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STEM In Action: A True Success Story


Scott Anderson is a second-career high school math & physics teacher at Juda School in Juda, Wisconsin.  He earned a Master’s in Instruction from St. Mary's University after spending 12 years as a mechanical engineer from UW-Platteville.  His interests include his family, College Math Readiness, blogging (21stmathteacher), Project Based Learning, Green Energy and Volleyball.

The job of educators is to prepare students so they can have a real impact on the world.  Yet we rarely practice the necessary skills in school.  The attributes of passion, problem solving, and perseverance are often absent from the assignments we do with our young adults in high school.

But it does not have to be that way! Project-Based-Learning (PBL) offers a variety of ways for students to have a true impact in their community and their world.  Often, that impact is not constrained by the students, but rather by educators and administration.  What happens when students are posed with this assignment?: Complete a project that helps the school and community AND that project needs to have a true global impact.

Amazing things happen.

The assignment started in the fall of 2011 with the idea that my physics students needed more exposure to real-world problem solving.  I envisioned problems where they must persevere, where there is no single correct answer.  Starting with only what the outcome should be and how to assess what was accomplished seemed daunting—until you tell them “Select a project that will help the school/community and the world and make it happen.  Your task is not to write reports or essays or papers, but to come up with steel and concrete—tangible results.”

And then I sat back and watched the students struggle. Some sat around waiting for orders. But I kept urging them to come up with a plan and it quickly led to true brainstorming and the idea that we could reduce Juda's carbon footprint thus reducing our energy cost! Daunting project, you bet; time consuming in class, sure; but the learning was amazing.

They considered many avenues, many ideas, and many methods to reach that goal. So the students made teams and defined deliverables.  (I had some input there – if you work you deliver.) They did research. They contacted vendors, suppliers, talked with staff, researched some more, reflected, proposed ideas, checked their ideas – failed – and tried again.   As Tyler stated, “The most frustrating part of this project is when you think you are doing something right, but it turns out you were completely wrong.  You just have to keep working and try to not get frustrated.”  But they were learning that a dead-end was simply a step toward the solution. They were not guided by a predetermined lesson plan. They were working only with the constraints of a real world project – payback, Return-On-Investment (ROI), and need.

The process is more important than the results, but results are what were assigned – or should we say demanded, demanded by the students – because it becomes their goal and project. All of a sudden you don't need to make assignments – you simply need weekly update meetings. You don't have to hold students accountable; their peers do—because it is their project.

Results happen because students are given the latitude to accomplish their goal!

At Juda, students chose green energy as the method to meet the goal, and divided into solar and wind research teams. They investigated ways to install either a turbine or panels, doing the bids, the ROI, the financing —calculating how, why, what, and where.  They owned the project.

The students having ownership worked well overall.  There were highlights and things that simply did not work.  When the paths were clear or easy, the students would work well, gathering electrical bills or researching how solar or wind turbines worked.   I simply led weekly “progress” meetings, where students reported their progress and/or discoveries to the group.  But there were struggles too.

Getting high school students to accept a real problem, without a pre-determined path, is completely new to them.  They are accustomed to being given orders, not posed with a problem and asked for results.   At times it was extremely hard and frustrating for me, as their teacher, to sit back and let them struggle, especially when I felt there was “a clear and easy path.”  Pitfalls that I often could see, they had to stumble through.

Pitfalls included vendors not having the same sense of urgency on our project as we did.  Many vendors did not take high school students’ inquires seriously, believing it a waste of their time to discuss, quote or help.  But solutions were found such as using my name, title and contact information in their communications with suppliers to give themselves credibility.

Some students might have a problem with a supplier, or a lack of information, or just “something strange” and were so unprepared for any roadblock that they became frustrated to the point of inaction.  They then hoped for a teacher intervention, which I refused to provide, my motto being “Be less helpful.”  


That meant group meetings consisted of some amount of complaining and moaning, but with some prodding often the class would volunteer alternate paths.   As the year progressed and the students understood that the problem was theirs, their work and effort started to meet my expectations. Yet how to grade their work on this project was difficult.

Initially I struggled mightily with grading a student’s performance, since large projects include weeks of waiting.  Often I would “No Count” a weekly meeting grade because of the waiting. (It’s the hardest part). But it also meant giving “Below Average” grades for below average work, which is easy to see as an instructor, but sometimes hard to define exactly.  But grades rarely are a motivator and thus were not given much weight.  I really did not want to grade this project at all, but that was a bridge too far for students.  In the end the student’s physics course grade was 96% physics and only 4% on project performance, which was key because that allowed me to be a more ferocious grader, to demand more.

And this energetic and dynamic attitude was embraced by the students, leading to results, realizations, and highlights.  So where did my first team of students get to in 9 months, September 2011 to May 2012 using one class period per week?  From inception of their idea to the end of the school year is not much time to reach such a high goal. The students had done all the research, competitively bid solar and wind, selected a preferred solar supplier, obtained permits, discussed the project with administration and our school board, and worked on achieving ROI. This is where the first group left the project.   It could have ended there with a bid but no steel or concrete, but the key to large projects is to continue the previous before starting the new!  So this became a legacy project -- because that is what the world does!  It reassigns projects - moves around team members.  This was just a pause in the project versus its end.

One problem, because of the size of my rural school, is that physics is offered every other year.  So a team of students who had taken physics the previous school year worked on grants and financing outside of an 'assigned class' during the 2012-2013 school year.  

Then Wisconsin Focus-On-Energy money became available in the summer of 2013, and this was the last piece of the puzzle for the first project.  We had worked on financing and discussed finding business partners, then the Focus on Energy grant along with other local business support allowed the project to proceed. The install became the task of the physics class of 2013, and starting in September 2013 Juda was generating (video) over 5 kW of electricity for our school.  This met the original goal of positive community impact along with a global impact, but that was not enough. Because as that assignment was completed, it was now the 2013 physics class’s turn - “you completed the prior project, now start yours!”

That is how project-based learning comes to be a cultural change.  The learning becomes perpetual.  The students not only want to be part of the team on the previous project but literally demand their own project.  

The 2013-14 physics class's project has two parts one is to generate green energy on school property to cover 10% of the school's total power consumption.  This is really ambitious since the 5 kW solar system designed by the class of 2011  generates only 4% of the school’s power.   The ’13 class has now installed another 12 panels, increasing the system’s capacity by 50% to 7.5 kW.  They have also started conservation projects, such as lighting (video) and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

Students take pride in their accomplishments and the realization that more was left to be done; comments like Morganne’s “installing both phases of solar panels was great, but getting to 7% green energy really puts [Juda School] on our way to reaching our 10% goal.” And as Tim stated, “The most enjoyable part is doing something that benefits the school and that people recognize who you are and what you did.” And in the end, results were important to not just me, but to my students, our school and our community.

And now this project is being moved onto to the next team in the next school year. And this year’s students leave comments like “next year’s class should continue the lighting to get to 10%” and “start something new with the HVAC systems.”  Plenty has been accomplished; now nearly 7% of the school’s power is green.  And I feel confident that the next class will get to 10%.  

But that was not enough for the class of ’13.   Their second project is to roll out the PBL Green Initiative model to other schools.   They believe every school should have students working on reducing their carbon footprint, working on a 5 kW green energy system – even if you already have a solar array or a wind turbine!  This story is my part of their project.

We want you to take on a green initiative with you and your students.  We are offering our service as guides - myself and my students - challenging you to take the plunge. We want to make contact with you -- email, call, snail-mail, even by carrier pigeon – we want to help.  Let the chaos ensue – let the real learning occur!

Tap the resources in your school that are before you, make your students your workers and watch them practice and acquire the skills the world wants - passionate, persistent problem solvers!

As an educator, you must be willing to innovate by choosing great projects over good material.  You need the belief that covering an allotted number of textbook chapters does not create problem solvers.  Problem solvers are created through real problems and practice;  textbooks & e-books rarely have problems, but they are filled with exercises.

And as the students reflect on their accomplishments, this project is truly one of the most memorable, permanent things they have done.  It shows them what persistence, research, and resilience can do.

So when you reflect on how and what you teach, consider a project like this.   With your guidance your students can leave their mark on your community and become the model for classes that follow.


Juda School turns on Solar Panel Array -- Juda Physics

Physics Lighting Retrofit Day 1 -- Juda math

Real Problems, Real Projects, Real Solutions -- Juda Physics

Juda Green Initiative Video - Juda Physics

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