, and he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Pitt and secondary mathematics education certification from Seton Hill University.

Now in her second year with Alcoa as manager of strategic planning and analysis, Shelley Ranii’s path back to her native Pittsburgh took her through Washington, D.C.—where she worked at The World Bank and the U.S. Department of Defense covering economic development and security-related issues—Mexico City, Mexico, with Grupo Financiero Banorte, and New York City, where she served as senior program coordinator of the Global Development Program at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. She holds a Master of Arts in international economics and international relations from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Arts cum laude in government from Harvard University.


 “I learned about the world through Alcoa,” says Candace Robick. Not bad for a half-day’s work.

An education consultant with a research interest and background in the areas of transition and preparing K–12 students to be college and career ready, Robick joined Tim Kotch, assistant superintendent in the Norwin School District, for an externship at Alcoa’s global headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa., as part of ASSET STEM Education’s Project-based Learning through Teacher Externships program, supported through Arconic Foundation. Shelley Ranii, manager of strategic planning and analysis, served as the educators’ host and tour guide, giving them an insider’s look at the company, which has served as the worldwide leader in the production of bauxite, alumina, and aluminum products since 1888.

Jars containing bauxite and alumina, which is smelted to make aluminum

Jars containing bauxite and alumina, which is smelted to make aluminum

The first hot metal produced at the Ras Al-Khair Aluminum Smelter 12 December 2012

“Our company is like a 129-year-old startup in some ways,” Ranii says. “It’s an exciting time to be here. We’re fairly large, about 14,000 people globally—at operating locations including Australia, Brazil, Europe, and Guinea, and an analytical office in China. We have a global footprint and a hometown headquarters.”

Alcoa’s global footprint in what has become a multibillion-dollar industry was of particular interest to Robick and Kotch, who share a commitment to preparing both educators and students for 21st-century careers, especially those in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Not only did they receive a tour of Alcoa’s headquarters office on the North Shore of Pittsburgh, they learned about how bauxite is mined and refined into alumina, which is in turn smelted to make aluminum; they participated in a weekly conference call Ranii holds with her strategy counterparts from all over the world; and they met with several of Ranii’s colleagues as well as with Roy Harvey, Alcoa’s president and CEO, to discuss specific qualities the corporation is seeking in new hires and how they might begin to prepare their students for careers at companies like Alcoa. Seeing these skills in action gave the educators a new perspective on their “real-world” application in the day-to-day of the corporate world.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me,” says Kotch. “I was very impressed with the global aspect of the work being done at Alcoa. They’re working 24 hours a day—they might leave at 5 p.m., having sent an email overseas to their colleagues in China who are monitoring the Asian markets and expect information back when they return in the morning.” The producer and consumer of more than half the world’s aluminum, China is of primary concern to Ranii and the rest of the strategy team, three of whom are located out of Shanghai and Beijing. “A lot of our day is spent getting up to date on the analyses they have put together,” Ranii says, “And we’re on a 12-hour time difference, so there are always some complications.”

Robick was struck by the interconnectedness and interdependence of Alcoa’s local and globally based teams. “They’re not just concerned about the production of aluminum but also the cost and the efficiency of their plants,” she says. “They’re constantly looking at how they’re viewed by different countries—how they obtain and represent data to the world and what the interpretation might be.”

Out of these observations and their conversations with Ranii, Harvey, and other hiring managers, Robick and Kotch produced a working list of skill sets and qualities they believe corporations like Alcoa are looking for in an ideal candidate. Both feel strongly that training teachers to emphasize these skills in the classroom through project-based learning, starting in the lower grades, is key to preparing students to succeed in the 21st-century workforce in a variety of occupations and careers that don’t yet exist. 

Alcoa wants basic things from their new hires, says Robick, and she believes these things reflect the “marriage between courses” that helps to create the most well-rounded students: “problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, analytical skills, writing skills—individuals who can communicate clearly and who are able to create and execute presentations,” she says. “Detail oriented. Good at multitasking. The ability to strategically plan and solve real problems, work in teams, give and receive feedback, make sure you have a driving question that can be formulated and adequately researched. Finally, not just technology skills but also the ability to read at a very high level, to look at expository texts that are highly technical and be able to easily read through them and interpret the information that lies therein.”

Kotch added to Robick’s list skills he says come directly out of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): “Asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking skills, constructing explanations (What story is the data telling us?), engaging in argument—communicating back and forth, obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information—these skills are emphasized in NGSS, and they are the same skills we saw in action within the team at Alcoa,” he says.

Ranii rounded out the list by stressing that the skill sets Alcoa’s hiring managers highlight time and time again are a mix of quantitative and qualitative—they want someone who is able to do work in either area. “I’m not afraid of numbers and to dig into an Excel spreadsheet, and that serves me extensively on a daily basis,” she says. “Everyone on the team has to be okay with dealing with numbers but also okay with things that are ‘fuzzier.’ Questions like ‘What is China going to do in terms of aluminum production?’ are very complex.

“In terms of what our team is looking for on the strategy level, it would be someone who can live in the ambiguous question area and is comfortable and confident using both qualitative and quantitative analytical tools to answer the complex questions to which corporate leadership wants to know the answers.”

Both Robick and Kotch are grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the Project-based Learning through Teacher Externships program, as it has given them a deeper understanding of how to more effectively incorporate project-based learning in the classroom so it truly informs students’ learning experiences in a real-world context through application. 


Anna Blake and Jon Martz


Heavily involved in both the Maker Movement and STEAM education, Anna Blake has spent the past three years as a general education teacher in Pittsburgh and West Virginia. She became interested in technology and project-based learning, which led her to pursue her current position: technology integrator at Elizabeth-Forward School District. A graduate of Washington & Jefferson College with a B.A. in English and theater, Blake received her MEd and elementary education certification from Duquesne University and has completed certifications at West Virginia University and Duquesne (K–12 instructional technology). “In the 21st-century classroom, children need personalized learning. Innovation and project-based learning go together in the modern classroom,” says Blake.


Jon Martz, currently a senior scientist, has worked for PPG Industries since 1982. An inventor on 41 U.S. patents and coinventor for many technologies, Martz received the 1994 PPG President's Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement for development of “Anhydride Crosslinked Fast Dry, Ambient Cure, Non-Isocyanate Refinish Technology.” He joined PPG as a research chemist at the Coatings Innovation Center and has progressed up the technical hierarchy, becoming an R&D group leader and scientist. He also has served for the past seven years on the advisory committee for the Laboratory Technician program at Bidwell Training Center on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Martz received a B.S. in chemistry from the State University of New York at Fredonia and a PhD in organic chemistry from the Pennsylvania State University. 


What drew you—personally and as a professional—to participate in the Project-based Learning through Teacher Externships program?

Blake: I have always been impressed by [the staff at] ASSET and their passion for project-based learning (PBL). As a technology integrator, I use project-based learning in my daily lesson planning. I feel strongly that education now hinges on personalized learning, and project-based learning facilitates that. I was blessed to have the opportunity to participate in the teacher externship.


Martz: I am always looking for ways to interact with and contribute to science education. 

What expectations about the program and/or preconceived ideas did you have prior to participating?

Blake: I think creativity is the hardest part of designing a project-based learning unit. I feel that this teacher externship opportunity gave me the ability to go out into the STEM field and see exactly what scientists do on a daily basis. Giving a teacher a challenge to get out of the classroom can provide him or her with the right amount of creativity to form ideas about problems and challenges that students could solve in the classroom setting and beyond.

Martz: I can’t say I had many expectations or preconceived ideas regarding STEM education. In general, the science community sees the need to promote and foster STEM education. In some ways, I am not sure the supply of STEM professionals will keep up the expected future need. 

Describe the process so far from your perspective.

Martz: It has been very informalI spent a half day with Anna providing a tour of the PPG Coatings Innovation Center research facility in Allison Park [Pa.] prior to my orientation.

Walk us through the day of the externship. 

Blake: I was blessed to be matched with Jon Martz, who gave me the most inspiring tour of his facility. From meeting his colleagues to learning about initiatives at PPG, I continually discussed problem-based learning with Jon. From his colleagues commenting on what they did daily, I learned that this idea of problem-based learning isn’t a fad but rather a job qualification that my students will need to fulfill to work at an innovative company like PPG. From learning that Jon Martz designed my Transitions [lenses] in my glasses, I realized that product design and usability is what directly connects to interest.

Martz: I provided an overview of PPG, trends driving innovation at PPG, the research done at Allison Park, and resources available. I also shared elements about new product development. As we walked around the facility, we informally interviewed other chemists during our tour to hear their stories about how they became interested in science.

Describe your project. 

Blake: I am still connecting and discussing my PBL design with Jon Martz, but my initial externship at PPG sparked my creativity for the premise of PBL. My PBL project revolves around a problem for which children will design the solution in a Shark Tank-like manner. I feel strongly that problem-based learning is ideal in an elementary school setting. I want this project to solve a problem in the community. I feel that bringing that idea to elementary-age children is the best way to inspire innovation at a young age. I was very interested in how Jon Martz detailed how PPG designs and incorporates solutions to problems such as holes in a spaceship. With that in mind, I want my students to think about how to design a sustainable way to prevent leaks in a boat. I plan to differentiate the materials and premise throughout grade levels K-5. I feel that this problem might morph as Jon Martz as I continue to think about the design process, but I feel strongly that problem-based learning is the heart of my project.

What are your expectations/plans for the remainder of the program? 

Blake: I enjoy meeting with colleagues and getting their opinions and ideas on my project. I plan on keeping in touch with Jon Martz and developing my PBL project for my school district.

Martz: My expectations are to be kept informed about the classroom activities and potentially visit Anna’s school.

How will you measure success?

Blake: I feel that measuring success with a PBL project relies on what objectives you want to accomplish. For my project, I want children to understand the design process, develop an original product, and present it to the class. Through these three objectives, every child could present a different project, which I feel is the true definition of personalized 21st-century learning.

Martz: That is a good question. I followed up with Anna about writing down her expectations and goals for this externship, so that we can meet or attain them. One of the tools for development, accountabilities, and projects uses the SMART acronym (specific, measurable, achievable/attainable, realistic and time-bound).

What is your overall impression of the program? Has it changed any of the preconceived ideas you had? How has it helped you (educator) in the classroom? How likely are you to recommend this program to a colleague?

Blake: I feel that the program has taught me that creativity and learning do not stop at the doors of a classroom. Going out in the field that you want to help children to enter into can only spur more ideas. Inspiring children in the next generation is a tough task when we ourselves as educators do not know what jobs these children will have. Taking the time, thinking creatively, and working collaboratively with STEM mentors such as Jon Martz helps to facilitate opportunities to contribute to that 21st-century learning.

Martz: From my interaction with Anna, there is a great amount of enthusiasm regarding this program. A number of associates at PPG’s research centers are involved in science education. I think others would be interested in this type of program. I could share my experience and encourage others to participate.