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Project-Based and Place-Based Learning in New Tech Schools

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By Guest Author: Julia McBride

New Tech Network (NTN) is a national non-profit organization based in Napa, California, that partners with districts and communities to develop innovative K-12 learning environments. Schools in the Network are centered on a culture that empowers, teaching that engages, technology that enables and outcomes that matter, so that students graduate aware, eligible and prepared for college and career. The Network currently consists of 180+ public and charter schools in urban, rural and suburban communities in 29 states and Australia.

Both NTN schools and NTN as an organization deeply value the creation of opportunities that get both students and adults learning beyond school walls and engaged with external partners in their community and across the Network. This means that students and educators are often engaged in project-based and place-based learning experiences that leverage partnerships and community assets to make learning authentic and meaningful.

Bonsall New Tech High School "Keepers of the Forest" Project

Daniel Costa, the World Studies facilitator from Bonsall High School (BHS), a New Tech school in Bonsall, California, wanted to develop a truly authentic project-based experience for his students that helped them to dig deeply into content standards around African imperialism. So he began by asking his students what they really wanted to do in their next project. Students overwhelmingly agreed that they wanted to "build something!" and so Danny took this request and ran with it.

After exploring his own networks, Costa partnered with ECOLIFE, a San Diego area organization dedicated to "integrating community health and environmental sustainability through simple-adaptive approaches" in the United States, Mexico and Uganda for a project designed to marry World History and World Literature standards with a real-world challenge.

Mr. Costa and ECOLIFE Executive Director Bill Toone worked together to craft the project's Driving Questions: "How can ECOLIFE best assist the Batwa people while respecting their indigenous culture? How can the current design of ECOLIFE's stoves be improved upon, to better fit the cultural needs of the Batwa?"

Costa and Toone introduced the project to students with a version of this entry document, which described the context for their project-based challenge and its connection to ECOLIFE's mission. As students took on the Driving Questions for this project, they deepened their knowledge about African imperialism and engaged in critical analysis of texts such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. See a student describe the learning experience on BHS's homepage.

Mr. Costa, Mr. Toone and four BHS students shared their learning from this project in an experiential fashion with 30 New Tech Network school leaders as part of the NTN National Leadership Summit held in San Diego, CA from February 17-19, 2016. Participants experienced a slice of the Keepers of the Forest project from the student perspective, observed and provided feedback on students' final project presentations, and reflected upon community partnership opportunities in their local contexts with the support of the BHS students as thought partners.

One participant suggested that this Summit offering was the most valuable part of the conference for them, sharing that "Hearing Bill's [Toone's] story was fascinating, and I truly enjoyed being in the role of a student." Another participant offered that this "session was the highlight of the conference for me. It was great to see the work the students did and the enthusiasm of the students, teacher and community member."

Pinckney New Tech High School and Lowry Solutions - A Longstanding Internship Program
Students at Pinckney New Tech High School (PNTHS) in Pinckney, Michigan, are expected to complete an internship before graduation as a requirement for earning the New Tech "seal" on their diploma. Since 2012, PNTHS has partnered and grown their relationship with the local mobility solutions company, Lowry Solutions, where PNTHS students have access to a wide range of internships across various departments ranging from marketing to social media to packaging to product design.

Every year the process begins second semester when Lowry representatives visit the PNTHS eleventh grade English class and present an overview of their business and a real world challenge they are experiencing. Lowry's slide presentation is structured as a "request for proposal" (RFP), and students ask several clarifying questions (need to knows) to formulate a plan.

In small teams, students then have two weeks to research Lowry and their industry further to create a proposed solution to the company's challenge. During that time, Lowry staff are invited back to the classroom where they meet with the various student groups for "project meetings," providing feedback and further collaborating with the students.

Teams present their proposals at Lowry Headquarters in front of 10 to 15 employees including vice presidents, department heads, project managers and the HR director, who all ask deep, probing questions of each team. As part of the presentation introduction process, students are asked to explicitly express whether they would like to be considered for a summer internship with Lowry and in what department.

These presentations serve as a performance task before individual interviews within each student's preferred internship department. In the 2014-15 school year, 17 students were selected for internships, and in 2015-16, 23 students were selected (the largest group offer to date). Once offers are made, the chosen students interact directly with Lowry's intern coordinator and HR to work out the logistics

During their summer internship, the students are treated as employees, working on real projects (matched to their interests/career goals) individually or as part of a team. After engaging in their summer internship experience, they reflect upon their learning and experience through an official presentation back on the PNTHS campus.

Lastly, at the beginning of the following school year, Lowry hosts a banquet dinner at a local upscale restaurant for the PNTHS students, parents, staff and New Tech Network coach. They celebrate the relationship, the interns and their accomplishments and present a plaque for the school and gifts for the students.

Lowry team members regularly express that this relationship has improved their organizational capacity and culture, and Pinckney New Tech students leave with deeper collaboration and communication skills, having experienced success in a professional setting and grown their resume before graduating from high school.

Since 2012, 63 PNTHS students have completed a 40-hour internship with Lowry Solutions of Brighton, Michigan. In addition to internships, several students have also been selected for paid positions at Lowry.

According to Mike Lowry, CEO of Lowry Solutions, "Today's high school students are the future of our society. Our partnership with [Pinckney] New Tech is far more than we imagined when it started. The students are bright and energetic, allowing for our organization to learn just as much from them as they learn from us. We look forward to a longstanding partnership with this outstanding education program."

This blog is part of our "Place-Based Education" blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd.

Julia McBride is the New Tech Network Director of School Leadership. Follow her on Twitter: @julia_lesley.

For more, see:

  • Genius Loci: Place-Based Education & Why It Matters
  • The Students and Parents of Project-Based Learning
  • Getting Smart on Learner-Centered STEM
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