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Experts in the Classroom

Connecting students with real-world experts shows kids how their day-to-day learning makes a difference outside the classroom walls.

Picture a place where teenagers work alongside engineers, facility managers, and scientists to measure a building’s carbon output, examine pollution levels in a nearby river, and create a parabolic trough to capture solar energy. That place is Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer, New York—and it’s energizing students, teachers, and participating local experts.

“You see a different attitude when students are working on something authentic,” says Jason Irwin, a math teacher at the project-based high school located along the Hudson River, near Albany. “There is a real deadline. Real ideas are being shared. It makes students have higher levels of engagement.”

The partnership works best when experts fully participate in a project, from the planning stages through feedback and assessment, and when the projects are tied to the curriculum.

At Tech Valley, teachers codesign, coteach, and coevaluate in collaboration with local professionals, says Principal Dan Liebert. It’s often a “wow experience” for students, he says, as they’re drawn into the subject matter and begin to imagine future careers. “If we are going to make a dent in getting students’ attention these days, we have to show relevance,” asserts Liebert.

On the Hunt for Experts
Finding volunteers hasn’t proved difficult at Tech Valley, says Liebert. “The business community doesn’t always have a lot of money, but they have expertise and time. If you ask, it comes pouring out. The key is to give them something meaningful to do.

”Making “the ask” for Tech Valley is Denise Zieske, the school’s business partnership coordinator. She spends time at networking events talking with potential volunteers, such as a financial planner to help with a unit on budgeting. Zieske may initially suggest a brief time commitment—just an hour or two in the classroom. But many professionals get hooked on working with the school.

Nearly 20 volunteers serve on Tech Valley’s business alliance committee, which meets three times a year. It gives feedback from the “real-world” side to make proposed projects authentic, says Zieske. Teachers then put together a rough plan, including standards to be addressed, and how professionals can fit in to various projects.
Aside from appealing to a businessperson’s sense of altruism, Zieske also stresses workforce development. “We focus on skills these students need to be in the business partner’s business. That way, they’ll have better workers for the future,” she says.

The project-based-learning model is something that Lauren Payne wished had been around when she was in school—so she has been happy to support it as a business volunteer. Payne, a managing partner of Spiral Design Studio, a graphic design, marketing, and communications firm, has been a Tech Valley adviser for four years. In one class, she led small-group critiques of geometric logos designed by students. “I learn from it, too,” she says. “It makes me more multi­faceted—it opens me up.”

The University Connection
For his polymer science classes at Hattiesburg High School, in Mississippi, James Brownlow has tapped into the expertise of professors and graduate students from the University of Southern Mississippi. “The kids get such a richer experience if you have more than one person teach a class. You get more perspectives,” he says. “Teachers tend to focus on the act of teaching rather than on knowing every fact about technology and science.”

Graduate fellows from USM come two days a week to assist with the science courses at the high school. They mentor students with science fair projects and do research-based lessons on topics such as designing football helmets to better protect players from concussions. Seeing college students and professors who are dedicated to their research can be motivating for his students, says Brownlow. “I try to bring in the experts because I’m not the expert. They bring so much more depth to the topics.”

Students from Penn State recently did a sustainability project with Corl Street Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania. The student chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which is composed mostly of architectural engineering majors, and visiting students from Cornell University worked with 43 Corl Street students to build self-watering planters with two-liter plastic bottles to prepare for a construction competition.

“There were plenty of people to help, and more hands, so the students got immediate feedback,” says Kate Hooper, a fifth-grade teacher at Corl Street. “Having young people from the university was kind of cool. They are dedicated to what they are doing.”

Plan for Success
For the Corl Street project, the Penn State students worked with Hooper beforehand to make sure their sustainability talk was at a level fifth graders could understand, says Chris Graziani, a senior and president of the USGBC student chapter. The preparation paid off.

“Everyone was really excited from the beginning,” says Graziani. “It was fun. They answered questions—and we got some funny answers.” The fifth graders have since made a video about seeing their ideas in action, and the college group plans to do another project with Corl Street in the spring.

Having a detailed discussion with any expert before he or she comes into the classroom is critical, advises Hooper. She makes sure the material relates to the curriculum and the activities are appropriate. And she is prepared to intervene, as needed. “I was a little unsure at first,” she says of the sustainability activity. “I did have to rein in some students who were off task.” But the interaction was a success, and Hooper encourages other teachers to reach out to the community for experts. “It does take time,” she says. “But others can bring to the table experiences we don’t have.”

Finding the Right Project
At Tech Valley, teachers and business volunteers work “shoulder to shoulder,” says Irwin, the math teacher. “The goal is that we cocreate the project so there are no surprises.” For instance, with the solar energy project, Irwin would ask the engineer about the skills needed and the goal for the class, and the two would brainstorm about the best approach. “It’s highly integrated,” he explains.

And just the right experience can energize students, as Kathleen Jenkins, a teacher at Searsport District High School, in Maine, found out.

Noticing that some of her students were becoming disengaged from the curriculum and at risk of dropping out, Jenkins reached out to a nearby marine museum to design a class for students to get math and science credit by working with a master boatbuilder.

In the semester-long course, students spend two afternoons a week working with tools to build a boat. Through hands-on work, they learn about physics, wind speed and variation, buoyancy, density, and other concepts. The project, now in its third year and supported by grants, was crafted by a team of teachers who matched the curriculum standards to the boatbuilding process.

Closing the Loop
Sometimes schools need look no further than their parent community to find willing experts. The Fort Leavenworth School District is located on the Fort Leavenworth Army Post in Kansas, and many of the schools’ parents are involved in developing sophisticated wartime technology. So when the district’s director of technology, Alan Landever, needed help creating innovative tools in the classroom, he knew where to turn. Landever formed Cyber Teams, an initiative where parents work with teachers to create software and interactive games to enhance lessons for students.

“The more our teachers get comfortable with this challenge-based learning curriculum—bringing in real-world problems that kids want to investigate—the more we will need expert parent help,” says Landever.

At Forest Oak Middle School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Principal Arthur Williams promotes community engagement so teachers will reach out more. “It’s okay to start small,” he says. “Look for easy strategic partners, such as local colleges.” Williams also regularly brings in a civic or business leader for a “power lunch” with a dozen students, to talk about their careers and give them advice on how to make it through middle school. Just forging those connections and learning about resources may have long-term effects for students.

—Winter 2013—

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