How Problem-Based Learning Inspired Me

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STEM School Highlands Ranch is differentiated from other schools by the instructional platform unique to our school, Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Students are actively engaged in learning beginning in kindergarten and progressing to advanced internships in high school, where they bring sophisticated skills they have honed over the years of solving significant problems.

PBL is our North Star. It is non-negotiable. It is who we are.

What is PBL exactly and where did this idea originate?

PBL has roots in ancient Greece and most likely prior. It was believed that being an active participant in learning prepared students for leadership. Fast forward to the Committee of Ten in 1892. A group of elite US educators was gathered to formalize what education should be for K-12. Their report clearly stated that students should be actively engaged in learning by being out in nature and doing science rather than sitting and studying Greek and Latin. These men saw the future of science in 1892 to transform life. This publication rocked the education world. Many prophesied that allowing the natural sciences into K-12 will be the end of the educated man.

My experience

Typical of new teachers in a large urban school, I was given an assortment of science classes ranging from ninth-grade physical science, earth science and upper-level International Baccalaureate (IB) chemistry. There was no curriculum except textbooks, and all I got was a “good luck.” The IB classes were mostly white and Asian and had over 40 intense and eager students per class who mastered every topic as fast as I could move in 50-minute segments. 

My physical and earth science students were marginalized students who were disengaged. They were primarily black students who were bused to the school from great distances and eyed me warily as a new teacher. How could we make this year together productive and mutually engaging? The textbook did not interest my students or me. 

My first foray into PBL was to have students work in small groups to decide the 10 things they need to colonize Mars. Then each group would discuss what they came up with and the entire class would agree on the top 10 things needed to colonize Mars. It was noisy and engaging. Each group listed their top 10 and the consensus of all groups landed on the top one across all groups.

In order to colonize Mars, you first had to have a job. Being homeless on Mars was not an option.

This was my first evidence that my background could not fully understand my students’ cultural experience. I was hooked and more determined to help grow my students’ awareness through their experiences.

Next, we tackled the newly-proposed incinerator in their neighborhood that was designed to combust highly-toxic Cold-War materials in 1995. It was estimated that there would be about 12 added deaths due to asthma exacerbated by the process. Through grants, we visited the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and learned about the history of mustard gas production and Shell no-pest strips.

Marginalized and disengaged students became environmental champions. These students were invited to present at environmental awareness events at CU. This was the first time most had left Denver and definitely their first time on a college campus. The incinerator project became alarmed at their activism and a large group of men in suits presented to my students to tamp down their energy. My students passionately expressed their feelings including reflections of grandmothers and little sisters with asthma who would be placed at risk. 

My next job was teaching chemistry at a private high school. PBL guided my lessons. For exothermic reactions, we asked the custodians for their ice melt products and compared the heat produced to other products to help advise on the best products to melt snow on the sidewalks. Exothermic reactions became real-world for my young chemists.

What I found was that administration in all of my schools as a teacher did not value student engagement. PBL is active and noisy. Students are discussing and debating. They are deeply engaged in problem-solving. It does not look tidy compared to complacent students sitting neatly in rows passively absorbing information.

What has inspired STEM School 

What if I could design a school entirely around PBL? My first school was a magnet K-8 in Adams County designed with industry partners. The green light to open this school was not a belief in my vision, but to compete with charter schools drawing students. Within a year, it went from 200 students to 4,000 through expansion and partnerships to meet parent demand. The timing was right for a STEM school rooted in PBL. It continues to be a brilliant success changing lives.

Click here to listen to a Colorado Public Radio interview with Dr Eucker on teaching science to inspire. 

I was then recruited to salvage STEM School Highlands Ranch from closure scheduled at the end of the year due to academic failure and financial collapse. It was heavy lifting and stressful. Today, few know how close our campus was to being turned into a bus depot for DCSD.

Click here to listen to a Colorado Public Radio interview with Dr Eucker on STEM’s turnaround.

In 2021, students are less willing to passively absorb information when Google knows everything. Employers want to know what you can do instead of what you know.

STEM School Highlands Ranch is unique and because It is designed around PBL, we ask for our faculty and families to understand this before signing on. Teaching at STEM can be daunting and it does not fit all teachers as we deviate from traditional pedagogy. 

For the rest of this school year, and heading into the 2021-22 school year, we will focus deeply on our commitment to PBL in every class. We are making it a priority to provide the resources and training needed for our faculty to succeed. We are excited to provide our community with our updated Transition Plan that includes the announcement of two of our staff members moving into the critical roles that will help us accomplish this priority. 

PBL is who we are as a school. Active and engaged learning around solving significant problems is what defines our school.

Your #1 PBL champion,

P.J. Eucker PhD

Executive Director

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