by Todd Wold
I am the Career/Tech Ed Pathways (CTE) Advisor for Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District, California, where my main focus is on expanding CTE Pathways, building larger regional Communities of Practice (CoP), and integrating CTE and STEM through Project Based Learning.
I am also the Engineering Technology Pathway coordinating teacher at North Tahoe High School, where I am blessed to have Parallax Robotics and Drones, several 3D printers, a CNC router, a laser engraver/cutter, and a complete wood-shop. I teach Engineering, CAD, Robotics, and AP Computer Science Principles in a PBL environment that applies growth-mindset, design-thinking, STEM, and CTE in maker-space atmosphere.
I own Wold Organizational Leadership Development where I primarily, but not exclusively, work with STEM and CTE programs to help them become a learning organization, develop a distributed leadership model, and implement a professional learning community culture through Project Based Learning.
My Start in PBL
During my master’s degree work at the University of Washington I began looking at how inquiry-based learning and cooperative learning groups could help close the gender gap in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. It was in this research that I began to understand that hands-on and inquiry and cooperative learning simply wasn’t enough. As The Buck Institute so apply puts it, “Hands on doesn’t necessarily mean minds on!” That understanding led me to PBL, by realizing that only through authentic real-world PBL applications can we make science, mathematics, and engineering applicable, engaging, and real to all students.
It was then that I began to look closer at how college and career pathways within Career/Technical Education use Project Based Learning with superseding success for underrepresented groups, including low socio-economic status students, minorities, and under-represented groups in non-traditional career and college programs.
My first favorite PBL project was a part of a larger CTE theme of renewable energy within the STaRS Academy Engineering and Aerospace Academy in Lompoc, CA. As a chemistry teacher at the time, my students worked with local restaurants to collect waste vegetable oil and chemically convert it to usable biodiesel fuel. They then tested the emissions in a Ford F-250 7.3L diesel car, comparing petro-diesel and the bio-diesel they made.
My second favorite “real” PBL project (as opposed to my embarrassing dessert projects earlier in my teaching career) was the Tiny House Project with the Alternative Energy Resource Occupations Academy in Porterville, CA. This project let architectural design students in grades 9-12 choose the role of architect, engineer, business manager, or renewable energy advisory. The students used 2D drafting and 3D CAD to design a Netzero Tiny House that had to fit within a budget, use real-world supplies (including construction materials, windows, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, water heating and solar) that generated all the energy it used. They had weekly submissions of work, reflection on goal progress, revision on goal setting and management of time and resources. The project culminated in a presentation to local architects, engineers, and the superintendent. Along with their oral presentation, they showed 3D CAD designs, a model prototype built to scale, a budget analysis of all supplies, a descriptive narrative of why they used what they used in their design, and a persuasive marketing brochure.
The Need to Communicate With Administrators About PBL
A former administrator of mine didn’t understand the PBL process, CTE pathways, or California Partnership Academies. She was looking specifically for direct instruction in her 10-15 minute observation, performed near the end of the semester.
I learned that I needed to communicate more clearly with administration about what they were hoping to see. Direct instruction is more often seen in the beginning of a semester (or PBL project). Later on, students are already demonstrating the independence of PBL done well, when they are showing self-management, reflection, revision, goal-setting, and using team contracts with distributed roles and regular checkpoints.
This shows that building this community of practice is absolutely essential because without it, archaic district and school site policies and practices, as well as administrators who have not been trained on best practices in PBL, CTE, and STEM, can try to enforce policies that prevent PBL’s progress. A CoP operates successfully with the shared vision and distributed leadership of a learning organization and professional learning community.
My Work with BIE
I thoroughly enjoy the opportunities I have to facilitate professional development through BIE, for a wide range of situations. I particularly enjoy it when I am able to model the natural triangulation between PBL, STEM, and CTE, and help develop a foundational PBL culture that relies on best practices from professional learning communities, and learning organizations. I also value developing communities of practice with industry, post-secondary, and community partners in order to develop a shared PBL vision, using a distributed leadership model.
In twenty-one years of teaching, my master’s degree work in education, my doctoral research described above from U.C. Santa Barbara and Cal Poly SLO, and in district level work with CTE Pathways, I have found that Project Based Learning will never be just “one-more-thing” but rather will continue to be the consistent solution to the ever-swinging educational pendulum.
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