High Tech High – Elementary and Middle School PBL and STEM

The High Tech High group of San Diego K-12 charter schools began in 1999 and has continued to expand and grow. All students are enrolled via a ballot system to ensure equity for local families and students. The schools focus on a challenging academic curriculum, extensive project-based learning, performance based assessment, digital portfolios and internships. Real world purpose and connections are evident in all classes and the pedagogy is learner centered. Teachers are designers of curriculum and work collegially and in interdisciplinary humanities/arts and science/maths partnerships to teach two classes of around 26-28 students each in middle school with the classes joining to make one large group as required.

As one teacher explained, project–based learning provides an avenue for multiple entry points and it engage students in a supportive equitable manner. PBL is about equity for students and is a model that support HTH equity principles.

The key points I observed during my visit where

–       lack of bells and interruptions, teachers and students work to a timetable but manage their time. Staggered break times when possible.

–       use of halls, floors, corners as learning spaces, round tables and lounge chairs where appropriate, extensive discovery and play equipment in elementary play areas.

–       use of ICT devices as needed, used as a specialist support tool (i.e. engineering, robotics, coding, animation), shared use of laptops when learning required it. Minimal use of IWBs.

–       Extensive focus on student generated content through authentic projects. The curating of that content online, in hallways, on walls. Virtually all wall space exhibits student work and explains the design process.

–       Comprehensive projects with demonstrated depth of skills, content and understandings.

Examples of project based learning across 3-8 that I found powerful and well integrated  through humanities/arts and science/maths included;

Grade 3 – Monarch Butterfly Project incorporating art, a scale model garden, actual garden including various habitat zones, a published information booklet, a weebly web site and a sense of purpose – How can we increase the number of Monarch Butterflies in the area?

Grade 5 Music – Rhythm of music and poetry, literacy via songs and music, maths via learning about music and staves, notes including fractions, the design and building own musical instruments including drums and guitar. Performing of poetry and playing of instruments to an audience of parents.

Grade 6 Engineering – Studied simple machines including gears, mechanisms, cogs etc. before moving into designing an amusement park with moving rides via LEGO construction, 3D Sketchup modeling of parts and then printing by a 3D printer.

Grade 7 grade studied Sherlock Holmes – Science /humanities covered the book and underlying ideas. Students then wrote their own mystery stories that are being published. They then completed an in depth exploration of forensic science via role play – fingerprints, choreography, DNA, anatomy, microscopy – hair analysis and more.

At High Tech High the development of the student is the project; it’s about the student not the project itself.

The way in which humanities and science were cohesively programmed into engaging and effective teaching and learning experiences was evident in the above examples.

Thanks to Anne Worrall, Lisa Davis, Melissa Daniels, Janie Griswold and Zoe Randall and the students of HTH for hosting my visit and sharing their experiences and vision.

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