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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education

Jocelyn Bowie
IU College of Arts and Sciences

Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011

Effort to spread project-based learning to southern Indiana teachers booming

Third year for IU, community initiative sees participation more than double

June 16, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ind. --More than 200 educators are participating in the third annual collaboration between Indiana University and a southern Indiana coalition of business, education and community leaders to spread project-based learning (PBL) principles to area schools.

"The PBL Academy" is holding a week-long session at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School following sessions on the IU Bloomington campus. The PBL Academy is a joint project of IU and EcO15, an initiative of business, education and community leaders to advance K-12 education in a 10-county area in southeastern Indiana, and is funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) and the I-STEM Resource Network are supporting the PBL Academy.

Pi Pie

Making pie enhances math skills? You bet!

The PBL Academy has grown out an effort by IU School of Education Mathematics Education Professor Catherine Brown. The ICHE-funded "Math Matters," with around 50 teachers in 2009, expanding to add science curriculum last year with "Molecules Matter" -- organized by IU Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Jill Robinson. More than 80 teachers participated in 2010. This year, around 215 teachers, administrators and other educators have packed the sessions and some had to be turned away because of space limitations.

"It is gratifying," Brown said. "It's a little nerve wracking to get up to this size this fast, but I think it speaks to the fact that there's kind of a self-evident benefit to using project-based learning."

"The growth was much more rapid than we anticipated, frankly," said Bob Abrams, facilitator with EcO15 -- short for "Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015." EcO15 covers Bartholomew, Dearborn, Decatur, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Ohio, Ripley, Franklin and Switzerland counties. Teachers from those counties as well as Monroe, Brown and Lake Counties are participating.

"This region is becoming a very strong PBL community and we have some schools in this region that as a result of their experience with this PBL training workshop are converting themselves to some degree as PBL schools," Abrams said.

Project-based learning is a teaching and learning method that encourages students to drive their learning by using inquiry and technology to investigate a project. Such projects can range across several disciplines. Proponents say the students work in a more realistic or "real-world" fashion while also absorbing material more readily because of their interest and engagement with the project.

Growing interest by teachers and administrators is driving the growth of the project. One administrator attending to learn more about what his school might incorporate said he always asks potential new teachers about how he or she might reach students in danger of dropping out. "I don't want to say entertain them, but how are you going to reach out and grab them and get them more engaged?" said Brian Fehriback, assistant principal at Jac-Cen-Del High School.

This week in Columbus, administrators are learning about the technique while teachers are designing two PBL lessons of their own. "The goal is for them to feel like they can implement those projects and be successful," said Jared Leiker, math teacher at Lawrenceburg High School and one of this week's organizers. "We also want to create a group of critical friends that can help sustain, be a support network for them."

And educators are getting plenty of ideas for engaging and entertaining, and sometimes tasty lesson plans, as well. Among the activities for math educators during two days of workshops at IU Bloomington was to follow explicitly a recipe for creating key lime pie. The premise is that a cooking recipe has specific steps, exact requirements for creating a good pie — not unlike how mathematics calculations must follow certain pathways.

"We've got to have kids starting to think about actually doing computer algorithms," said Leslie Gardner, professor of operations management and math at the University of Indianapolis who facilitated the number-crunching dessert manufacturing. Algorithms are the steps of a mathematics "recipe." "And one way to start thinking about algorithms is just how you do everyday tasks, such as cooking," Gardner said.

Science educators spent several days learning about important concepts in the newly emerging field of nanoscience and how they relate to current state science standards. The nanoscale refers to objects that range from 1 to 100 nanometers in size, approximately a thousandth of the diameter of a human hair.

"It turns out there are lots of fundamental ideas that cross many disciplines that are necessary for understanding the nanoscale — things that already are taught in the curriculum, such as forces and interactions, size and scale, structure of matter," said Robinson.

The teachers performed experiments in the Simon Hall Nano Characterization Facility that they can take to their classrooms. All involved the synthesis and characterization of nanoscale materials such as anti-bacterial silver nanoparticles and a solar cell that uses juice from berries to create electricity.

They also became familiar with a new portable atomic force microscope available to use in their own schools. The experience allows teachers to think about bringing in higher level concepts for students, building on what they may already know from other coursework.

Brown said she and the other organizers already are thinking about how the booming program will proceed to both continue teacher progress and meet demand. They're developing a "coaches cadre" -- teachers with advanced skills in PBL who can travel to various schools to help teachers with their PBL plans.

Abrams added that the PBL Academy looks forward to collaborating with other statewide organizations with similar goals, such as the "PBL Institute", also entering its third year, June 27-30, at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. The PBL Institute is organized by the IU School of Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the University of Indianapolis and its Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning (CELL), and the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township.

In Fort Wayne, the Talent Initiative is another 10-county regional program focused on accelerating education and training initiatives in STEM fields offering another possible partnership opportunity, Abrams said.

Next year's PBL Academy may divide into smaller workshops over the year. PBL lesson plans begin with a "driving question." Brown said organizers have a few driving questions of their own.

"I think our real question now is how do we sustain the effort?" she said. "How do we reach enough people that the regions and the districts and the local schools have the capacity to keep it going themselves?"

To see more about The PBL Academy for Indiana, you can watch this short video from the Columbus and Bloomington workshops.