Imagine if a district had a chance to build their schools from the ground up knowing what they do today about how to create an environment that optimizes learning. At Prosper Independent School District, the fastest-growing school district in Texas, they not only have the unique opportunity to design their brand-new schools for 21st-century learning, but they are also inviting students to participate in the process. Michael Pflug, the K-12 STEAM Curriculum Designer for Prosper ISD believes that learners must be put in situations that replicate what they will be doing in the real world. “The way our society is going we need to prepare students with technical skills and prepare them for all post-secondary options. Project Based Learning (PBL) does that.”
At Prosper ISD, students participate in project-based STEM learning opportunities throughout their K-12 experience. For example, high school students worked with school facilities staff to design a sky bridge connecting two parts of a school and presented their ideas to the school board. Through this way of PBL learning, kids don’t see schoolwork as a chore; they see it as learning the information they need to solve a problem they care about.
Empowering Teachers with High-Quality Resources
Getting teachers started with PBL has not been without challenges. The rapid growth of the district requires a constant flow of new teachers, many with limited prior exposure to PBL. To guide teachers, the district follows the research-based Understanding by Design (UbD) model. To help their teachers implement high-quality PBL with ease, the district provides Defined Learning which offers an online library of career-focused performance tasks that follow the UbD model. “Defined Learning has been a great way to get our teachers to buy in because it already speaks the language they are using. It’s all there for them,” says Pflug.
To introduce project-based learning, the district provides professional development over the summer the week before school starts. Using a Defined Learning task, they put the teachers in the role of students and have them do each step. They solve real-world problems, do a presentation and create products just like the students would in order to understand how students would feel.
The district works hard to provide the materials necessary to make performance tasks possible. However, Pflug argues, limited supplies should not stop teachers or districts. He encourages teachers not to make limited supplies a design constraint and says it’s how you use materials and what you ask kids to produce that really matters. When financial support did come, the district opted for real-world tools like 3D printers rather than purchasing boxed kits with pre-assembled supplies. They focused their efforts on integrating the use of the printers into core curriculum, creating real-world STEAM opportunities not just in electives, but also in regular academic courses.
One of the goals of Texas House Bill 3 is to push the multiple entry and exit points in specific career pathways so that no matter what students want to do post-secondary, they are prepared. While teachers and principals initially viewed PBL as an elective and less important than more traditional measures, this new legislation has pushed the district to start having future-focused conversations with even the youngest students in the district. They show students how performance tasks better prepare them for something that has a purpose in high school and beyond.
The Texas Workforce Commission and Interlink are reminding districts that our world is changing and some of the innovative technologies that are coming are going to transform education – the industry is saying we need people who will be ready for that. Says Pflug, “Industry will be the biggest driver to influence education so our district is committed to STEM education. In the past 10 years biotechnology has changed the way they are perceiving science education. Defined Learning tasks allow students to start thinking about career pathways at an early age, exploring and going deeper into industry expectations as they move through the grade levels.”
Prosper ISD’s sixth-graders will return to school in January focused on an urgent problem in their local community: how to create more affordable housing in Prosper. They will design a floor plan, draw it to scale and create a model as a finished product. When parents see what their students are designing they say, “I didn’t even do this until college!” says Pflug.