STEM for All Through Meaningful Project Based Learning

On March 9, 2021, Defined Learning hosted a virtual PBL & STEM Summit. With over 2000 participants from across the nation, the summit featured a session by Tabitha Branum, Deputy Superintendent of Schools and Kyndra Johnson, Executive Director of STEM and Innovation for Richardson ISD, TX on their goal of “STEM for All “. With 53 school campuses and nearly 40,000 students, Richardson ISD has been recognized nationally for educational excellence despite nearly 60% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. These progressive, innovative leaders share what it takes to give hope to every student through STEM in an interview with Defined Learning.

“COVID Catalysts”

Like many districts around the world, Richardson ISD faced the challenge of creating a fully digital learning experience for their students in less than one week regardless of the fact that half their students did not have the resources to support online learning. Richardson deployed nearly 2500 hotspots and iPads or Chromebooks for all students while also preparing every teacher to support virtual learning. 

These challenges had hidden benefits, however, what Branum calls “COVID Catalysts”. Teachers had to pivot. In the midst of uncertainty came areas of opportunity to grow teachers and learners to reimagine the future of the school. 

Kyndra Johnson had the challenge of pivoting the robust STEM program from face-to-face to virtual instruction. PBL was recently embedded as a strategy across the board, but the district was still in a learning phase. Through powerful partnerships with resources like Defined Learning, the Department of Teaching and Learning recognized an opportunity to provide key resources at a critical time so teachers did not feel overwhelmed. Content specialists embedded digital resources in curriculum documents, helping to maintain a culture of STEM amidst the challenge of virtual learning. Teachers decided to offer after-school clubs from second grade on. Partners brought in authentic learning experiences and products in a virtual setting through Zoom that allowed students to continue to connect with businesses and community partners. “It takes a village,” says Johnson. “Villages are important. Partners want to help us. Beginning last spring, we were able to find out who our true partners are.”

Richardson ISD offered STEM clubs and competitions virtually and also shifted their professional development program online. “We knew our teachers needed more TLC than PD”, said Johnson. Teachers were able to learn, connect and grow through self-paced modules and live events. Parents also continued to connect through virtual parent universities, casting a wider net to connect to families because of the convenience and flexibility of online learning.


An Indefinite Future of Virtual Teaching

“We do not want to lose momentum. We want to use that momentum to power us forward,” says Branum. “We have teachers who say they now see how technology can be the differentiator in their classrooms.” The teachers are learning to use technology tools to help students unlock knowledge and information so they do not always have to be the ones who know it all. Evidence of the PBL problem-solving cycle is everywhere. From virus risk to navigating study skills for virtual learning, students are using the “need to know” process to solve problems. 


An Intentional Focus on PBL

”Kids have to see it if they are ever going to be it.”

Branum believes engaging, meaningful learning can and does take place in a traditional learning environment. However, she also believes that closing the achievement gap can be accelerated when students have clarity behind why they are learning what they are learning and get to drive the learning. If students are to determine what they need to know and can identify the best way to demonstrate their deep mastery, this cannot be achieved without the true marriage that happens in a student-driven learning environment using a strategy like PBL. PBL fosters the future-ready skill sets that are as important as academic skills, such as communication, professional ethics, and resiliency. “You hear kids talk about their learning differently. They are able to articulate how they are able to use the skill in order to design the solution to a problem.”, says Branum.

Johnson says the first thing is thinking about teaching and learning through the eyes of a student. In order to do that, students need to be engaged in lessons and units that allow them to see relevancy, engage in critical thinking, allow for collaboration and invite problem-solving. “Our goal is for students to be global citizens who build and strengthen their self-efficacy. The best way to do that is through an authentic learning approach.”, according to Johnson. The district is leveraging their diversity to drive their innovation, engaging all students and the community to deploy this new type of learning.”It is more than just buying a resource. Our kids are getting a window into their future.” The district has made intentional efforts to update its curriculum and forge more strategic alliances with partners in business and industry. 

One such opportunity came to the district recently during Black History Month and National CTE month. Johnson is working with the Flying Classroom and the STEM+ curriculum to continue hands-on, inquiry-based learning in a virtual environment. In addition to using resources like Defined Learning for professional development and task identification, Captain Barrington Irving invited students to connect real-world learning at an airport with the aviation pathway available to them in the Berkner High School feeder pattern. The district will now host “Fly Fridays” to take an hour-long break from the standard curriculum to experience a “ground expedition” using materials from a district-provided kit. Students will use kit materials to engage in STEM activities with Captain Barrington Irving, assuming the role of scientists and engineers, performing tasks and challenges faced by professionals in the field for a one-of-a-kind “virtual field trip” that involves students of all ages and even their parents and families.

Branum ended by saying, “What we are doing is building a culture where our principals see the difference these experiences are having for kids. As a result, they are committed to removing the barriers that prevent that learning from happening. You dismantle them and you break them down then you rebuild them. Those are the practices that we had to apply every day during a pandemic and we now see that they can work on everyday problems whether they are small or big. That is a really big part of this work.”

Continue to follow the Richardson ISD journey by following @RichardsonISD, @iam_branum, and @kyndra_johnson on social media!


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