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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. The first educator-mentor pair is Anna V. Blake, technology integrator at Elizabeth-Forward School District, and Jon Martz, senior scientist at PPG Industries.

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.