Transition to an integrated approach through project-based learning STEM

By Meghan Raftery

The motto for the Westminster School District is “Building Tomorrow’s Leaders Today”. This motto frames the work of all district teams, including the department for educational services. “Our goals are fixed, but the means are flexible.” Lori Hernandez, the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning in the Westminster School District in California, knows the importance of helping teachers understand why an initiative is important and believes it is critical to success, connections for them to make and let go of control. An investigation culture is an important element of the district’s professional development plan.

The Westminster School District is a K-8 district in Orange County, California, with 13 elementary schools and 3 middle schools. With 77% of the district’s 10,000 students deemed needy, the leadership team and school board developed a vision for integrating disciplines through project-based learning (PBL). Their goal was to create a “target area” that would attract students and families through personalized learning and special schools that focus on voice and choice.

Michelle Watkins, executive director of School Specialty Programs and a former school principal and teacher in the district, strongly believes in PBL’s ability to integrate curricula and increase student engagement. She manages a collection of special programs, from a talented and talented magnet to an IT academy. “Regardless of the location initiative, teachers can use an integrated approach to achieve greater accuracy and engagement,” said Watkins.

To help teachers transition to an integrated approach, Westminster School District, in collaboration with Defined Learning, a PBL solution for K-12 educators, trained their teachers in project-based learning and performance tasks. Defined Learning also provided Westminster teachers with an online library of custom performance tasks tailored to their units.

The first pilot project and implementation from 2013 to 2014 focused on helping teachers integrate STEM into their teaching. However, as new standards were introduced and science curricula adopted, the district began to rename the use of defined learning as a means of increasing accuracy and integration into its math program. Although all teachers were trained at the time of the initial launch, the product had evolved and the district’s approach required different skills and understanding.

Westminster not only worked with defined learning to create custom tasks to be embedded in weekly lesson plans in the district curriculum, but also created 6 cohorts to gain additional professional development and learn what’s new in the product. “Teachers are starting to see the use of defined learning as a unit. Our “techies” were immediately drawn to it, but we also see an increase in demand for training from other teachers, ”says Hernandez.

She attributes her early success to adapting training with a particular school-based lens. With a variety of different location-based initiatives, teacher groups use defined learning in different ways. For example, the district offered training specifically for primary school teachers (K-2). The teachers learned how to use the videos and certain parts of a task and guided the students with a whole group approach until they had become familiar with the requirements of the task. As Watkins’ headmistress, she led the task of integrating the basic curriculum at the end of each trimester using a culminating PBL. Her staff created a year-round plan by putting together Universal Design for Learning (UDL), depth and complexity symbols, and academic writing. The Magnetic School of Environmental Sciences is planning an open house to highlight student products from tasks tailored to their school’s mission and vision.

“Teachers have to see defined learning as a valuable investment,” says Hernandez. A major problem that Westminster had to overcome is the teachers’ permission to deviate from the state-recognized reading and math curriculum, which is currently not integrated. District leaders, school leaders and trainers work with employees remove traditional teaching based on individual standards in favor of a more targeted and integrated approach. The simplified planning time helps managers build the capacity of their teachers and includes defined learning and PBL as part of the focus for the year. They focus on the actual intent of each standard as opposed to the sequence provided.

Hernandez and Watkins agree: “We are nowhere near where we want to be,” but hope that the current distance learning situation highlights the need for an integrated approach. They believe that the comfort of the teachers increases with the technology and that previously challenging obstacles from Google Classroom and asynchronous classification are emerging.

Watkins hopes that this surge in demand will lead to the understanding that the defined learning platform is a great way to start an integrated learning style. To meet this goal, it includes defined learning tasks in the distance learning guidelines that teachers receive every week. It is also preparing to offer additional professional development and support to remaining teachers who have not been retrained since the first introduction of defined learning, including involving school leaders in a task so that they can support teaching at a higher level. They hope to achieve a clear consensus on the question: “What does an integrated classroom look like?”

With Westminster School District’s investment and focus on PBL and an integrated learning approach, they are well on their way to building “Tomorrow’s Leaders Today” for their students and teacher guides.