In HP Teaching Fellow Melissa Wrenchey’s class, students collaborate to design prototypes that address real-world challenges. Students model how professional product teams work together to create prototypes for authentic users. Below, Melissa shares advice for how teachers can facilitate these kinds of powerful collaborative learning experiences with their students.
In this culminating project-based unit, students design prototypes for real users that address issues related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although this unit occurs at the end of the school year, my teammate, Karen Schaeffer. and I front-load expectations to students and their parents, and help students build skills for the project as soon as the school year begins.
Throughout the school year, students work on design thinking strategies and building a skillset so they can develop their own prototypes. Students have opportunities to work on smaller projects to familiarize themselves with collaborative learning and integrated projects. Simultaneously, we introduce students to the SDGs as focus concepts for the projects. By the time we arrive at the end of the year, students have researched SDGs such as Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, and Clean Energy. Building their skillset and their knowledge base makes them eager to solve authentic problems.
Students need the space to truly own their work. In previous iterations of this course, we assigned deadlines. This time, student teams divide the work by deciding roles for each person and set their own deadlines to complete the work for their role. Along the way, I lead small scrum sessions so that they have more time for their collaborations.
Students tell me that the division of responsibilities makes the culmination of the project more enjoyable. It allows each person to contribute with shorter deadlines and individual deliverables and makes it easier to assess each person’s contribution. All of this creates space for more personalization and growth.
Collaborating with my teammate Karen creates a richer experience for both students and teachers. We role model the kind of collaboration we expect and share with our students how we are working together to make the unit a success, how we disagree on issues, how we compromise, and most importantly, how our work is better because of the collaboration.
I advise teacher professional learning cohorts to start small if they plan to introduce a project-based learning unit. If they are already working on a project-based learning unit with a cohort, they can find ways to stretch. For example, this year we are expanding our collaboration by bringing on a computer science teacher and a guest speaker.
We often think that evaluation and improvement happen at the end of the project, but Karen and I begin having discussions about continuous improvement as soon as the project is underway. We also support students through a process of feedback and iteration. We use the engineering design process as a cycle of designing, iterating, and improving. In one awesome project, students tested a composter with real-world users. The teammates tested the project at home and got feedback as they rotated among houses. Another team created their own game testing protocol and got feedback from a local game library. Students must show how they used feedback to improve their design in the final presentation.
Join me on Tuesday, October 15 at 6 p.m. ET for a webinar “How to Create Powerful STEM Learning Experiences with Technology,” where I will share more about student collaboration, the engineering design process, and project-based learning.
HP Teaching Fellows, part of HP and Microsoft’s Reinvent the Classroom initiative, supports innovative elementary and secondary school teachers demonstrating powerful teaching and learning with technology. If you are interested in becoming a Fellow or nominating an educator, please complete the HP Teaching Fellows interest form.