by Rich Lehrer
I am a veteran middle school STEM teacher who is a firm believer in the transformative power for students and teachers of authentic global PBL experiences. I started my teaching career teaching STEM in public schools on the West Coast of Canada, and then headed to American international schools in both Venezuela and Brazil for eleven years before moving to the U.S. nine years ago. From 2007-2015 I taught 8th grade science and 6th grade global studies at Brookwood School in Massachusetts, where I also co-led a school-wide PBL faculty professional development initiative from 2012-2014.
Next year I will be moving out of the classroom for the first time in 26 years in order to divide my time between being Brookwood’s Innovation Coordinator and the Educators’ Exchange Coordinator for a non-profit called the Enable Community Foundation. The ECF is a 501(c)(3) foundation that uses technology, including 3D printing and web-based social entrepreneurship platforms, to develop and deploy hyper-affordable prosthetic devices in a safe, sustainable manner to underserved populations of congenital and traumatic upper limb amputees worldwide, while also using innovations in STEM education and training to build related community capacity and economic development.
Additionally, I have also been serving as an advisor for WGBH’s web-based global engineering education initiative, “Design Squad Global,” and for the past five years have been working with MIT’s D-Lab to adapt their humanitarian engineering philosophy to a Middle School audience. I have been a BIE National Faculty member for two years.
How I Got Into PBL
As a student, I recall being very frustrated by schooling that did not seem to relate to the real world. To ask why we were learning something was to be considered insolent and when I became a teacher I resolved that I would always be completely transparent with students about the reasons why I was asking them to spend their precious time engaged in a given activity, lesson, unit, or project. Without even knowing what PBL was, I could feel myself drawn to this methodology: one where students accept responsibility for learning, where teachers are partners in the process, where products are public and involve answers and solutions to authentic questions and problems, and where students are immersed in meaningful educational experience in order to learn valuable skills and content that will serve them well, regardless of what the future held for them.
My teaching philosophy took a notable change direction when, in 2011, I came across the work of Amy Smith and MIT’s D-Lab and learned more about their model of using authentic problem solving to teach engineering concepts. I realized that authentic STEM work could be the key to connecting students to their school, community, and to their world and we set about co-designing the “Brookwood Efficient Cookstove Project” that connected students in Rwanda, Brazil, Uganda, and the U.S. through the designing and testing of small efficient biomass stoves.
Since then, I have created a number of authentic STEM initiatives at our school, including a project that had my students building a 3D printed prosthetic for my son, Max, a project that ultimately launched me and Brookwood into the work of the Enable Community Foundation. This past year, I collaborated with a colleague to leverage the interest we have generated in authentic problem solving through 3D printing to create a 6th grade purposeful designing course that centers around students engaging in problems in need of a 3D designed solution generated by members of our school community and residents of a local seniors’ affordable housing residence.
Without a doubt, my most profound experience as a teacher was the project that I led with a group of 8th grade students in 2013 in which we tried to answer the driving question “How do we build a functioning prosthetic for a 3 year old child?” The project ran over the course of the year and because we were one of the first schools to undertake this work we felt that we were breaking ground at every step. Additionally, because I had involved my young son in the final student product, the stakes felt very high...but so too was the potential for profound learning and student engagement. This was not a project in an academic course, but was run as a student/teacher club, but the lessons we learned and the profound experiences we had (including the sharing of the final device with Max) have laid the groundwork for hundreds of schools to become involved in the 3D printed prosthetic movement.
In 2015, Brookwood science teacher, Annie Johnson, and I decided to address the lagging interest in 3D designing we were seeing from our female students by creating “D-Zign Girlz”: a one week, 35-hour “deep dive” for 6th and 7th grade girls into the world of authentic community problem solving through 3D printing. The driving question, “Can we use empathy and design skills to create effective solutions to people’s actual problems?” was answered when students iterated and created solutions to teacher problems posted to our school’s 3D Design Problem Bank, when they invented purpose built attachments for Max’s latest 3D printed assistive device, and when we headed for 3 consecutive days to Harborlight House, a seniors’ residence down the road from Brookwood, where students got to know a small group of residents, found out about the sorts of challenges they were facing in their daily lives, and ultimately designed, iterated, created and shared their actual solutions. In the upcoming 2016/2017 school year we will be implementing a scaled up version of this work as a PBL unit in our 6th grade science class.
My favorite recent 8th grade PBL science unit was called “Energize!", a project in which my physical science student investigated, built, and then innovated upon small electrical devices built from scratch that they then used to teach 3rd graders at our school about energy conversions. Students worked in groups of 3 researching and building such devices as generators, wind turbines, water turbines, simple motors, and small speakers...all from scratch. As they learned the physical concepts related to electricity, energy conversions, efficiency, friction, electricity generation, and motor functioning, they also had the opportunity to innovate improvements and extensions to their devices, often using 3D designing and printing skills.
The culminating public sharing of the student products was an event in which 8th grade students created stations in our school’s Town Hall through which their 3rd grade buddies cycled in order to learn about three of the six devices that 8th grade groups had been creating. This final public piece of being charged with teaching 3rd grade students the concepts they had been studying through their “Energize” devices proved to be highly motivating for the 8th grade students.
Lesson Learned about School Structure
When I first started pioneering authentic STEM PBL as a vehicle for engaging my students in community and global collaborative problem solving, I assumed that everyone, from my colleagues to the parents of my students, would be as enthusiastic and “on-board” regarding this work as my students I were. However, attempts to bring this innovative work into my 8th grade course and integrate it with other disciplines were challenging as inflexible schedules, fairly conventional programming, parent concerns about secondary school preparation, and incredibly packed student lives made it difficult to realize the potential of this work.
I realized that if I were able to use informal contact time with students, including clubs, leadership groups, after school programming, and Brookwood’s spring “Steep Week” experiential ed program, as a “proving ground” for this work I would be able to provide students with deep educational experiences, find work-arounds for many of the logistical and programming challenges of this work, build capacity for this work with our faculty, and create a critical mass for community interest and enthusiasm for this type of work that we could eventually leverage to move this work into teachers’ courses and students’ academic lives.
My Work with BIE
My work with BIE has been exclusively focused on facilitating PBL 101 workshops. I have led workshops with teachers and school leaders representing all disciplines and all grade levels from Pre-K to 12th grade and never cease to be amazed by the abilities of excellent teachers to adapt PBL to their specific teaching situation in order to promote student engagement, deep understanding of student learning goals, and highly authentic and public student products. BIE’s increasing focus on the role of authenticity in PBL projects is directly in line with my own experiences with what works for students and I am excited about the direction this work is pushing education, both in- and outside of the U.S.
Students have never had as much potential to “make a difference” as they do now. By incorporating the learning of rigorous content and invaluable success skills into deep and meaningful educational experiences, schools empower students and allow them to become agents of positive change in their lives, schools, communities, and world. I simply cannot wait to see where the authentic PBL movement takes us!
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