by Jorge Valenzuela
I am a father, lifelong learner and educator. I have served as a teacher and instructional specialist for the past 13 years and hold both computer science and administrative credentials. Currently, I supervise the Technology and Engineering Education program at Richmond Public Schools and serve school division priorities with STEM leadership projects that connect K-12 classrooms to higher education and the workforce. This past school year, I earned the honor of being named a distinguished STEM educator by the Teachers College at Columbia University by earning the NASA Endeavor STEM Teaching Certificate. In addition, I am a certified Project Lead the Way, Design and Modeling teacher. I am also committed to empowering educators with the tools needed for preparing students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to be college, career, and life ready.
In my current capacity of instructional specialist, I am responsible for the professional development, instructional tools and resources for the teachers under my supervision. In efforts to also provide teachers support for how to utilize the tools and resources, I use PBL as an instructional approach for modeling best practices for them.
What inspires me most about PBL is the empowerment students feel when they are able to connect classroom content with issues that impact both them and their community. They learn by doing but also reflection for metacognition, which I believe provides students the ability to know themselves on a much deeper level.
Our STEM Projects
Our engineering program in Richmond has produced many graduates and several have returned and often offer testimonials affirming how vital the skills they earned by participating in this and other projects have been to their post-secondary successes. Although this makes our teachers very proud, the most gratifying testimony to me is seeing students engaged and being able to articulate how our project connected their learning to their other classes or a personal passion, or their community. As a supervisor of Technology and Engineering Education (TEE) teachers, I collaborate with teachers to implement real-world open-ended challenges that are part of bigger projects with several other student products for students to create (in addition to the design challenge). Our projects typically have 3-4 major products: the design challenge, data collection, an engineering notebook entry, and a public presentation.
I truly enjoy seeing students engaged in engineering design challenges. Some of these challenges call for students to design a structure or a mode of transportation, or use their design thinking skills to solve a real-world problem. Students participating in our project also completed an entry in their engineering notebook. In order to document their race car design and data collection at various stages, we intentionally chose verbs that identify higher order thinking skills such as: Specify, Predict, Synthesize, Interpret, Summarize, and Verify and required our students to utilize them during research, technical writing and reflection (in the engineering notebook). This also assisted them with thinking and writing critically in their other classes as well.
In one particular project, one of our major student products was having students design and make a land mode of transportation. The driving questions our students answered were differentiated based on products they wanted to make. Data collection to complement the mode of transportation was essential and for students who were designing a racecar, their driving question was, “How can we as engineers design a CO2 Dragster that is aerodynamic and will have the least amount of frontal drag in a wind tunnel?”
Our school division made this project (and others) public through social media, and as a department we also have our engineering students publicly present their work to professionals and members of the community. Per word of mouth about our students’ work, some of our students were even invited to showcase for Virginia’s Governor at a Chamber of Commerce event in Richmond, and also for the Secretary of Education and policy makers at the General Assembly.
How we evolved in our PBL thinking
Model making is a student performance in Virginia’s competencies for the Technology and Engineering Education program. However, initially we often regarded the models or other products students were creating as the actual “project.” At times, these completed products (ranging from modes of transportations, benches, structures, etc.) were mainly a result of students following a set of directions and not the solving of a real world, open-ended problem.
By beginning to connect our projects to our community, we were able to inform students of how the content and skills they’re learning in our competencies and standards are authentically applied to solve real problems in the workplace. This resulted in more buy-in from students, and by conducting surveys at the conclusion of field trips or after some actual work we received better feedback into their interests. This has been very helpful for framing future projects.
Having our students answer a driving question of their own choice also ensured that their completion of both tasks and products was an iterative process of asking questions and collecting data. We found this to hold true during the production process of their products and many were eventually able to differentiate what data to collect and how to display it. Data for the mass criteria of their product or even for frontal drag in a wind tunnel became more meaningful for our students to interpret. Amalgamation of other content areas (like math and science) to their learning of Technology and Engineering also became more apparent by answering driving questions.
My work with BIE
I am extremely dedicated in assisting educators to enhance their practice, by conducting effective and transformative Gold Standard PBL professional development for BIE. In my role as a National Faculty member, my workshops have been attended by a mix of young and seasoned educators, university professors and school administrators all working together to connect the classroom content to the lives of their students. Leading colleagues through an actual project and offering a systematic approach to introducing and ending it provides all of us the experience of learning and reflecting on best practices. The best feeling is to come back for a sustained support visit and see evidence of quality student work, along with testimonials of how their learning was impacted by PBL!
Refining our instructional practice requires dedication and willingness to learn and try new things. It’s not an easy endeavor, but necessary and also the right thing to do for our students. I recommend that we work in such a way that we inspire our young people to learn as much as they can. With sincerity and patience, they will acquire the necessary skills to do the work that they are passionate about while sharing their gifts with others.
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