Tag: STEM

Waukesha STEM Academy’s Journey from ABC to the Learner Continuum (Part 4)

November 27, 2017 by

Image from the WSA website

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the fourth in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start the entire series here or read the first part on Waukesha. 

The transition of Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) to a personalized, proficiency-based system didn’t happen overnight. Principal James Murray and the team at WSA started down this road in 2010, moving through four stages of implementation.

The first stage was moving toward blended learning and incorporating educational software. Murray explained, “The programs provided a lot of data, especially in math. We had to learn how to use it. We had an innovation dip, and the student data plateaued before finally starting to shoot upward. However, we realized there were problems. We were giving students choices. We thought the gamification would be engaging. But we weren’t teaching students the really important skills of how to collaborate, create, and innovate; we were still somewhat stuck in the consumption game and we wanted to transition to the production side of town.” Murray emphasized, “We started to understand that there was a strong and often overlooked nuance between getting something done compared to mastering concepts and owning the ability to contextualize these skills. We realized that students could never get to mastery solely by using adaptive educational software. You simply can’t do it all online. There are definitely powerful supplemental resources for students, but not the core instructional strategy. We never wanted these programs to supplant great instruction and varied modalities and, more importantly, the application of the skills being developed needed to be the keystone of this process.”

So WSA took a big step back. They began to repurpose. Murray explained, “We started thinking about the endgame. We have to put students on a playing field in life. We wanted our students to know how to learn, make progress, demonstrate their learning, and own their education. We needed to think about how we could prepare our students for that.”

In stage two, or STEM 2.0, WSA focused on what it was going to mean to use STEM to help students build higher order skills. They reorganized the campuses so there was now a K-5 and a 6-8 with 850 students enrolled overall. The next step was moving to 1:1 netbooks, expanding the project-based learning to disband projects tied to grade-levels and add in student-proposal projects, and building a platform to support monitoring students. During this stage, they narrowed grading to A-D with the idea that no student should ever be failing a course.

The third stage, referred to as STEM 3.0, introduced standards-based grading (using standards and committing to every student meeting all the standards). Murray pointed out, “We were focusing on proficiency and mastery. We had an adult mental model in which we kept telling students, “You need to do this or that. You need to reach proficiency. Our feedback on behaviors emphasized compliance.” At this point they started understanding that grade-based standards were adult-driven based on what we expected but not where students really were. The standards were transparent but the expectation was that students were all learning the same standards and at the same pace. They also realized that they needed to shift the orientation to learner-driven so they were helping students begin to own their education and their progression.

In the fourth stage, WSA created their own learner continuums that were informed by standards and learning progressions, organized courses to meet students where they were, increased transparency for students about learning expectations and progress, invested in more coaching and reflection in developing personal habits of success, and created the information system to support it all. The vision was finally staring to take shape and people were beginning to really notice the difference in production, engagement, and excitement for learning. This brand new concept of a school had started to grow its sea legs and was now beginning to transform the educational system as we had always known it into a program model that functioned much like a blend of a start-up company and a think-tank, woven into a technical college type-campus.

Use of Technology to Support Students and Teachers

Murray explained, “In order to make the personalized, proficiency-based system really work for students, teachers, and parents, we needed a really good LMS. It needed to operate as a fully-accessible digital file cabinet so that teachers, students, and parents could have access to real-time data and resources.” As every school shifting to competency-based education knows, that’s not so easy to find. “We didn’t just want to build a system and then let it collect dust, as the teachers were the keepers of knowledge. We wanted our most important customers – our students and parents – to be able to access these tools whenever and wherever they pursued their learning. (more…)

Waukesha STEM Academy: Rethinking Space, Time, and Reporting (Part 3)

November 20, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the third in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start the entire series here or read the first part on Waukesha.

“Once you get a new iPhone, you can’t go back to a flip phone…it just doesn’t feel right,” remarked Waukesha STEM Academy principal James Murray. We had been discussing the power of creating a transparent learner continuum and the implications for other parts of the instructional and school design.

Use of Time

One change just led to another, and there was no way to stop or back up because the value to students was so apparent. Murray likened it to climbing a tree, branch by branch. “Eventually, you look down and realize how high you have climbed. We were so far beyond the norm that we weren’t going to turn back and climb down that proverbial tree.” For example, in rethinking the learner continuum, Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) also started rethinking the structure of time and how it impacted learning. Instead of a semester or a school year, they began to think about how they would use the 540 days of learning students had while at STEM and then stretch the learning experience into the summer and vacation months. They are now pushing to see how they might provide a year-round model with more learning during the summer through seminars.

One of the principles they used is Do less so you can do more. They reduced core courses from eight to three per day.  The WSA considers the schedule a framework (scroll down to see this week’s framework), as it is something that guides but can be changed if needed. The first fifteen minutes of the day is spent for a transition to learning spaces. The idea of transition is that students check in with whom they need to, grab the resources they need, finish up any work they need to, and find their way to their learning space. The schedule is then a mix of four core courses each day with times aimed at supporting students and openings in the day, when students are able to work on focus areas respective of their individual and personalized learning goals.

Twice a week, students have FLEX where they go to whatever teacher and course they need extra help or extra time with to complete their projects. Homework Club is available three times a week for extra help after school, with students working in a math lab or literacy lab as needed. Murray noted that 98 percent of the students who need the extra help stay after school. In addition, twice weekly Advisory has formal reflection time for students to think about how they are using the time in the day for their learning, as well as to focus on personal success habits, digital citizenship conversations, ACP lessons, and other types of training and coaching.

CONNECT happens at lunch every day, with students touching base with staff as needed or as requested. This is a very unique approach to lunch, because 100 percent of students are on, all at the same time. No one tells students when they need to eat or where they need to go. In this hour, students choose when they eat and which teachers they will go to connect with. At first, there were conversations about schooling this concept and telling groups of students when they needed to eat and where they needed to go. This quickly fell by the wayside when the mission of this time was looked at closely. “We wanted to help our students build skills in time management and ownership of their day,” Murray adds. “When you do it for them and tell them when they can eat and where they need to sit, and make them raise their hands to throw their trash out or excuse themselves from the table, you have removed the ability and need to develop that sense of growth. Our goal was to build independence, not dependent students who didn’t need to think for themselves.”

When students first join WSA, they are offered a four-week Bootcamp during CONNECT to fully understand the proficiency-based system and the information management systems that support it. Students only exit the Bootcamp when they have demonstrated that they understand the necessary components to be successful at WSA. They learn how to use Google Docs and the information management system For All Rubrics; they are introduced to how the schedule is organized; they become familiar with the learner continuums and rubrics; and they learn how to use FLEX, CONNECT, and Homework Club to best support their learning. Once they demonstrate mastery in these areas, they are released into Gen. Pop. and are “pushed out of the nest,” so to speak, and show that they can be successful. If, after a few days, it is observed that a student still needs some support, they are reeled back in to Bootcamp so they can further develop the skills they need to build up.

Rethinking Space

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Waukesha STEM Academy: Personalizing Instruction and Learning Experiences (Part 2)

November 13, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the second in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start the entire series here or read the first part on Waukesha. 

Many people describe WSA as a STEM school or as a project-based learning school. Murray quickly pointed out, “I couldn’t really make a blanket statement that we are a project-based school or not. It really depends on the student and how they learn best. For some students, hands-on learning and projects all day work great; for others, not so well. We organize the instruction and learning around what works for students.” He continued, “We started out as a project-based school until we discovered that not every student is ready to do hands-on learning the day they walk through our doors. We failed forward and learned by doing and not doing. Now we ask and discover through conversations with our students what the best fit is for them and roll from there. What does the student need? What type of environment do they like? What type of modality fits their learning habits best? What type of seat do they like, even! Maybe their best fit is direct instruction from a teacher, possibly a slide-show or presentation, maybe it is to watch a video so they have some control and can re-watch, or maybe what they need to do is create a video to teach other students.”

Instruction

The shared pedagogical philosophy at WSA begins with making learning visible. This starts with an agreed-upon workflow process that has students able to access ‘playlists’ or the resources they need for the unit or progression of skills, followed by students planning for and engaging in learning. The next stages are skill building and practice tasks and experiences with formative feedback, which is then followed by summative work where students submit artifacts that demonstrate their proficiency for a specific level of skill and demonstrating mastery. Finally, the learner continuum is used to monitor and share student progress to help support a competency-based learning system. And the cycle begins again.

As emphasized above, the specific instructional strategies vary based on a combination of student needs and the teacher’s professional judgment about what will be most effective delivery and modality for students. There are different instructional modalities, including direct instruction, complementary and adaptive educational software, Socratic seminars, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. There is an emphasis on students applying their learning through the design process, innovating and creating things, capstones projects followed by gallery walks, and project-based learning. Murray explained, “It really feels unique and pretty real when you walk down the hallways and into learning spaces here, because you don’t see just STEM at WSA, you actually have to step over it.”

WSA knows that teachers need time for planning. Given the high degree of interdependence of math skills, with students needing to access prerequisite concepts and processes, the math team has 80 minutes [together] every day for planning and strategizing for providing support to all students. “When we sat back and reflected on our schedule for about the hundredth time in Year 3,” Murray laughs, “we recognized that we truly needed to be responsive to our teacher’s needs and not just our students’, or burnout was sure to follow.  Similar to how a teacher would ask a student how they learn best, I asked our staff how they would work best, and they gave some amazing feedback and a vision. This vision blended with our students’ needs and brought upon our new daily and weekly framework, which is quite fluid to support needs of all learners in the school.” Feedback was then gathered from students, staff, and parents to continue to grow the best possible framework for optimal learning and teaching conditions.

Mix of Courses and Educational Experiences

Before WSA made the transition to personalized, proficiency-based education, there were eight core courses and transitions a day. “With that many transitions and classes came that much less time to learn and time wasted moving between classes,” Murray says. “What if we didn’t have bells, reduced the amount of transitions between classes, and built up the amount of time that students were able to spend on experiments, projects, and collaboration? What if we just gave students more time to apply their learning and opened up the pacing a little bit?” It seemed to be the switch that needed to be flipped, because engagement and performance skyrocketed, and WSA currently organizes their day into four main COREs, as they’re called. Murray insists that the day isn’t a block-schedule and there is evidence to prove it. “When we visited other schools or teams come to visit us, they quickly ask if our schedule is a block schedule when they see it and I show them the past two, three, and four weeks that we have just experienced. Every single week this year has been different for the most part, based on what took place each week – which trips were built in, which mentors and partnerships came to visit, when Advisory took place, and when we felt the need to build in a FLEXible afternoon, where students created their own schedule for half of the day. Folks aren’t sure how to take that, but it excites them when they see that it’s possible.” Murray shared that at WSA, they even run mornings and half days where the students are able to visit Passion-Project Seminars based on their own interests and, at times, the students are the ones who are running the seminars. (more…)

Creating a Learner-Driven System in Waukesha (Part 1)

November 8, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the first in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

I arrived early at Waukesha’s STEM Academy – Saratoga Campus (WSA). Entering the front door, one immediately steps into a relatively open space carved into smaller areas by bookshelves, desks, and a variety of seating options. The place was humming. Students streaming in, unpacking backpacks, clustered in corners talking, some wrapping themselves in chairs with a book or a computer. A film crew from a local station was set up in another area to interview two young women who were winners in a regional Toy and Game competition. (See for yourself in A Day in the Life or virtual tour videos.)

I hadn’t had my coffee yet and was having difficulties taking it all in. Especially the five-foot-long Ball Python in principal James Murray’s office, which luckily hadn’t had his coffee either and lay there peacefully. (I later learned that a parent, who was ready to pass on the snake to the next caretaker, had dropped it off at the school.)

WSA serves over 300 students in a middle school, all of whom are selected through a random lottery and without any criterion to enter. Jokingly, Murray points out the irony in the lottery process, because even though the school is a one-to-one technology school, full of 3D printers, laser engravers, CNC routers, saws, drills, and a flurry of digital learning platforms and 55” TV’s lining the walls like posters, the lottery is conducted through a process that uses an old-school Bingo hopper. “We want all students, “Murray points out. “We don’t want to go out and hand pick our students…we want students…period.” He shares that, “we have the 1st through the 99th percentile in academic readiness and the 1st through the 99th percentile in behaviors when they come through our doors. After Day 1, it’s a whole new ball game, and we help foster caring, compassionate citizens who end up becoming great students. One is the byproduct of the other, and I honestly don’t feel that these can be grown in isolation, nor should they be.”

He also quickly disposed of the idea that middle school simply means grades six through eight. “On paper, this campus is grades six through eight. That’s about where that antiquated theory ends, though. Students enter our school with skills that stretch from second grade and extend beyond tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. Basically, we’ve eliminated grades based on your age… here is no born-on date for progress and success. We help students own the fact that when they arrive here, they are on a 540-day journey, with each student entering at a different place and moving at a different pace. We are, simply put, a competency-based school.” Although we at CompetencyWorks have anticipated schools thinking this way, to date it is few and far between. I didn’t even need my coffee anymore. I was alert to make sure I didn’t miss any of the details about how WSA had developed.

Theory of Action

WSA has a clear theory of action that drives how the school is organized and the culture of the school. (more…)

What if We Started Looking at STEM-Education Differently?

October 10, 2017 by

STEM is all the rage these days, and with an ever-growing gap in filling jobs that are tied to science, technology, engineering, and math, employers are at a loss with finding well-rounded, educated, and professional employees to hire. What if STEM-Education began to be viewed as more than just science, technology, engineering, and math, though? What if the STEM programs which are slowly emerging in schools across our country started working with our youth at a young age and became something greater, something that helped develop successful, collaborative, creative, and innovative thinkers who could actually apply their knowledge? What could this possibly look like, and what might the benefits be for our workforce and, more importantly, our future?

A concept that has resonated with me for years has been one of students wanting to advance through “curriculum” as quickly as possible. Mastery never seemed to be the goal for these students and sometimes parents, but really, how fast the student could advance through a program, or ace a test… just to show that they knew how to solve the problems and get some high school credits. The issue, however, was when you asked them what the answers actually meant… as in, “What are you actually telling me?” Blank stares and a response of, “Well, the answer is 22.5432432….” were quite often the conversations hastily exchanged across the table. Were we really helping our students grow as learners and, more importantly, as college and career citizens who were ready to be sprung out into our ever-changing world? It was at this point that the shift from masters of content began to transition into helping to foster experts in context.

What if we flipped the script and started to look at STEM differently? What if instead of simply thinking that students needed to master concepts, they became experts in context in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math, and actually began to embrace STEM as “Strategies That Engage Minds” or even better yet “Solving Today’s Everyday Mysteries.” Students were now becoming real-life, rational problem-solvers instead of solving a problem solely to show the answer. When asked how something worked or why it didn’t work, a student could now articulate the Why, instead of just defend the What.   (more…)

Iteration in Action: The Urban Assembly Maker Academy

August 28, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on February 6, 2017. This is the fourth in a series on iteration in school design. 

On a recent afternoon at The Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a group of students constructs a miniature car out of a shoebox and detached racecar wheels. The car holds an egg as it rolls down a ramp and two students watch their egg fly out of its cotton-ball harness; another group’s egg is crushed when it hits the bottom. The activity measures students’ mastery of key concepts in physics, like speed and velocity. Using a teacher-designed data tracking form, each group records how effectively their car ferried the egg. Some immediately begin redrafting their designs, taking their cars apart and tweaking the configuration of the components.

This is just one example of the kind of student collaboration that permeates Maker’s section of the Murry Bergtraum campus in Manhattan’s financial district. In nearly every class, you’ll find students huddled over clusters of desks solving problems in small groups. Teachers serve as facilitators, setting the boundaries of projects and guiding students along individualized paths to completion.

By spring of their first year at Maker, some students had already completed several projects to demonstrate mastery of core competencies. They had written their own series of blog posts to narrate their experience in a science project; designed and constructed Braille signage for the hallways; and participated in a “design jam” to brainstorm solutions to community problems. When asked why they chose Maker, students agreed that the opportunity to learn about STEM-based content through projects was what sold them.

Systems to Support Mastery-based Learning

Underpinning each project is a rigorous mastery-based crediting system, designed by Principal Luke Bauer and Assistant Principal Madeline Hackett. The system requires students to demonstrate mastery at least three times before they move on to the next standard or group of standards. Each demonstration of mastery is an “at bat,” and only the three most recent “at bats” count toward a student’s credit attainment. Students must perform at 80% or above on a given “at bat” to earn mastery. Since mastery only depends on a student’s last three “at bats,” a student can “lose mastery” of a given set of standards if they perform poorly on recent assessments. The system pushes students to hone their skills from the beginning to the end of each semester while sending the message that skills and knowledge are never permanently attained. UA Maker explains their approach in this series of videos.

The system took a few iterations to become what it is today. Originally, students had to complete five “at bats” to achieve mastery. When that proved too cumbersome, Bauer and his team trimmed it to three. Additionally, when ready-made tech products UA Maker launched with did not seamlessly accommodate the mastery system, Bauer’s team had to awkwardly adapt those systems to make them function properly. A few months into their first year, school leadership opted to ditch the ready-made tech solutions for a DIY combination of Google docs and hard copy records. Eventually, UA Maker hired a developer to build their own tech system, which allows students and staff to quickly access a snapshot of where any student stands on their mastery journey at a given time.

Much of Maker’s early professional development, as Bauer describes it, focused on developing open communication between students and teachers around what students know and what their “at bat” scores mean. One teacher, with Bauer’s support, has been coaching students to take ownership of their collective mastery of standards. Students are encouraged to say to themselves and each other, “Hey, as a class, we don’t know this. We’re not clear on “X” content piece, so let’s figure this out by the end of class.” This kind of self-awareness and collective accountability can only happen in an environment of transparency and rapid feedback. As Bauer describes it, “the narrative of a course” must be clear to everyone, from teachers to families. (more…)

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