31420_741647699965_4563603_nAfter the talkSTEM screening and panel discussion of the documentary film, Most Likely To Succeed, in August, one of the key points emerging in audience questions was an excellent one. How do we get more teachers like the ones we saw in the film?  I reached out to High Tech High School and Scott Swaaley, the teacher we see engaging the kids with some amazing tasks and laughing with the kids about their failures, was nice enough to respond.  Scott is passionate, energetic, knowledgeable and fun.  In short, he’s the teacher we all wish we had!  He describes himself as a STEAMM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math and Manufacturing) teacher.  Here’s the conversation we had:

What’s the hardest part of your work?

I work 60-90 hours a week during the school year and 15-30 in the summer. I am a fundraiser, graphic artist, materials sourcing expert, engineer, facilities manager, web developer, curriculum designer, grading software designer, consultant. I love wearing multiple hats but am often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work – much of which is somewhat menial.

What would you recommend to a teacher interested in trying out PBL in her biology class? (I ask about biology because one issue is that most of the PBL exemplars out there focus on physics, math and computer science, leaving many involved in biology and chemistry feeling like they need not think about PBL, that this is all about programming robots, etc.)  I should also add that life science and biology classes from middle school through college are frequently guilty of turning into vocab lessons more than anything else.  This irks me as a former biology teacher because the subject is so much more than a list of terms to be memorized!!

I would start with asking what that teachers hobbies or interests are. Crocheting? Bike Riding? Writing? Then I would try and find a way to weave a meaningful and authentic project or curriculum around that interest that also ties into biology. Off the top of my head, some examples here:
1.  These books: Created by 6th grade students at High Tech High and Created by Biology Students at High Tech High
2.  We have a teacher that really doesn’t like being inside and is fitness focused so he used organized student bike rides to explore the San Diego river. From those experiences, students recognized a need, which in this case was deteriorating ecological displays. Students then each specialized in a part of the river (from sampling water quality and bacteria populations to fish and game) then created interpretive panels that were then installed (by the city) along the river.
3.  As an example of teacher reflection on her practice: A blog of one of our computer science teachers

To what extent do you consider state standards or textbook guidelines in terms of figuring out what content to address?

Textbooks: zero consideration
State standards: I like to keep abreast of what they are and where they are heading but it is primarily something I keep in the back of my head. When thinking up a project, experience, or product, standards (and my personal interests) are then used to scaffold, plan, and filter ideas such that there is authentic and meaningful content throughout the project.

Examples of how you developed a particular project idea?

Here are some examples:
The LongNow Project: In collaboration with The Long Now Foundation, our students will be researching the dilemmas our society currently faces, postulating research-based alternate futures based on how humanity responds to those challenges, then creating a mechanical manifestation of these alternate futures. Our current thinking is that this will be a 3-dimensional apparatus that is viewable from 360° and purposed for a foyer type space. Click here to see a time lapse video of the setup for the LONG Now Project, exhibited at San Diego Science Alliance High Tech Fair.

Initial Prototype and Ideation for the Long Now Project

The Apocalypto Project
Piracy Based Learning Project

Example of how you developed assessment for the project?

In an ideal project (the thing we all aspire to but never achieve), the assessments are completely performance based. For example, on our Piracy Based Learning project, students went through a great deal of manual hydrodynamic calculations based on the designed geometry of their craft. While we spent a great deal of time on critique of that work, the real test was whether or not your boat performed as you designed it to. But to be clear, even that final performance isn’t necessarily a summative assessment. It’s just one more formative assessment. Most of my grading is focused around meeting of deadlines and objectives, and less around relative performance or end product.

What was the typical student response to the assessment?

They see something happen and they self-assess. It’s natural.  If they don’t, then you can structure more intentional moments for reflection and improvement.

What types of scaffolding do you provide as teacher, that you think teachers in general need to be mindful of? (I loved the text I read in your site about emotional and project scaffolding together with the caution of balancing adversity.) 

Some of that is covered in Adversity by Design. Teachers should be very conscientious about what student struggle is about. I want to create the illusion of complete independence but in the background I often am arranging materials and resources, providing tutorials and guidance and other support. The trick is waiting for them to need that information then “it just happens” that you can point them in the right direction or provide that support. It’s very easy, if you’re not careful, to turn this whole PBL thing into just a pointless struggle (my emphasis). Students don’t have the bed of experience we do – we can’t expect that they’ll just spontaneously manifest a solution to a complex problem. We need to make sure they have some sort of context, whether it’s helping them select physical materials, or scaffolding a proxy of an experience that they’ll need to draw on later. We want to make sure that their struggle is reasonable and that it works out well for them … eventually.

What are your thoughts on the perspective that STEM education may be happening at the expense of the humanities? (Click here to see previous blog post responding to Fareed Zakaria’s position on this as an example)

I don’t know Fareed’s book but I think that any kind of deliberate focus on one discipline and neglecting of another is stupid. One is useless without the other. But the trick is … we need to have educators that are fluent in (or at least appreciative of) multiple subjects. Students should learn. If a student chooses to focus on one discipline or the other, we should let them as long as they have an appreciation and at least cursory exposure to others. But as adults, we should make sure that all students have broad exposure to varied (and overlapping) disciplines.

Additional resources:

Scott’s Project Design Guide

About Scott Swaaley:  

Scott has been very recently selected by The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation as an Allen Distinguished Educator.  He is also the recipient of the 2014 Partner in Education Award, given by the Aerospace Physiology Society.  He has been featured on Teaching Channel – Engaging Students in Work that Matters, received honorable mention in the McGraw Hill STEM Innovators in Education Competition, received education grants from: McGraw Hill, The San Diego Foundation, and Donors Choose.  He has published in MAKE magazine (in process) and in EC&M magazine (Electrical Construction and Maintenance – May 2012 – The Truth Behind Energy Project Economics).  Scott has a B.S., Electrical Engineering from California Polytechnic University and worked as an engineer until 2011 when he applied himself to his true calling, teaching, at High Tech High School in San Diego.
He recalls that seventh grade was the first time he had a teacher who taught from a script, overhead slides in this case, and he experienced what it was like to spend the majority of class staring at a teacher’s back. The trend continued through college, leaving him frustrated and sad for some of his peers, who struggled to bridge the gap between the textbook and the test materials. He often watched as teachers overlooked or blatantly contributed to student anxiety and inadequacy.  During his second year of college, he noticed that he had an affinity for grasping concepts from varied or sparse materials. With most lectures leaning well into both categories, he found himself trying to explain, re-explain, and draw analogies to coursework in his study groups. He could often be found scribbling across a white board in a study room, walking someone through a problem, or otherwise entertaining the group. This is where he first realized that he liked being in that role.
This quickly led to a position running state-sponsored calculus workshops, where he found that many students have a mental block for mathematics, or formal reasoning in general, which he could often trace back to a poor classroom experience in their distant past.  Later, as an engineer, he realized that the most personally rewarding parts of his work were when he was challenging himself mathematically, mentoring a peer, and presenting at conferences or to clients.  He decided to reevaluate what he wanted to do and found himself in a place he loves to teach, High Tech High.

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About the Founder & CEO

Dr. Koshi Dhingra has dedicated her career to STEM education and is passionate about having every child live up to their potential. Seeing a lack of girls and other underrepresented youth in STEM programs, she founded talkSTEM in 2015 to address the imbalance. She has a doctorate in science education from Teachers College, Columbia University, has years of experience teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs, and has held leadership roles in universities. She advises and collaborates with a broad range of educational institutions globally. Dr. Dhingra began her career teaching science in middle and high school in New York. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, three children, and two dogs.


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