Changing Our Learning Stories: Discovery, Connection, Engagement in K-12 STEM Learning Environments
By Christy Ziegler, PhD, Shawnee Mission School District
What happens when a district provides access to an active elementary STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum coupled with a sizable, one-to-one digital learning initiative in a district of nearly 28,000 students? You begin to witness the following over a relatively short period of time:
- Depth of learning increases across the grade levels as students discover new information and explore project work.
- The youngest of learners are observed contributing their articulate voices when engaged in sharing their work with others.
- Students advocate for personalized learning; identifying the content and vehicle for their learning paths.
- Teachers gain inspiration and deep belief from bearing witness to high levels of engagement and inquiry in their learners.
- Overall, abundant and inspiring stories are captured.
Figure 1: Shawnee Mission School District Logo
The spring of 2014 marked the start of the Digital Learning Initiative in the Shawnee Mission School District. The initiative began with the introduction of iPads and Macbook Airs for every educator. First, the adults learned to navigate the new devices with intentional training as the district set sail on the Digital Learning Initiative; a sizable one-to-one learning implementation. As students returned to school in August 2014, iPad (elementary) and laptop (secondary) deployment occurred for nearly 28,000 learners. The first days with the devices brought a focus on digital citizenship while setting expectations for use and desired behavior. Instruction and conversation focused learners on the topics of safety, respect, and responsibility with expanded access to information, resources, and communication tools. In Fall of 2014, three elementary learning communities also began piloting the Project Lead the Way Launch STEM curriculum. In 2015, the district expanded the STEM curriculum to include seven volunteer learning communities with all remaining (23) schools joining the curriculum implementation in 2016.
The degree of discovery, connection and engagement these projects brought our learners and educators has been simply inspiring and continues to generate innovation across the system. The following provides a few lessons learned in our elementary level (kindergarten through sixth grade) reflection of the respective work.
As the number of student devices and access to information has grown, the number of apps, integration strategies, and amount of authentic student project work have increased. Initially, technology integration began with many substitution level tasks; replacing a paper-pencil task with technology as measured on the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) levels (Puentedura, 2014). Eventually, integration began to develop into deeper teaching and learning transformations as students and teachers gained comfort and confidence with the new tools and shared examples of integration stories.
Student projects paved the way to Genius Hours; a block of time when students are encouraged to identify a passion project, set goals, research the topic, and either fully develop a project artifact or report out on their findings. Genius projects lead to connections outside the walls of the classroom as elementary aged students utilized tools like FaceTime and Cisco WebEx to connect with experts in the given field. A team of 5th graders from Rosehill Elementary School received national recognition by the ExploraVision Competition for their conceptual development of a 3D printer that would lead to the production of a viable liver (Lipoff, 2015). Their curiosity was spurred by a project interview of a physician from Children’s Mercy Medical Center who met with the young learners and explained his field of specialization; childhood liver disease. Upon learning that for many children suffering with liver disease, transplants can be the only life saving option, the students determined their project would focus on the development of a 3D printer to produce a liver. They researched their technological design as well as the medical science behind organ donation and eventually conceptualized a new model 3D printer that would require three components: two would focus on the accurate placement of the cells as the device printed and the third would provide a nutrient source in hydrogel to make certain the printed cells would remain alive until transplantation. Deep levels of rigor and problem solving resulted from the opportunity to learn and develop through student-centered project work.
Figure 2: The LT3D - Liver Transplant Three Dimensional
A second facet of discovery is evident in the increasing presence of makerspaces and corresponding exploratory learning in schools. The Maker Movement builds on the student projects and provides the opportunity to apply information literacy skills in new ways. Sites like Instructables.com, Pinterest.com, and YouTube.com opened huge doorways to inquisitive students motivated to build or create something new based on their research of tools and resources as well as the development and completion of project plans.
In Fall 2015, students at Bluejacket Flint Elementary participated in the global Hour of Code event. All classes engaged in exploring coding via apps and resources provided by the Hour of Code website (www.hourofcode.com). In signing the school up to participate, Bluejacket Flint Instructional Coach, Michelle Brown, entered the school into an application for a $10,000 grant directed at creating a makerspace for the students and teachers. On December 7, 2015, the school received notification they were selected to receive the special award. A team was immediately formed that included students, parents, teachers and the building leader. Their task; identify the materials that would be a part of the first elementary makerspace in the district. As a result, the school now has a very flexible and creative space for makers that includes STEM materials as well as creative arts and craft supplies, a Lego(TM) wall, sewing and cooking stations. Parents participate with their children in regular STEM evening events where families gather to “Make Together”. The Bluejacket-Flint makerspace continues to serve as a wonderful model for schools seeking to develop a space and place for maker exploration and family engagement.
The overwhelming positives that result from project based learning opportunities and the maker movement have brought opportunities to demonstrate discovery, perseverance, and also generate a sense of accomplishment in our students; particularly in those learners who have not always found learning or the traditional learning environment a relevant or supportive place.
Twenty-first century learners crave connection. However, they connect and communicate in different ways than educators may have previously understood or valued. Never has digital citizenship been more important as our students utilize communication tools like Messages and FaceTime to text and video chat with peers on topics that include homework help, project support, and personal communications. What is different today with even intermediate age (grades 4-6) learners is that they are accustomed to use text messages to ask questions of peers and adults alike. Some educators embrace this possibility while others can find it challenging to navigate and control.
These tools can bring transformative capabilities to education when explored with intentionality to a task. During the 2016 school year, the district increased teacher access to the Cisco Digital Education Platform. This brought an expanded opportunity for educators to utilize Cisco collaborative tools including WebEx and a newly released collaboration app, Spark. In reviewing utilization data, a case study emerged in a sixth grade classroom at Westwood View Elementary. Teacher Angela Harris began incorporating WebEx into her daily instruction for students learning Pre-Algebra. Ms. Harris created a WebEx classroom where her students could connect to her lessons while in the class but also from outside the school in the event of an absence. An added benefit was that now, instead of every learner directing attention to a projected image on the wall, their learner attention was directed to the image displayed on their own screen. Students shared they could see the lesson better when it was placed on their device, at their fingertips.
When a substitute teacher was assigned to the class, Ms. Harris received messages one evening from her students with questions and confusion about the content from the lesson taught by the substitute teacher earlier in the day. With a quick message to students alerting them that she would be in the WebEx classroom that evening, students were able to connect remotely with their teacher, reviewed a reteaching of the content and continued on the learning path without missing a beat. In this case, not only did we see an innovative teacher embracing creative possibilities but also students taking responsibility for their learning, using their voice to advocate a need, and embracing the capabilities of collaborative tools - while in sixth grade. Connection is important and can be accomplished in many ways. The technology tools continue to improve the landscape in helping K-12 educators connect and improve learning possibilities.
Through the previous examples, we’ve established that learners moving up in the education system are taking increasing responsibility for their learning. In generating opportunities for engagement, we continue to realize the importance of connection. Students seek relevance in relating the content to the world and their future. They place importance in identifying the “WHY” behind the learning task and they value the presence of challenge in a project as well as the identification of meaning in their work. To expand on these components, Dr. Ruben Puentedura presents on the importance of the Ed Tech Quintet detailing powerful teaching practices that support engagement of learners in STEM and technology-integrated learning opportunities (2017). When incorporated into teaching and learning, the quintet work to increase learner engagement by including opportunities for:
- Socialization - Communication, collaboration, and sharing information,
- Mobility - Anytime, anyplace learning and creation,
- Visualization - Making abstract concepts easier to connect,
- Storytelling - Providing knowledge and passing it on to others, and
- Gaming - Incorporating challenge, motivation, and formative assessment opportunities
When designing learning opportunities for students, including elements of the quintet can help increase engagement in any learning task and provide educators an updated framework to support future instructional development incorporating technology and STEM-related learning.
Educators are also engaging in different ways. Through expanded use of social media, teachers have told their own powerful stories of learning and growth by tweeting their lessons and projects while engaging in continued collaboration with the focus on improvement. Edchats, hangouts, edcamps, and the 2017 debut of district supported teacher directed learning time have continued to support the development of expanded ideas and resources as well as a collaborative culture to directly impact the classroom. Education teams embody the notion that when engaging together with a focus on innovative practice, we all become better.
Discover, Connect, and Engage for The Future
The process of discovery, connection, and engagement has been a fulfilling one for the students, educators, and leadership teams across the learning community. With the right mindset and focus on continuous improvement, we will continue to see innovation in our future with technology integration practices as well as STEM learning. The world does not stop, nor does the advancement of technology, resources, innovative practice, and inquisitive minds. It is humbling to watch the progress and problem solving from our teacher leaders and also from amazing students as they research and discover new content, connect with peers and experts outside of the school walls, and engage in deep problem solving to reach monumental achievements . While our district framework includes a focus on rigor, relevance, and relationships, we must also understand that the framework when combined with resources and intentional instructional collaboration brings a successful formula for each learner.
Bartel, L., Gilliford, N., Jayasuriya, G., & Setty, C. (2016). L.T.3.D Liver Transplant Three Dimensional. Prairie Village, Kansas. (Presentation).
Lipoff, Beth. (2016, April 5). Students Look to Make a Liver with a 3-D Printer, Help Pandas. Kansas City Star. Retrieved from: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/community/joco-913/shawnee-lenexa/article70129967.html
Shawnee Mission School District Communications. (2015). Bluejacket-Flint Receives $10,000 STEM Grant for Hour of Code Participation. Retrieved from: http://bluejacketflint.smsd.org/news.aspx?id=4063
Puentedura, Rubin R. (2014). SAMR: A Contextualized Introduction. Keynote Slides. Retrieved from: http://hippasus.com/rrpweblog/archives/2014/01/15/SAMRABriefContextualizedIntroduction.pdf .
Puentedura, Rubin R. (2017). STEM and Learning, in the Context of SAMR and the EdTech Quintet. Keynote Slides. Retrieved from: http://hippasus.com/rrpweblog/archives/2017/05/STEMLearningContext_SAMR_ETQ.pdf
About the Author
Dr. Christy Ziegler proudly serves the Shawnee Mission School District as the Assistant Superintendent for Innovation and Performance. During her tenure with the district, she has previously served as the Director of STEM, as well as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction. Ziegler is a proven educational leader, with demonstrated excellence in the development, implementation and management of complex systemic projects. In 2014, Ziegler was part of a team in the Shawnee Mission School District that implemented a large 1:1 initiative supporting over 30,000 devices for students and staff. Recently, she facilitated one of the largest elementary school implementation projects of the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Launch curriculum, a K-5 STEM program made possible by development of strategic business and community partnerships. Dr. Ziegler has 18 years’ experience working in a leadership capacity in preK-12 education; with responsibilities ranging from curriculum, instruction, and assessment to technology systems management and adult professional learning. She holds a B.S. in Molecular Biology, an M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction, an M.S. in Educational Leadership, and Ph.D. in Special Education. She is @christyziegler on Twitter.
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