Growing Student Achievement Through STEM-Based PBL
By Meghan Raftery
Dr. Valencia Bradshaw may be a 14-year veteran of Fulton County Public Schools, the fourth-largest school system in Georgia, but she has not always been an educator. She spent 18 years in the financial management industry before becoming a business education and marketing teacher. For the past three years, she has been the STEM program director for the 3DE Magnet at Banneker High School, a school-within-a-school Junior Achievement academy.
With the help of a school improvement grant and her business background, Dr. Bradshaw came to Banneker High School in 2017 to merge the existing 3DE Magnet (previously the Junior Achievement Magnet Business Academy) with a new STEM academy. The original academy opened in 2015, with a requirement that students must apply, but the demographics of the academy should mirror the entire host school. In the five years since the academy opened, 3DE students have consistently outperformed their host school peers on 100% of the statistically significant Georgia Milestones and other benchmarks and the 3DE model has expanded nationwide, with more than 13 schools in Georgia and Florida.
Dr. Bradshaw attributes the success of the academy to its focus on Project-Based Learning (PBL), STEM education, and inquiry-based learning. Her commitment to STEM and PBL comes from her background in the private sector, where the world is not divided into subjects like math, science, or social studies. By engaging in transdisciplinary units of study, students never have to ask, “Why are we learning this?”. Dr. Bradshaw believes that teaching from an inquiry-based standpoint, filled with natural opportunities for “aha moments,” is the key to reaching all students.
Without exposure to authentic learning experiences in schools, Dr. Bradshaw worries students from disadvantaged backgrounds may never experience the opportunities afforded to their more affluent peers. She thinks a missing link with STEM and PBL, however, is that not all teachers are equipped with the pedagogical skills to teach this way. Dr. Bradshaw has dedicated herself full-time to building the capacity of teachers to do this work. Bradshaw explains “It is difficult to teach teachers how to do a STEM lesson plan and pull them away from teaching in subject area silos.” Dr. Bradshaw has found success with an online PBL solution called Defined Learning which provides K-12 teachers with a library of STEM-based performance tasks and a framework for implementation. Dr. Bradshaw explains “there are not a lot of good examples of how to do STEM-based PBL well. Defined Learning is the best resource we’ve found to help us achieve this,” says Dr. Bradshaw. Dr. Bradshaw cites the variety of Defined Learning’s tasks as a key component to the success of the program.
The school uses a case-study methodology. Every 5-6 weeks, a new case study, often based on a Defined Learning task, is launched. A local company supplies the case study scenario with an authentic problem they think students can solve. Students tour the local company, interview employees, solve the problem and present their solution to their teachers. The top four teams present in front of company executives.
Inside the core classrooms in grades 9 and 10, students still engage in standards-based assignments, but teachers are also expected to pull components of the challenge into the classroom and help students piece together why they are addressing that challenge. By 11th grade, students work on an entrepreneurship project to launch their own business, and in 12th-grade students complete an internship or consultancy, often with a company they already encountered through a case study in previous grades.
In the past two years, Dr. Bradshaw has worked with Defined Learning to internationally certify the school through AdvancED now Cognia and provided an opportunity for 20 school staff members to complete a 1-year STEM endorsement program to school staff who complete a 1-year STEM academy course. The certified team helps train their colleagues on how to implement performance tasks by first getting them comfortable starting with the resources available on Defined Learning, such as a single article or a real-world video, and gradually teaching them how to customize entire tasks. Dr. Bradshaw explains, “It’s been a slow process getting teachers to feel comfortable, but the more they use Defined Learning, the more confident they are with engaging their students in performance tasks.”
The teachers who have been certified feel very rewarded with this work and are now beginning to write their own custom PBLs in the Defined Learning model. Examples range from GMOs to facial recognition technology and human trafficking, topics that have importance to the students, and the local business community. Dr. Bradshaw describes the work as “challenging but rewarding.” With plans to expand schoolwide from 500 students to 1700 students soon, the foundation she and her teachers have created will surely help scale the work of the academy over time.