Real-world learning at a young age

The second in the 2018 series of three “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” articles by United Way of Southwest Virginia

High school students launched instrument packages attached to high-altitude balloons in Spring 2018 at Lonesome Pine Regional Airport in Wise

August 24, 2018 (Norton, VA) – Imagine being able to say, “When I was in eighth grade, I helped design a satellite that spent eight days in the Earth’s orbit.” Well, students at John I. Burton High School will be able to say it, thanks to an innovative curriculum filled with project-based learning.

Like many schools across the Commonwealth and the Southwest Virginia region, Norton City Schools realized the need to connect the classroom to the workplace. The school system encourages project-based learning (PBL) in the classroom through exploration of real-world challenges and problems.

For example, in one course offered by NASA DEVELOP team member and John I. Burton High School teacher Michael Brooke in 2018, eighth graders explored three focus areas through real-world projects. Students tracked snow plow routes and schedules in Utah using geographic information systems, built and programmed robots to sense movement, and designed instrument packages that they sent into the atmosphere using high-altitude balloons. In November, students are scheduled to send a satellite to space for eight days through the ThinSat Program in partnership with Virginia Space.

NASA DEVELOP team member and teacher Michael Brooke with a motion-sensing robot used in his STEM class at John I. Burton High School

Brooke said, “Science to me is inherently project-based, which is how students are able to come to an understanding of concepts that are difficult to comprehend through words. Each project introduces students to areas of science they might want to eventually pursue as a career. They’re simple projects, but when they accomplish something, we see the passion ignite. Even something simple like making a light blink on a robot is exciting to them because they did it – they are the ones that wrote the code to make it happen.”

Studies from Purdue University, Concordia University, and Utah State University comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning versus traditional instruction show that PBL has a distinct advantage. The studies found that well-implemented PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning.

Another local example of PBL can be found in the classroom of teacher Diane Kinser, an alumni of John I. Burton who spent years in the financial world before recently returning to academia and obtaining her teaching degree from University of Virginia College at Wise.

Kinser said project-based learning was such an integral part of her degree that it’s now “part of her DNA”. In her three years of teaching, she has completed dozens of deeper learning projects with students that equip them with the skills to problem-solve and think critically. Her history students learned about the Industrial Revolution and used their knowledge to create a 1920s radio ad campaign for a product brought about in that era. Her science students actually solved a legitimate water drainage problem on the campus of Norton Elementary by researching and developing a plan to seal the greenhouse, level the platform, and concrete the entryway.

In her second year of teaching, Kinser’s seventh grade life science class partnered with Barter Theatre’s Project REAL (Reinforcing Education through Artistic Learning) to create a music video using song and dance to understand cell division stages, filmed and edited by the media class from John I. Burton.

John I. Burton High School teacher Diane Kinser

Kinser said, “The eighth grade SOL [test] covers material from sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. When we started reviewing mitosis, the students remembered the video and some were like, ‘Remember the hand jive? Remember I was in this part of the video? Remember this dance move?’ and I really got to see it come full circle. They retained that information because of the way they learned it. It’s all in stepping back, looking at the curriculum and saying, ‘Okay. This is what they’ve got to learn and what they have to understand. How can I challenge my students to where it’s not just regurgitating information, but being able to apply it to real life? How can I utilize the resources we have, including cross content and area businesses?’”

Some employers in the region already offer direct PBL support to the schools on a routine basis. Two years ago, CGI, an IT firm with a 400-employee center in Russell County, installed a special version of the Minecraft video game on 25 credit-card-sized computers called Raspberry Pis, and took the devices into sixth grade classrooms.

Since playing a video game at school is any sixth grader’s dream, the project was a complete success, but because this version of the game required programming instead of button-pushing, it introduced the students to a small part of the world of computer science.

CGI employees join Lebanon Middle School students in the classroom for a project-based learning activity involving Minecraft.

Kirk Lortz, director of operations for CGI in Russell County, said, “Students need a real-world example of what programming is, and students know Minecraft. Minecraft involves a lot of building with blocks, so one of our projects shows how writing code can help students build more efficiently in the game. At first, creating one block by learning a programming language and writing code seems senseless because it takes a while. Why would you spend time writing code to create one block when there is a button on the screen that would do the same thing? But, while their friend is placing one block by pushing a button, they adjust their code and place 100 blocks in the same amount of time.”

The company has been providing project-based learning opportunities to local schools for two years. Lortz said, “We want to peak their interest in the computer science industry at a young age – even if the project is very simplistic – so they can potentially turn that interest into a career in ten years with CGI. We want students to understand the possible opportunities, and we want to grow our future IT Talent here.”

The addition of a project-based learning component to the United Way of Southwest Virginia Ignite program means more employers across the region will be able to easily partner with classrooms to walk through real-world challenges using critical thinking and problem-solving. The deeper learning opportunities provided with PBL can even help address the current “skills gap” seen in many career clusters, including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia said, “I’m so excited about the potential impact of project-based learning across the region. I am hopeful that our business community will join with us to ignite our students’ passion for learning.”

Read the other OTW articles
Learn about the Ignite Program

United Way of Southwest Virginia fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in Southwest Virginia because they are the building blocks for a good quality of life.  Through an initiative-based cradle-to-career approach, United Way of Southwest Virginia is creating sustainable solutions to address the challenges facing tomorrow’s workforce. United Way convenes cross-sector partners to make an impact on the most complex problems in our region. Through collaboration with government, business, nonprofit and individuals, United Way innovates for positive, lasting social change.  With a footprint that covers nearly 20% of the state of Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia programs and initiatives serve the counties of Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe, and the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton, and Radford.