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Put student passions at center of learning

By Lisa Abel-Palmieri 3/9/2015 Project-based learning STEM & STEAM Flipped learning

The key to engaging students in authentic, engaging and meaningful project-based learning is making projects relevant to students. As educators, we’ve been taught that project-based learning starts with a well-defined driving question. However, when a challenge question is firmly written with little room to shift focus, student engagement often wanes.

The strongest project-based learning experiences use design thinking as a framework to solve problems through a “people-centered” lens. Pairing the design process with project-based learning allows students to define their own driving questions. Once students are immersed in a self-defined problem, it becomes more meaningful, relevant and real.

At The Ellis School, an all-girls school in Pittsburgh where I am the director of the Learning Innovation Institute, we have found this approach significantly increases student interest, confidence, leadership and core content knowledge.

Design thinking drives hands-on PBL

When planning the shift from a more passive, lecture-driven lesson to a more active, hands-on project-based learning lesson, we use design methods from the Stanford d.School as well as the LUMA Institute.

Typically, many faculty will work with our Learning Innovation Institute to help plan a new project. Most projects use 6-8 design methods, and they can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. When they can’t meet face to face, students interact with each other using the discussion boards within our Haiku Learning Management System. That flexibility is possible because we’ve remixed class space and class time with blended learning and the flipped classroom approach.

Group work and effective collaboration are essential pieces of cultivating student passions. In our upper school, we create teams based on student strengths using the Gallup StrengthsFinder. Students learn how to best use their strengths, and they practice project skills, such as creating Gantt charts and weekly “status update” reports. Our school permits students to use their own devices or check one out from the school, and they decide which digital media format they will use to solve their challenge.

Real-world experience

As students complete projects in middle school to early upper school, they gain skill and ultimately are paired with real clients. Some are in the Pittsburgh community, while others are global partners in places like Haiti, Kenya and Cameroon. When students pursue their passions for real clients, build empathy for each other, learn how to fail fast and take calculated risks, they gain the skills to be innovators and change agents. This style of project-based learning that infuses design thinking at the core leads to highly individualized, personalized and meaningful learning opportunities.

Here are a few of our favorite design methods to engage students and increase their passion for project-based learning:

What’s On Your Radar. Teams of 3-4 students use a bulls-eye diagram with three rings and between 4-6 pie slices to think about their priorities around a certain topic or theme. Give students a prompt that ties to your learning objectives for the project using a “how might we” question. This method can take anywhere from 20-60 minutes, depending on the number of ideas generated. Students take stock of the key priorities identified in the center ring and negotiate on ideas to move forward with exploring. They own the process and the outcome.

Interviewing and Learning Walks. Don’t assume students know how to interview. Teach them how to develop interview questions, critique a mock interview and analyze results to determine the themes that emerge from their research. We call the theme-analysis process “affinity clustering.” Alternatively, have half of the class or part of the group take “learning walks,” where they practice observation skills and record them in a journal. We like using Google Docs to keep digital records that are sharable to the teacher and other teammates.

Creative Matrix. In a recent design-based project in AP Biology, students spent time (approximately three, 80-minute classes plus a 90-minute field trip) determining the key issues on our campus related to environmental sustainability. At the top of the matrix, they listed things like recycling, composting, facilities and utilities, while the left side of the matrix listed new products, new services, events or wildcard for ideas that didn’t fit into the other three categories. The entire class broke into smaller groups and then generated ideas on sticky notes to fit each cell in the matrix. They then “visualized the vote” to pick their personalized project challenge statement and continued onto the rest of the project phases.

Using these design methods at the start of the project makes every student feel they have a voice. It contextualizes the topic and content, an important aspect of project-based learning, particularly for engaging girls. A combined approach to using digital media tools, design methods and allowing students to be agents of change will place their passions at the center of learning.

Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Ph.D., is the director of technology and innovation and head of computer science at The Ellis School. Connect with her on Twitter via @Learn21Tech.

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