Building a Workforce for the Digital Age

21st Century skills: What are they? How can we prepare our students for the workplace of the future? Guest blogger Nathan Hartman, the Dauch Family Professor of Advanced Manufacturing and Head of the Computer Graphics Technology Department at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, gives us some insight on the path of manufacturing education from the Industrial Revolution to the present day and shares his assessment of the tools students will need for the future.

Full disclosure: Nathan Hartman is one of my former students. Working with him on this blog post has been a distinct pleasure. Welcome back to my American Classroom, Nathan!

According to several studies, somewhere around the year 2025, the typical U.S. worker will have around 20% of the information they need to do their job created and delivered to them by a machine, likely some type of computer. Near that same time period, the world will experience over 35 billion connections to the Internet. Living in such a connected world will no doubt have an influence on how people work, as well as how they are prepared for such work. A very good example of this playing out before our eyes today is in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Nathan Hartman and his Purdue Polytechnic student, teaching and learning for the future

According to many of those same studies, by 2025, the U.S. will have likely experienced the creation of roughly 3 million manufacturing jobs that do not exist today and will still have roughly 2 million unfilled jobs that have been digitally transformed to require a new skill set. This scenario will create even more strain on an already burdened labor market in manufacturing. Couple that strain with new models of working, such as a borderless workforce and non-hierarchical organizations and the design and manufacture of wearable products and continuously connected devices, and one can see that an entirely new ecosystem of work is developing. One for which our current education systems and methods have but minimal preparation. Current life expectancies in developed countries point to a person born today living to be nearly 100 years old. How do we educate a person born today to exist in a world where they not only change jobs multiple times but potentially change careers multiple times?

By most accounts these days, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. is doing well, even with the recent downturn in the automotive industry. However, it is difficult to pick up a newspaper without reading something about the challenge companies are facing in hiring. According to numerous recent studies by the likes of Gartner, Deloitte, McKinsey, and others, the current manufacturing output is high, but the future looks a bit bleak. Not necessarily due to competition with low-labor-cost countries or some governmental policy per se, but to a lack of a skilled workforce coupled with rapid technological change. Most authorities peg the shortage between 2 million and 3 million manufacturing workers by 2027. Regardless of the cause, even if the worker shortage is “fixed,” it will not likely address a more fundamental trend in the U.S. people choosing other career fields over manufacturing. But before diving into a discussion about education and workforce development, let’s look briefly at the technological transformation at the heart of this predicament.

Most of us grew up learning about the Industrial Revolution – the mechanization of work to ease the load on human beings and to increase their efficiency. However, what many people may not be aware of is that we have had several industrial revolutions over the last two hundred years. Industry 1.0 began with the mechanization of work, which led to the electrification of work during Industry 2.0 in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the early 1960s with the rise of personal and industrial computing, electrification of work gave way to the automation of work to create Industry 3.0. And as those technologies became commonplace and we saw the uses of data expand, we have arrived in the 2010s at Industry 4.0 – the digitalization of information to support the automation and computing backbones that already have been built. Not only are we on our fourth industrial revolution, but the elapsed time between the revolutions has been substantially decreasing.

In parallel with the technological gains in efficiency, accuracy, and sustainability that it is experiencing today, the manufacturing sector is struggling to transform its workforce. For every industrial revolution the world has seen, there has been an accompanying educational revolution. In the U.S. and Europe, those transformations came in the movement away from the master/apprentice model (Education 1.0) to the movement around Manual Arts and Industrial Arts (Education 2.0), which focused on basic job skills for the growing mass production economy. Over the 20th century, we saw the move towards Technology Education, with its focus on domain-specific content areas and a systemic view of technology as a discipline in and of itself (Education 3.0). The current education transformation relative to manufacturing is now focused on design thinking and a ‘system of systems’ view (Education 4.0) of developing and implementing technology and using digital data to assess, diagnose, and implement solutions to problems.

Yet, if we have had parallel revolutions between industry and education, why does the manufacturing sector find itself with such a shortage of skilled workers, and how might we begin to address this shortage? How we can adapt our Education 4.0 revolution to better address the needs of the manufacturing sector of our economy? The dawning of technologies such as additive manufacturing, high-performance computing and data analytics, generative design, and artificial intelligence means that humans will no longer have the cognitive playing field to themselves. Machines will be able to process more quickly, more cheaply and with fewer errors than their human counterpart, at least in some activities. That could make the hollowing-out of human tasks, now cognitive as well as manual, far greater than ever before. So what do humans have left? What should we prepare our students for?

Project-based Learning offers students opportunities for critical thinking, creative problem-solving, communication, and collaboration: all, 21st Century skills. This picture is from the Purdue D-Bait project at McCutcheon High School, reported in a previous blog post, It’s Not about the Lure

Demand for skills of the head (cognitive) have dominated those of the hands (technical) and to a lesser extent, those of the heart (social) over the past 300 years.  In the future, a tighter coupling will need to exist between a person’s cognitive knowledge and their technical and affective knowledge. During the first three Industrial Revolutions, the skills workers needed to keep ahead of the machines were largely cognitive. Machines were doing manual tasks and cognitive tasks were the exclusive domain of humans. However, with the rise of social networks, artificial intelligence, and the digitalization of information, Industry 4.0 threatens to change the balance of power in what had been exclusively the human’s cognitive domain. Students must be exposed to and become proficient in multiple modes of problem-solving; that is, they will need an education that prepares them to perform cognitive tasks requiring creativity and intuition. They will need to solve problems whose solutions require great (but logical) leaps of imagination. There will remain a demand for skills to program, test and oversee machines. Personalized design and manufacturing will become more common as the information needed to customize products for individuals is more readily available. A student’s ability to use social skills to execute, and when necessary, lead initiatives that require emotional intelligence rather than cognitive intelligence alone. Preparing graduates solely for cognitive skills will not be enough for the 4th Industrial Revolution.

We must build upon the traditional literacies of reading, writing, and mathematics. Students still must be able to take in information, assimilate it with what they already know, and form a conclusion. They must still be able to understand the physical and temporal phenomena expressed by modern mathematics and science. However, we must move them past simply assimilating and synthesizing information and towards interpretation and systematic decision making based on that information synthesis. New types of literacy might include:

  • Data literacy: the ability to read, analyze and apply information. Advanced data gathering and analytics tools will increase the quantity and quality of information available to people, and use contextual cues to help them in understanding what is presented to them. It will be incumbent on our students to know how to apply that information to their problem and to be able to discern accurate and useful information from that which is not.
  • Technological literacy: coding and engineering principles. Technologies have been created and used since the beginning of humankind, which is arguably one of the things that separate humans from their ancestors. Yet this new incarnation of technological literacy will enable our students to incorporate factual and procedural, process-oriented information into the physical tools and objects they design and build, thus creating a more “intelligent” products.
  • Human literacy: humanities, communication and design. Our ability and willingness to connect to fellow human beings through, and in spite of, our technologies will become increasingly important. Solving complex problems will not only require the rational theorems and postulates of our mathematical techniques, but the empathy that comes from being human, as we have yet to develop a computing technology with the human capacity to assimilate, interpret, and feel.

Finally, as we develop in our students these higher-order literacies based on digital tools and information, we must also move them towards higher-order mindsets and ways of thinking about and viewing the world. We must encourage them to embrace systems thinking, not necessarily the abstract mathematical representations of it, but the Gestaltist view that yields the ability to view an enterprise, machine or subject holistically, making connections between different functions in an integrative way. Entrepreneurship will become increasingly important, although not in the economic sense per se, but in the application of creative thinking to solve problems and take risks in implementing those solutions in our social institutions. Our students must also become culturally agile as physical, geographic borders become less and less relevant in an age of global commerce and the economic viability of singular customers. And we must encourage and challenge our students to embrace ambiguity as a fact of life and to employ critical thinking as much as possible. The habits of disciplined, rational analysis and judgment will serve them well in a world that increasingly relies on digital information and the accompanying networks to disseminate it.

The manufacturing sector and the education system that supports it cannot hide from these technological changes. It would be like trying to away from a tsunami: We will eventually be overtaken. As an educational community, we must embrace these changes, engage with the manufacturing sector, and adapt our respective curricula to meet the needs of a future and a transitioning workforce. By doing so, we can provide the manufacturing sector with the workforce it needs, and we can provide the manufacturing workforce pipeline some sense of stability in an otherwise rapidly advancing future.

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It’s Not About the Lure

ELECTROFishing

  • Aquarium net
  • Transparent plastic containers
  • Plastic buckets
  • Golf balls
  • Magnifying glass
  • Ice cube tray
  • Parametric software
  • 3-D printers

and

  • Students in Honors 9 Biology, AP Biology, and Principles of Engineering

Put them all together and what do you get?

Fishing lures!

Except, it wasn’t about the lures.

Teacher Zach McKeever supervises as students float golf balls in tin foil boats to understand buoyancy

Teams of students from these three classes at McCutcheon High School joined forces to learn about the fish that swim in Wea Creek, the insects that attract them, and the design process engineers use to create any new product. The standards addressed by this bioengineering module pulled from biology, physics, math, technology literacy, and environmental systems. The students spent time at the creek in waders, capturing and identifying fish through electrofishing techniques guest instructors from Purdue University showed them. They identified aquatic insects–also caught in the creek that runs behind our school–and preserved them in transparent containers to learn about biomimicry. Using a decision matrix to guide their design choices, the student teams created fishing lures that looked and moved like the insects they’d observed. They floated golf balls in tin foil “boats” and used their math skills to determine the buoyancy of their designs. Ultimately, the students used Inventor, a parametric modeling software program, to visualize a prototype. The most promising prototypes were printed using a 3-D printer.

20180911_121840When they weren’t outdoors, the teams met together in the Media Center where large round tables and lots of space facilitated consultation and collaboration. The four teachers, whose schedules had been specifically arranged to accommodate this project-based learning endeavor, floated among the groups. The large space also improved the efficiency of the project. “It was much easier to walk between tables to answer a question than to send an email from one classroom to another,” commented engineering teacher Zach McKeever.

Finally, each team made a PowerPoint presentation of their experience, including a reflection on their performance in terms of communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and computational thinking. An expert angler was present for some of the final presentations and inspected the lures close-up. The students listened intently to his critiques.  One group was surprised when he told them, “You could market this if you’d make just this one little change.” 

And then, on a warmish October Saturday, they tried out their lures. Total catch: a few nibbles.

20181006_093239

But that’s all right. It wasn’t about the lure.

In their wrap-up discussion, students (predictably) commented that they liked going outside and enjoyed the fishing expedition at the end. They wished they’d spent more time at the creek! They appreciated the hands-on learning and real-world application of their learning. They enjoyed the guest lecturers from Purdue who opened their eyes not only to a new way of fishing, but to the presence of specific species of fish as an indication of water cleanliness, to the connection between bioindicators and our own drinking water, and to watershed ecosystems in general.

Students test their hypotheses about the number of golf balls their vessels will hold as teacher Amanda Cox looks on

Some students did say they prefer a more traditional approach to learning: They wanted textbook learning first, then the application. However, the majority of students said they liked putting the pieces together even though they experienced some anxiety at first when they weren’t sure what was going to happen, how they would get from the assignment “Create a Lure” to the final product without the familiar front-loaded vocabulary lessons, textbook assignments, and the quizzes and tests that usually accompany traditional classroom instruction.

Other students had suggestions for their teachers for improving the unit’s design. The project had been set up to differentiate for experience (Honors 9 Bio and AP Bio) and course credit (Engineering vs. Biology). The AP Bio students, for instance, experienced the electrofishing and were responsible for conveying that information to the rest of their team. The engineering students used Inventor–and explained it to the others. The Honors 9 students did the insect study and relayed what they learned to the rest of their team. That structure led to some problems of communication, so the students suggested ways to ensure better communication and more accountability for each team member. 

Many students commented at length on the communication and collaboration skills they had needed to develop in order to be successful. Some teams reported, quite frankly, that they hadn’t started out working together well–but they overcame those obstacles because they had to. That admission–and the ultimate resolution of the problem–brought smiles to the faces of the teachers because, of course, learning to work together as a team was one of their goals. 

The principles of design apply across the board and collaborative problem-solving among individuals with different areas of expertise and different perspectives will always be the case. For example, Mr. McKeever explained, civil engineers may be commissioned to create a dam. That will certainly disrupt the ecology of a river, so the goal will be to design a structure that minimizes impact but still does the job of holding back the water. Chemical engineers may develop vaccines and the packing materials for those medications. They’ll need to take the impact of chemical emissions, waste, and the product itself into account as they develop the product.

“The biggest takeaway for me,” Mr. McKeever continued, “was the relevancy. The biology part helped the students create lures for a specific fish in a specific environment, making the whole project much more authentic. Without the biology component, the assignment would have been ‘Design a lure you think will catch a fish’.”  Not nearly so relevant and not nearly as challenging. 

For students who have never experienced project-based learning, the first venture into this way of learning can be intimidating.  But in the end, biology teacher Abi Bymaster asserts, “This project forced students to feel uncomfortable, to ‘not know the answer,’ and they couldn’t just look the answers up on Google. However, it is because of this discomfort that they learn; this is what I love about PBL.”

“Learning ‘this way’ made the learning real,” many biology students said in summary. They liked the independence, the taking charge of their own learning, the creativity expected and allowed. The students clearly saw that while the biomimicry and the buoyancy achieved by the unique anatomy of fish were concepts important to understanding predator/prey relationships, understanding the whole ecological system–and the ability to generalize that to other systems–was the greater lesson. 

Teacher Mike McKee watches as his student tries out a lure

No one misunderstood the real learning goals of this endeavor. It wasn’t about the fishing lures. It was about the interdisciplinary nature of learning and the teamwork needed to pull a project together, hallmarks of project-based learning: authentic experiences that reflect real-life problem-solving and decision-making.

This project-based learning experience has a formal name: Designing Bugs and Innovative Technology (D-Bait). It is one unit in the TRAILS curriculum designed by Jeffrey Holland, Todd R. Kelley, Euisuk Sung, and Nathaniel W. Cool at Purdue University and supported with funding from a National Science Foundation grant. The project was new this year to two of the four collaborating McCutcheon teachers, all of whom were trained during previous summers. All four of the high school teachers are looking forward to doing the project again next year–and implementing lesson design modifications suggested by their students, the bioengineers.

 

 

 

 

Thinking Made Visible

Used to be, when students would stare off into space, we wouldn’t know what they were thinking about. Now, with all the screens in front of their faces—and ours—we at least know the topic of their attention.

But what are they actually thinking? How can we get inside their heads to discern their thought process? If they’re on the mark, terrific!  But if they’re stuck, how can we know?

My colleague used these cool, washable markers and the tables in her science lab to do just that: Get inside her students’ heads.

 

We were co-teaching a lesson in AP Biology about food insecurity in Afghanistan—the primary and secondary causes and the various effects interruptions in growing and marketing food have on the health and well-being of the people in that war-torn country.  It’s a complex topic with complicated connections.

So after we set the stage by introducing new vocabulary, after we had shown a short film about microcredit and talked about food aid from foreign donors, after we’d discussed the topic as a group, we distributed a paper for students to read and a guided reading activity to accompany it. The weekend homework was for students to read the paper, which proposed some solutions to the problem, and think through the questions on the guided reading sheet.

Sure enough. Come Monday, several students hadn’t read the paper. Even more tripped up on the questions because what was called for weren’t easy, fill-in-the-blank, seek-and-find responses. The students had to think about what they had read and make connections. It was a tough assignment. The reading itself was daunting.

But what my colleague did next was not to berate the students or express exasperation. Instead, she put them in groups and asked them to draw the connections, as they understood them, between the causes and effects of food insecurity–right on her lab tables.

As the students sketched out the author’s ideas, my colleague and I were able to move from table to table and with a glance, see where thinking had gone awry, where gaps in understanding occurred. When we’d point out the exact place where the students had not understood, we could sometimes hear sucked-in breaths or audible exclamations. “Oh! I get it now!”

For us, this exercise was thinking made visible. Because of it, we could lead students to a better understanding of what had previously been confusing or even mystifying.

I began to think about where else thinking is visible and what kinds of opportunities teachers construct to make that happen. After all, a check for understanding isn’t meant to be a check for recall. It isn’t just about getting the right answer. A check for understanding is supposed to clue teachers in as to what our students actually have comprehended or taken away from a lesson.

In math class, teachers ask students to “show their work.”  That’s how the teacher can tell if the answer was a lucky guess or the product of a thoughtful approach to the problem.  If the teacher can see the steps the student took to arrive at the solution, the exact point of un-understanding is visible—just as in the table talk my colleague and I conducted with her students.  In fact, math teachers look at “showing your work” as a road map. The point where thinking breaks down is the precise place to apply the red pen—not just on the answer itself. Or, as the teacher in this video does, apply the yellow highlighter.

Geometry offers the same potential for revelation of thought.  Proofs are mental processes revealed. In evaluating a proof, the teacher has to follow, step by step, the student’s logic. That makes checking proofs time-consuming—just as, when reading students’ essays, the English teacher has to follow the student’s train of thought in order to make actionable comments.  But from heavy duty assignments like proofs and essays, teachers learn precisely what students don’t understand—or do, as the case may be.

Old-fashioned sentence outlines are also great revealers. Students prefer the bullet points of a topic outline, of course, because they can bluff their way through an outline check or turn in something when they haven’t really started thinking about their topic. But when ideas aren’t connected with transition words and complete sentences aren’t available for examination, the teacher can’t really follow the student’s train of thought. When a sentence outline has gaps and misunderstandings, the teacher can direct next steps.

One of my favorite lessons when I taught composition was an exercise in understanding how sentence outlines work. I’d find or construct a fairly complicated sentence outline of a research topic, cut the sentences into strips, remove the numbers and letters, and assemble sets of these sentences, all jumbled up.  Students would form groups, and I’d hand each group a set of the sentences. They’d spend the rest of the period figuring out the outline based on logic and the clues provided by transition words. Then, of course, I’d require them to construct their own sentence outlines.  

And when I really cast my thoughts far back into the recesses of my life in an American classroom, I remember sentence diagramming. I’m not advocating for bringing that back necessarily, but I do have to say, faulty diagrams revealed exactly what students didn’t understand about sentence structure.

Whenever a performance is required, whenever students do something, we see thought in action: Their level or degree of understanding is immediately evident in the performance of a musical piece, the execution of an art project, the preparation of a recipe, the construction of a garment, the reassembly of an automobile system. The problem is, when what we seek to understand is a mental process, it’s not so readily visible. Sketch notes help. Graphic organizers and graphic summaries help. Models and puzzles and other manipulatives do the trick.

But what else? Send me your pictures and tell me about the activities and processes you employ to make thinking visible.  I’d like to put together a gallery of thought-tracking possibilities.

And if you purchase some of those neon markers?  Be sure to get some Windex and a roll of paper towels, too. You’ll need them!  This activity is addictive!

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Wicked Cool: Science in English Class

file_000-2“It was wicked cool.”

That’s how one 10th grade student at McCutcheon High School summed up the collaborative learning experience orchestrated by English teacher Jennie Ruiz and science teacher Chris Pfledderer.

Ms. Ruiz’ students had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the non-fiction account by Rebecca Skloot of the journey of the cancer cells taken by researchers at Johns Hopkins in 1951 from a living patient, Henrietta Lacks. These cells produced a medical breakthrough: For the first time, human cells grew successfully under laboratory conditions. The cells continued to grow in the lab, and samples were shared throughout the world, enabling scientists to conduct experiments they’d not been able to before. The cells still grow today, though Mr. Pfledderer explained that they’re no longer pure because of all the work that has been done with them. In fact, he said, other cells are more often used today—bacteria and insect cells—to conduct research, but the HeLa cells, as they are called (for Henrietta Lacks), were the first.

file_004-1-copyThe lab took two days to complete. On the first day, Mr. Pfledderer demonstrated the procedure for staining the HeLa cells so that they could be viewed under the microscope. He supervised as students dropped a suspension of cells onto a slide from a height of several feet, hoping that the force of the fall would break open the cell membrane and nucleus so the chromosomes would be available to stain. Then the students waited for the slides to dry. file_005-3

This may have been the hardest part of the experiment. Waiting, blowing gently on the slide, and resisting the urge to hurry the process taxed their patience. “We need a hairdryer!” I heard one boy say. (Never mind that the force of air would have spoiled the slide; the printed directions clearly stated that heat should not be used to hurry the process.)

When the slides were finally dry, Mr. Pfledderer explained, the students would dip the slides three times into Stain #1, wipe the bottom of the slide, and then dip it three times into Stain #2. Finally, the slide would be immersed in distilled water. Students would leave the slides on a counter in Mrs. Ruiz’ classroom to dry overnight.

file_007-2The next day, Mr. Pfledderer rolled a cart of microscopes into her classroom.  He reviewed the process of focusing the three lenses and reminded the students to move the slide—slowly—on the stage. “A tiny movement by you will be a giant move through the lens,” he explained.

Pairs of students grabbed microscopes and searched for outlets around the room. The English room rapidly became an informal lab as students placed their slides and searched for chromosomes.

“You won’t all get one,” Mr. Pfledderer had cautioned them the day before. “We hope some of you will.”

Hands waved, voices called out for the science teacher to look at the purple blobs the students discovered on their slides.

file_000-3“That’s a floating piece of cell membrane,” he told one pair.

“Just a blob,” he told another.

“Yep! That’s a chromosome!” he congratulated one duo. With that, other students flocked to see the chromosome on their slide. iPhones emerged from back pockets and purses as students took pictures by pressing the aperture of the phone to the eyepiece of the microscope. file_002-2

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman, and her cells were grown and distributed without her consent or her living family’s knowledge. That fact has spawned controversy, for not only are the cells famous, but biotech companies have profited from using them. Until Ms. Skloot wrote her book, the Lacks family had received none of the profit.

The case poses important ethical questions for science: What obligation do researchers have to obtain consent for tissue preservation and use? Who should benefit monetarily from discovery and invention? In other words, who should profit from scientific progress?

Laws, in fact, were different in the 1950s, so Johns Hopkins—which has since established a scholarship in Henrietta Lacks’ name—did nothing illegal. The cells from a living cancer biopsy had grown unexpectedly, miraculously even. The goal was scientific research, and the windfall cell reproduction eventuated in discoveries related first to the polio epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time and later benefitted research into leukemia, AIDS, chemotherapy and gene mapping, to name a few. In short, many modern advances in science and medicine are indebted to HeLa cells and thus, in the point of view of some, to Henrietta Lacks.

The question is a knotty one with no easy or practical solution. Rebecca Skloot, the author, has established a foundation to support education and other needs for Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

When the lab was over, Mrs. Ruiz asked the students to reflect on the experience. One student wrote, “To be honest, when I was looking at the cells, I didn’t think about the person behind them. I was just looking and feel like that is what the scientists were doing. They were just doing their jobs, like they did to all of the other cells in the lab.”

The student continued: “Yes, I believe that they [Henrietta Lacks’ family] should have gotten money because they were poor.” But, he asked rhetorically, “If they were rich, would you have the same feeling toward them not getting money?”

Another student wrote, “Doing this kind of made me feel bad because these cells once belonged to a woman who didn’t even know that people like 10th grade English students would be looking at her cells. Even though I felt bad about that, I still had a lot of fun and I think it was a very good learning experience. I also enjoyed how it connected English to science.”

And this entry: “I didn’t really understand what HeLa cells would look like until now. Would they look like normal cells? Would they look immortal? Monster like? Now that I have seen and witnessed HeLa cells, I know that they are just the same as yours and mine would be.”

Watching the lesson unfold, I could see that Mrs. Ruiz and Mr. Pfledderer had brought non-fiction reading to life and may even have sparked an interest in science that wasn’t there before. Students thought seriously and deeply about what they had read and experienced, and that is the goal of education. 

Wicked cool.

file_006-2

 

The Unsung Heroes Project

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So many young people today are without real heroes. Their knowledge of individuals who have made a difference in the world usually extends only as far as celebrities and sports stars, perhaps to someone in politics. Worthy as some of these people may be, students are generally unaware of the range of actions that can be considered heroic and, even more importantly, of the people in their own community who have made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.

The last three years that I was in the classroom, my 9th grade Honors English students and I undertook a project that expanded their understanding of what it means to be a hero.  This was the Unsung Hero Project, inspired and supported by the Lowell Milken Center in Fort Scott, Kansas. I’ve blogged about this project before (Great Expectations: The Unsung Hero Project and Unsung Heroes, Reprise), but I’ve never outlined exactly what my students did. Recently I was asked to do that, so I’m sharing my description here along with some pictures of students at work on the project.

This classroom undertaking is an example of project-based learning. Through their work on this project, students developed skills in research, collaboration, writing, and the use of technology.  And, as important (if not more so) than anything else they learned, they were inspired by real live heroes in our own community.

Semester One

Students received intensive writing instruction the first semester, especially regarding formal writing conventions and organization of ideas. I spent time on sentence combining techniques (compound, complex, compound-complex sentences, introductory modifiers, appositives) before as well as during the time the students wrote their essays (February and March), and I hit topics such as pronoun antecedents pretty hard. Other grammatical topics I covered on an “as needed” basis. I also “unpacked” the skills required for a research paper, teaching basic bibliography skills, outlining, and internet search techniques in the first semester in preparation for the more complex research the students conducted during the second.

Collaboration is a vital component of this project, so I employed a variety of strategies for developing collaborative skills from the very beginning of the year. My goal was for students to be comfortable working together so that when they began the Unsung Heroes project in the second semester, they could work together efficiently, productively, and equitably.

The first step in the project itself was to define, through class discussion, what exactly we meant by the word “hero.”  Here’s what the students came up with one year: A hero is a person who, with no expectation or recognition or reward, has made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.  Definition Lessons 035

We had a few models, too: Atticus Finch served as the fictional model for a community hero (we read To Kill a Mockingbird in the fall) and the non-fiction model was Irena Sendler. The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is available on DVD from Hallmark; the book Life in a Jar is available through Amazon. Other models were individuals profiled in the Christian Science Monitor’s series “People Making a Difference” (available online at the Monitor website). We read a number of these essays and practiced defining a hero by breaking down the stories and aligning them with the students’ definition.

Semester Two

Students formed groups of three, self-selecting their partners, and established an account on google.docs, an online tool for writing collaboratively, simultaneously, in real time (a new technology tool eight years ago when I first began this work!).

Then students selected a hero/heroine from a list I provided for them of people in our community who had been in some way heroic. Some of the individuals came to my/our attention because they had received a very small local award for their efforts. Some were suggested by friends in the community, the faculty at my school, and (by the second and third year) various individuals who had read the first volumes of the book. Once the students selected a cause/person, I contacted that individual, soliciting their involvement. No one ever turned us down, by the way, and I would have been surprised if they had.

The next step was the research paper, probably the most complex instructional piece. The students worked collaboratively to research the cause their hero had championed. Thus, when they met the hero and interviewed him/her, they were already “experts” on the topic. The hero didn’t have to start from scratch to educate the students. The research paper included an outline, an annotated bibliography, internal documentation, and a Works Cited page in MLA format.

Most students established email contact with their hero right away and were able to ask him/her for advice and recommendations for resources as they researched the topic. The heroes were usually glad to steer the students to appropriate resources and helped them narrow their topic appropriately.

Unsung Heroes II 024Once the research paper was underway, the students set up an interview with their hero. We tried to conduct all the interviews on the same day in the school library, but of course, not everyone was available on the day we selected, and in some cases, it was inconvenient for the hero to come to school at all. I sometimes drove groups of students to on-site locations and arranged for their parents to pick them up. To be honest, when the hero was associated with a facility—such as the Boys and Girls Club and a second-hand store for impoverished families—it is helpful for the students to see the facility.

Students set up the interview by phone or by email. Although I coached them in the art of interviewing, I stayed out of the interviews myself (aside from taking photographs). Afterward, the students typed up their notes in narrative form or in Question/Answer format—and then they started in on the essay. Their essays went through several revisions. Early versions were read by their peers and by me, and these revisions dealt with structure, the balance between narration and  quoted material, and the weaving of information from their research with what they had learned from their hero. Line editing came last, and both the students and I did this at various times.

P1010472One of my concerns as a teacher of writing was that “voice” would be lost in a collaborative project, and to a certain extent, it was. However, what usually happened is that one of the students emerged as the primary writer, so meshing styles and voices wasn’t as severe a problem as I had originally anticipated. They also each wrote a reflection. I was light-handed with these—I didn’t want to extinguish their individual voices—and by this time, the students were expert at line editing. People who have read the book who are not from this community and don’t know the heroes have told me that the reflections are the most interesting part of each book. That doesn’t surprise me—there students wrote from their hearts.

Students submitted their work to me as a Word document, and I did take over as the master technician on setting up the pages. Eventually, the document turned into a pdf file. The students selected the font and the layout, and they designed the front and back covers as well.

The books could have been published using an online company, but the submission deadlines for these companies did not work with the school calendar very well, so I elected to work with a local printing service. Frankly, I am glad I did. We were able to receive a galley, make final corrections, and still meet our publication deadline. Besides, the printer I worked with had a lot of good advice for us and accommodated our schedule well. He even attended our celebration at the end because he had had a hand in this production, too.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was developed with the support of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes (LMC) in Fort Scott, Kansas, whose mission is to “galvanize a movement to teach respect and understanding among all people regardless of race, religion or creed.” The spirit of the Center is embodied in the Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” The LMC accomplishes its mission of teaching respect and understanding by supporting education projects that feature Unsung Heroes—people who, like Irena Sendler, have acted to repair the world. The project was funded by grants from the Kiwanis Foundation and the Public Schools Foundation of Tippecanoe County.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was an extensive project, and one that made me—still makes me—very proud. At the end of each year, we held a celebration to which all the heroes were invited as well as the principal and the school district administrators, the students’ parents, the press, and our donors. DSC_0002

At the celebration, the students introduced their heroes, a few students spoke to the audience about the process and what they had learned, and often the heroes made little speeches themselves. All this was followed by a mass book signing. The heroes were even more enthusiastic than the students about collecting signatures! DSC_0113

The book is now in our local public libraries, our local historical society, and in the collection at the Indiana State Historical Society in Indianapolis. Last year, two students were cited in the newspaper by our local historian for information they discovered about the Underground Railroad in our town. Volume I of Unsung Heroes in Our Community was enthusiastically reviewed on the radio last summer  and the book was also featured on local television. Some of our heroes, in fact, later became subjects for a local TV program, “Heroes Among Us.” DSC_0140

This project is well worth the time, energy, and effort it takes to orchestrate. Project-based learning is meaningful to students because it is “real” (as one of the students told me). At the same time, a project like this directly addresses state academic standards and district curriculum expectations. For the teacher, bringing a project such as this to fruition necessitates a thorough understanding of the standards and curriculum, of course, but beyond that, it is a matter of organization and planning and, above all, faith in the students. Their gain in research and composition skills, in comfort with technology, and in the ability to work collaboratively is extraordinary.

DSC_0010The book made an impact on the students beyond the skills they gained and the recognition they garnered. Their definition of a hero expanded from the vision of a super-powered individual in a cape and Spandex to someone who serves others. My students were inspired by the person whose life and work they researched. Someday, when they themselves confront an injustice, meet with a challenge, or perceive a community need (as they undoubtedly will), I am confident that they will recall the courage, selflessness, and determination of these local heroes to “repair the world.” I believe that from these individuals’ examples, my students will draw the strength to act heroically themselves.