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Project-Based Learning: Connecting With Your Community

Today's guest blog is written by Mike Arsenault, Instructional Technology Integrator at Frank H. Harrison Middle School inYarmouth, Maine.

These engaging tools surround us, and have the potential to change how we interact with one another, but more importantly, the community at large. Classrooms and learning opportunities within those classrooms are becoming more and more collaborative. Student collaboration typically happens student-to-student, student to teacher, and student to community.

We can't forget the community. The community connections can be local people or anyone in the world with tools like Skype, Google+ Hangouts, email, phone calls and more. The community offers us support, but also can provide students with important insight into what is needed as they enter the workforce. The relationships created between students and the community may even inspire community members to learn from students and become more innovative.

In the last few months I have been fortunate to see some great student presentations of exemplary projects. Frank Harrison Middle School (Yarmouth, ME) was a national finalist in this year's Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest. As part of this contest we presented our work alongside the other 14 finalists at the SXSWedu conference. As I watched the presentations I noticed that each one included collaboration with outside experts in their community.

A few months later our students were invited to present at the 2014 Maine STEM Ecology Summit. Once again...as I watched other schools present their work I noticed that these projects included partnerships, typically with local universities and colleges.

This year we have placed an emphasis on creating opportunities for our students to work with people outside of the school. This started in December as we took part in the Hour of Code activities. The Hour of Code initiative was started by Code.org and backed by many companies and celebrities. Its focus is to demystify computer science and to create an opportunity for students to gain exposure to writing computer code using online tutorials during Computer Science Education Week. We contacted local companies to request that they share their coders to work with our students as they completed the tutorials. To build excitement for the project several of these professionals visited our Math classrooms the week before Hour of Code and spoke with our students about their jobs and what they did on a day-to-day basis.

The project we completed for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest exploring the effects of an invasive species, the European Green Crab, is having on the Maine coastline was also a great example of students working with outside experts. As we started the project a European Green Crab Summit was scheduled in Maine. Our students went through the list of presenters to learn about their research. We contacted each of the presenters and requested that they meet with our students to help them with their work. As our group worked on the project they were connected with: three university professors doing cutting edge research, our town manager and the president of the Maine Clammers Association.

After seeing the great presentations at the 2014 Maine STEM Ecology Summit I tweeted how impressed I was with them. I received a reply asking, "Rural schools have a difficult time doing this and being a part of programs...advice?"

My advice to teachers looking to add external partnerships within their schools is simple... ask for help.

Most people in industry and higher education are excited about what they do and enjoy sharing their expertise with K-12 students. When you ask have a good idea of what you want from your partners. People are much more willing to help you if they have a clear idea of your expectations.

Teachers must also be willing to meet with these individuals at a place where they are comfortable. In our experience with the European Green Crab project our students met with some of our external partners face to face. Other partners due to distances away from our school were not willing to travel to work with our students. We used tools like Skype, Google+ Hangouts and simple audio only phone calls depending on the tech savviness of each partner. These people are helping you so you must be accommodating to their needs.

Connecting students with outside experts can create a much more powerful and real learning experience for your students. Experts in the field bring their experiences to our students in ways most classroom teachers cannot. That connection to a unit of study will increase student engagement and make the learning much more long lasting. It takes time to cultivate these connections but the time is well worth it.

Connect with Mike on Twitter.  

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