Interest by Pinal County business and industry leaders to forge more meaningful connections with public schools in the area is leading to learning experiences that are bringing subjects like math, science and social studies to life for students.
Some of these experiences are being generated by Pinal Teach 21, an online hub for making relevant and authentic connections between businesses and schools, which grew from a partnership between Pinal County Education Service Agency and Helios Education Foundation that began in Fall 2010 with a Helios-funded STEM Teacher Leader grant.
“Integrated real world science and math curriculum development was at the heart of this project,” said Joel Villegas, STEM education specialist with the Pinal County Education Service Agency. “Some of the lessons learned from that initiative, were that teachers needed professional development, collaborative planning time, planning resources, and industry experts to lend their knowledge to the projects. Thus, the vision to develop a web-based resource emerged.”
The Pinal Teach 21 website was developed after Jill Broussard, Pinal County superintendent of schools, and Pinal County School staff took part in a roundtable discussion at the January 2013 Arizona Business and Education Coalition Conference and discussed starting a County Business and Education Coalition that would meet annually to strengthen county business and education collaborations.
“The vision of Pinal Teach 21 further developed after the first summit in April 2014,” Villegas said. “Business and industry provided feedback at that conference stating they wanted more strategic classroom connections and a way to make an impact to students.”
When Lori Hawkins’ class at Mary O’Brien Elementary in Casa Grande was working on a library building project, the fourth-grade students worked closely with an architect, a Florence deputy town manager and a Florence city councilwoman.
A Skype session with architect Chris Nienhueser from DLR Group helped Hawkins’ students understand how they’d use what they’d learn in geometry.
“The architect showed my students how these types of angles and lines can be used in the real world to construct a building,” Hawkins said. “He discussed perpendicular lines, parallel lines and types of angles. He showed them how angular the front entrance was to be built so the building would ‘look good.’”
This collaboration between educators and business is just one part of Pinal Teach 21, an initiative which also includes an online workspace where teachers can find, develop and get feedback on authentic, project-based learning aligned to Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards and an information hub for teachers and administrators on best practices in education.
Pinal Teach 21 fills the void for a place where teachers and businesses can connect with each other, Broussard said.
“A business person who is willing and wanting to be involved often doesn’t know where to go to get plugged in. Likewise, a teacher may want to expand her student’s learning, but may not know where to go to make that connection,” Broussard said. “Pinal Teach 21 is that connection.”
When Nienhueser worked with students he concentrated on measurements.
“I opened up a drawing of a current project – we’re working on an elementary school in Washington,” Nienhueser said. “It was very helpful, the teacher said, that the students see how these measurements impact a real world project.”
Nienhueser also let students know that one of an architect’s primary responsibilities is to be a project manager who constantly coordinates with everyone involved in the project from engineers, builders, contractors to clients.
“I think the earlier we can inform students of the benefits of their education – whether they’re in fourth-grade like these students, or in high school or in college – then the better off we are,” Nienhueser said.
Planning for authentic learning projects can be time consuming and require expertise in real-world fields in which teachers have little knowledge, Villegas said.
“The lessons on Pinal Teach 21 are easy to access and implement, the contacts are there, and it is all based on grade-level standards,” Hawkins said. “Once an educator has placed a lesson plan on the site, any other teacher can pull it up and begin to immediately implement the project-based learning. You can put your own twist to the project or simply use what has already been done.”
Teachers say the industry partner connection is invaluable, Villegas said.
“Business partners help students make the connection from classroom learning to the real world,” Hawkins said. “The students so far have told me that they feel like what they are doing really matters.”
Partners may come directly to the classroom, let students come to them on a field trip, or do a Skype session, Hawkins said.
“All you have to do is plan your time frame, and contact the partner for the times of their participation,” Hawkins said. “The project based learning is flexible and the time it takes to plan it is minimal.”
For example, Lisa Garcia, deputy town manager of Florence, spoke to Hawkins’ students about the town’s recent experience of building a town library and discussed presentation skills.
“Ms. Garcia gave them the history of Florence, showed them old and new buildings in Florence, and taught them some facts about local government,” Hawkins said. “Her expertise has been incredible. My students will present their final group blueprints to some of the members of the city council.”
Vallarie Woolridge, a Florence council member, discussed with the class the importance of city governments.
“The students gained knowledge from real people who work for the town of Florence,” Hawkins said. “They can now put their project together so it ties in with the town of Florence environment.”
Administrators say they like that the interdisciplinary unit planning template used on Pinal Teach 21 is preceded by professional development provided by Pinal County Education Service Agency, which helps teachers plan units aligned to curriculum maps and district assessment plans, Villegas said.
“Business and industry partners are providing feedback saying that they feel that this connection to the classroom is more focused, strategic, and applies to real-world learning,” Villegas said.
Nienhueser said he enjoyed working with students and recommends the experience to other businesspeople.
“It’s good for us to get out there and explain what we do and make it clear to students that no matter what age they are they should be thinking about what they want to be one day,” Nienhueser said.
In the past, business and industry partners said they’ve been asked to come into classrooms and present about careers, or deliver prepackaged content, Villegas said.
“They feel that by working with teachers to develop the curriculum and provide their expertise to the learning, it is better aligned to their community outreach and educational connection initiatives,” Villegas said.
When Javier Apostol, a platform product manager for Intel Corporation, was asked to speak to a seventh-grade science class, he discussed the upcoming lesson with the teacher to understand what needed to be covered that day. Apostol spent a few minutes discussing the role of an engineer then covered the scientific method.
“I provided a lesson on Earth plate tectonics and went through a discussion exercise on how engineers would discover and resolve building issues due to plate tectonics,” Apostol said. “The description and discussion demystified for many students the process by which engineers work and many students came away with a better sense that they could become engineers.”
Apostol said as students went through the process to resolve issues, they learned “how each solution brings a host of potential new issues that again requires more engineering to address.”
Apostol said he “received a tremendous amount of satisfaction in working with the next generation of engineers. To see the intrigue and excitement in the eyes of students learning was very refreshing.”
Partial funding from Helios Education Foundation helped to build and develop the Pinal Teach 21 website, and the second annual Pinal County Business and Education Summit in April 2015 provided the platform to get the word out about this resource, Villegas said.
“We have formed a committee with Pinal Partnership to help encourage and grow relationships between business and education,” Broussard said. “These relationships will benefit both the business community and our Pinal County students for the future.”
The Pinal County Business and Education Committee will meet monthly and continue to grow the industry partner list, Villegas said. City government representatives on the team help strengthen connections to community and county economic development goals, Villegas said.
Kelly Wendel, communications director for DLR Group, said they’re “getting ready to expand this into the Florence Unified School District also” and looking forward to working with more schools.
“At the end of the day, this gives the kids a chance to go from ‘Oh, gee, why do I have to learn this formula?’ to ‘Oh, wow! I’ve got this formula I can solve this problem with now,’” Wendel said. “I think it gives them that applicability in the real world.”
Apostol said he “supports wholeheartedly the concept of Pinal Teach 21,” and recommends professionals share their knowledge in a dialogue with students so they can share their sense of the world they see.
“As professionals it is easy to become trapped in ‘how it is done,’ and it is nice to have students show us (how to think) outside of our box,” Apostol said.
Broussard said Pinal Teach 21 reminds her of a Helen Keller quote, “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”
“Working together will produce the most well prepared students possible,” Broussard said. “We will have outstanding results when we all realize the importance of educating our youth. Supporting education is supporting our future.”