The Immeasurable Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Cooke-Authenticlearning

Throughout my career, I have changed the way that I teach to my students. With access to the internet, I recognized that students don’t need for me to “teach” anymore; what they need is for me to be a facilitator of knowledge; they need to see me scaffold how to do research and employ critical thinking skills, to help them understand how to be truly and equally collaborative in group settings, and spark in them a sense of belonging to a larger world community.

The focus of my classroom is Project-Based Learning. PBL is the tool that allows me to cultivate these essential skills with my students: collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and empathy. These skills are what will be useful to our students as they enter the global workforce. It is clear that they will be called upon in the near future to solve immense global challenges, and in preparation for these challenges, I ask them to solve real world problems in a very authentic manner. From designing a cell-based sensor for early detection of an Ebola infection, to creating recipes for the World Food Bank to aide the global food crisis, to using cellular respiration/photosynthesis as a platform to research and propose solutions to our energy problems, my students are thinking, designing, researching, and intelligently proposing solutions to very real world issues.

Cooke - Innovation and ExplorationTo allow my students the grace and the space they need to meet these challenges, you could say that my classroom is “messy”. My students are on different parts of this same journey to attainment of these skills and because of that, my classroom at any given time can appear to be very chaotic. I allow my students to learn at their own pace and ask them to personally critique their knowledge before moving on to the next learning goal. Because of this, it is not uncommon for my students to be spread out in small groups, talking to each other or on their computers/phones; they are discussing and debating their ideas and seeking the knowledge they need to move forward. To me, this is what true learning looks like.

This kind of learning is uncomfortable for my students at first. They like to have parameters and expectations to meet. PBL does not give that to them; it is open-ended and free to their interpretation. However, by the end of the year, my students have learned to believe in themselves and their ability to think and debate real issues. I have had students move on from my class and pursue degrees in medicine and science education, I currently have students submitting their PBL research to scientific journals for publication, and I even have students who pursue research experiences around the world; in short, I am teaching my students to think, to question, to believe in themselves, and to grow as humans. As an educator in this transitional time, that is all that I can ask of them, and they exceed my expectations every single time.

Cooke - Ebola

Globalizing Your Curriculum: Promoting Global Citizenship by Bringing the World Into Our Classrooms

globalizingcurriculumTeaching global competencies is an essential part of being an educator in the 21st century. The benefits of teaching these skills to students and, in turn, future generations are immeasurable. Global education develops a skill of being able to view the world from different lenses; to develop a sense of empathy that is essential as part of the human spirit. The question is, how do we do that? Where do we start? This presentation will give tips on how to incorporate global issues into curriculums with specific examples that have worked in a science classroom. From weekly “hot topics” to in-depth Project-Based Learning initiatives, globalizing your curriculum is a way to expose your students to life outside the walls of their schools and helps to foster curiosity of other cultures and countries. We live in a world that grows smaller every day, as advances in technology have shortened the distance between “us and them”. It’s important for our students to develop the perception that there is unity within diversity and give them a sense of belonging to a larger world community.

As educators, we need to make a commitment to real world learning for our students. We need to provide opportunities for our students that encompass authentic and meaningful learning experiences that will encourage our students to become the solution-seekers and problem-solvers of the 21st century. The development of students as global citizens is a monumental task turned over to the teachers that guide them through the learning process. There is no specific place within our curriculum that speaks specifically to “global education” because it is a fluid and all-encompassing focus that should be interwoven throughout. The question is then, how do I bring the world into my classroom in an authentic and meaningful way?

The secret to globalizing the curriculum is that it can be done in small pieces, one at a time, that add up to a comprehensive world-view by the end of the year. In my curriculum, I set aside time each week for my students to present their “hot topics”. Hot Topics involve any topic pertaining to biology that is new and exciting around the world. The student researches and plans their mini-presentation (as a homework assignment) and is prepared to take questions after they present. Each presentation takes 2 – 3 minutes and inevitably leads to in-depth discussion about a region or the research that was presented.

I also use Project-Based Learning (PBL) activities to incorporate intensive global study. PBL is the tool that allows me to cultivate these essential skills with my students: collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and empathy. These skills are what will be useful to our students as they enter the global workforce. It is clear that they will be called upon in the near future to solve immense global challenges, and in preparation for these challenges, I ask them to solve real world problems in a very authentic manner. From designing a cell-based sensor for early detection of an Ebola infection, to creating recipes for the World Food Bank to aide the global food crisis, to using cellular respiration/photosynthesis as a platform to research and propose solutions to our energy problems, my students are thinking, designing, researching, and intelligently proposing solutions to very real world issues.

Because I teach biology and infectious diseases, the entire world has a place in my classroom. When we are talking about Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration, I can ask my students why deforestation in Brazil is negatively affecting Greenland; which allows for discussion of these regions and their ecosystems, the different environmental concerns for each region, global climate change and how much humans are contributing to it, and I can then ask my students to propose a solution to this problem. The Ebola outbreak has been a fantastic case study for my Infectious Diseases class in terms of immunology, epidemiology, socio-economic status and the relationship that has with access to appropriate medical care, medicine, ethics, the geography of Africa and specifically the “malaria belt” and why this area is so prevalent with disease. I ask my students to propose a solution to the late dentification of an Ebola sickness or a solution that address the reintroduction of survivors back into their communities. The possibilities are endless when using strategies of project-based learning with students and these projects require a level of critical thinking, empathy, and collaboration from our students that other learning tools simply do not.

It is difficult to find actual usable information on the web about how to incorporate global education into our curriculum. I think these websites below do a good job of starting you on that journey, however, in most instances they fall flat on the “how to” aspect. I am working on another blog post that will give very specific ideas, examples, and strategies as to how to globalize your classroom. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading!

Websites for larger projects and collaboration:

People Advocating for Women in Society – PAWS

I have been asked to sponsor a new club at school, PAWS. PAWS is an acronym for People Advocating for Women in Society. When the president of the club came and asked me to be the faculty sponsor, I jumped at it. I made a deal with myself that this year I would scale back on my extra responsibilities at school because of my new baby and my own time/research dedicated to molding my current curriculum(s) into a PBL focus. However, I could not say no to this one.

Feminism is most definitely a buzz word right now, in the media, in the entertainment industry, in education, in business…I feel like everywhere I go I am confronted with topics pertaining to it, from men and women. I am very passionate about the ideals of feminism for women all over the world. I think 20 years ago, women who considered themselves to be feminists were more aptly “men haters” and angry. I think this ideal has morphed throughout the last 2 decades to be inclusive of not only women but their male counterparts and the focus is more on equality of social, political, economic, intellectual equality between the sexes.

When I think about my journey through feminism I can look back on the various stages of my life and see how my own ideals have morphed over time. When I was in high school, to me, feminism meant equal in terms of strength and my focus was on my immediate self. I prided myself in being just as strong, if not stronger, than the men I surrounded myself with. I never asked for help from a man for anything. If I couldn’t do it myself, it wouldn’t get done, period.

Then, I went to college and through travel and relationships, my life took a more global focus and I began to see how the world treats women. This major transition helped to redefine my understanding of feminism to include equality for all women. For women and girls to be able to choose who they want to marry and when. For them to be able to use their body as they choose, have sex when they want, have as many children as they want. For these women to be able to go to school and get an education equal to that of their brothers. To be able to start their own businesses and work outside of the home. In short, my view of the world enforced my belief that the experience for men and women around the world is unjust and unequal. I have focused on this version of feminism for the past 15 years….and then I had my own baby girl.

I can tell you that the moment I held my daughter in my arms, I knew at that moment I would focus my definition on feminism in terms of what it means for my daughter to grow up in a patriarchal world. I started questioning things I had never thought of before. Things that people said in passing, things that I would have never give thought to before and now really offended me. I am coming at this now from the perspective of a mother who wants nothing but equality for her daughter in a world where she just might be able to get it. She is set up in a world that is more progressive in terms of this than it has ever been. The sluggish nature of progress can most certainly be frustrating sometimes but there are definitely seeds of hope planted along the way.

Here is something I wrote about Sage when she was 4 months old…

Whispers Of Change

I have been a mother for 4.5 years now. These have been, quite honestly, the most exciting and wonderful 4.5 years of my life. People say that they can’t imagine life without their children, and I have to concur whole-heartedly. Being the mother to my son, Cyrus, has been amazing. I have learned so much about myself in the process of becoming this “wonder” woman to him. It has been amazing, watching him grow into this boy, this child, filled with the wonder of life every day. He amazes me with his kindness and his empathy for all things. Maybe that comes from me, those are human characteristics that I value the most, but maybe he’s just a spirit that emanates love for everything that he sees. Either way, it’s a beautiful thing.

4 months ago, I had my daughter, Sage. And in the past 4 months I have become a different mother. I have noticed a shift in my focus. I have noticed a change within myself. Here is what was unclear to me the moment Sage came into the world, but has become abundantly clear to me since that wonderful day. She is part of the movement, the revolution, the fight. This beautiful, bright eyed child of mine has joined the ranks with me, her mother, against the injustice and the fear that all women, everywhere must endure. I don’t want that for her, I want her life to be as carefree as that of her brother’s, but that will never be the case. I don’t worry about her brother. Cyrus is a beautiful spirit. But, he is also a white male in an upper-middle class family. Part of his path is already laid down before him because of that fact alone. Sage however, does not have that luxury. At best, she will have to prove herself time and again simply because she is female. That she is smart, that she is driven, that she can perform as well, if not better, than her male classmates. At the worst, she will have to survive sexism from people of influence in her life, misogyny in one form or another, she will always have to be aware of her surroundings and the people that she is with, for fear that someone somewhere will feel it’s their right to take advantage of her. She will have to be careful to be pretty, but not too pretty, to be opinionated but not too outspoken, too be popular but not too popular. And, if all those pressures are not enough, she will have to learn to endure and maneuver the intricacies of the teenage female psyche. The jealousy and the loathing. The way that these women, at an age when they believe that in order to shine, to be noticed, they must stand on the heads of each other and attack one another to appear strong. What they don’t know yet is that if they hold each other up and stand together, and celebrate one another for their own individual successes, nothing and no one can tear them down. They are not part of the movement yet. They still believe it’s a “me against them” mentality when what they need to learn is that we are in this together. I don’t want Sage to ever hear me say negative things about another woman, about her appearance, her choices, her demeanor. She will hear me talk about the beauty of other women, their intelligence, their successes because she has to learn to lift her sisters up and I will model that for her. Life is different for girls, even the white upper middle class ones. Sage will learn to worry about things that Cyrus will never have to think about. Will she be able to walk to the store on the corner to grab some food at night as she gets older without getting raped? I hope to God that she will, but she’ll have to think about it every step of the way. Will she have to endure a sexist boss who thinks it’s ok to spew sexual innuendos at her because he thinks she won’t say a thing. Will she think that she needs to bare her cleavage to secure a position rather than rely on her intelligence and her wit? Will she be pressured into having sex with her partner because she feels bad for telling him “no” or because he paid for dinner? 1:5 women in college is sexually assaulted, will she be one of them?
Whether she, or I, like it or not, she is now part of the revolution. Things are different for girls today, in the US for sure, but also if you listen closely, you can hear the whispers of change all over the world. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda – the distances we need to go in these places are vast but it is happening. Women are rising up all over the world and screaming, Enough! These ladies today have confidence and strength that we only hoped for. That gives me hope for change, for equality in life, in careers, in pay, in partnerships. I will hold her up, I will raise her to know that she is part of this movement and it is her responsibility to keep pushing it forward.  But I will also raise her to be smart, to be aware, and yes, to be scared of the what-ifs because with this strength and this courage, she also has to live the reality and unfortunately fear will be part of her reality. “Here’s to Strong Women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them” – Unknown

The New Education Buzzword: Authentic

One of the major arguments I hear for revamping of curriculum is to give the content an “authentic” feel, to make it mean something to the students. I agree that we need to be able to show a connection between the classroom work and “real life” so that the students can see the benefit of plugging into the learning. Authenticity can be tough, especially depending on the subject that you teach.

This is a great post pertaining to authenticity in the classroom… (source:http://bie.org/blog/what_does_it_take_for_a_project_to_be_authentic )

Take this quick quiz:

Which of the following projects could be called authentic?

a) Students learn about endangered species in their region and take action to protect them, including a public awareness campaign, habitat restoration field work, and communication with local government officials.

b) Students design and create a calendar with pictures and information about endangered species, which they sell at a pre-winter break community event and donate the money to an environmental organization.

c) Students play the role of scientists who need to make recommendations to an environmental organization about how to protect endangered species in various ecosystems around the world.

To authenticity purists, a project is not really authentic unless it is in the real world, connected directly to the lives of students and real issues their communities. By this standard, choice “a” above certainly qualifies, and maybe “b”, but probably not “c”.

But I think the answer is “d) all of the above.” 

There is a sliding scale of authenticity in PBL, which goes from “Not Authentic” to “Somewhat Authentic” to “Fully Authentic.”

“Not authentic” means the work students do does not resemble the kind of work done in the world outside of school or it is not intended to have an effect on anything apart from an academic purpose. A not-authentic project would involve the kind of assignment students are typically given in school: compose an essay, create a poster or model, write and present a book report, or make a PowerPoint presentation on a topic they’ve researched. Beyond their teacher and maybe their classmates there’s no public audience for students’ work, no one actually uses what they create, and the work they do is not what people do in the real world.

“Somewhat authentic” means students are doing work that simulates what happens in the world outside of school. In a project that is somewhat authentic, students could play a role (as in choice “c” above): scientists, engineers, advisors to the President, or website designers who are placed in a scenario that reflects what might actually occur in the real world. Or students could create products that, although they are not actually going to be used by people in the real world, are the kinds of products people do use.

“Fully authentic” means students are doing work that is real to them—it is authentic to their lives— or the work has a direct impact on or use in the real world. The “real world,” by the way, could still be school, which is a very real place for students. In these projects, like choices “a” and “b” above, students might advocate for a cause; take action to improve their community; perform a service for someone; create a physical artifact to display or distribute, or express their own ideas about a topic in various media.

A project can be authentic in four ways, some of which may be combined in one project:

1. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom or the products students create are used by real people.

For example:

  • Students propose designs for a new play area in a nearby park.
  • Students plan and execute an environmental clean-up effort in their community.
  • Students create a website for young people about books they like.
  • Students write a guide and produce podcasts for visitors to historic sites in their county.
  • Students serve as consultants to local businesses, advising them on how to increase sales to young people.
  • Students develop a conflict resolution plan for their school.

2. It focuses on a problem or an issue or topic that is relevant to students’ lives—the more directly, the better—or on a problem or issue that is actually being faced by adults in the world students will soon enter.
For example:

  • Students create multimedia presentations that explore the question, “How do we make and lose friends?”
  • Students learn physics by investigating the question, “Why don’t I fall off my skateboard?”
  • Students form task forces to study possible effects of climate change on their community and recommend actions that could be taken.
  • Students decide whether the U.S. should intervene in a conflict inside another country that is causing a humanitarian crisis.

3. It sets up a scenario or simulation that is realistic, even if it is fictitious.
For example:

  • Students are asked by the Archbishop of Mexico in 1819 to recommend a location for the next mission in California.
  • Students act as architects who need to design a theatre that holds the maximum number of people, given constraints of available land, cost, safety, comfort, etc.
  • Students play the role of United Nations advisors to a country that has just overthrown a dictator and needs advice about how to start a democracy.
  • Students recommend which planet in our solar system ought to be explored by the next space probe as they compete for NASA funding.
  • Students are asked to propose ideas for a new TV reality show that educates viewers about science topics such as evolutionary biology and the geologic history of the earth.

4. It involves tools, tasks, or processes used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace. This criteria for authenticity could apply to any of the above examples of projects.
For example:

  • Students investigating the physics of skateboarding test various surfaces for speed, using the scientific method and tools scientists use.
  • Students exploring the issue of how we make and lose friends conduct surveys, analyze data, record video interviews, and use online editing tools to assemble their presentations.
  • Students acting as U.N advisors to an emerging democracy analyze existing constitutions, write formal reports, and present recommendations to a panel.

I agree that fully authentic projects are often the most powerful and effective ones, because they are so engaging for students and allow them to feel like they can have an impact on their world—so the more of them, the better. But if you can’t get there yet, don’t feel like you’re failing the authenticity test in your projects. Some is still better than none!

I think the above examples would be a great way to start implementing authentic practice for students. I think that sometimes PBL seems so big and scary because it’s still hard to define but any of the above examples would most certainly qualify as a PBL problem and I believe these would be a great way to tie in classroom content with real world emotion. Let me know if you decide to give one a shot and how it goes!!

VCU Announces That It Will Focus More On GPA Than SAT Scores

Strides are being made in education, people! First President Obama’s announcement that he is going to try to make college affordable for everyone and now VCU announces that they are more interested in focusing on the whole child rather than one piece of that child. Hallelujah, what a novel idea. There is a movement in this country to move away from so much testing and focus more intimately on teaching and learning. This is a big step in the right direction for higher education, especially from a school like Virginia Commonwealth University. I truly hope that schools all over this country will start to follow suit.