Howard County Educators Develop Authentic Learning Opportunities for Their Students

Posted by on August 24, 2012 in Featured, Learning Studios | 0 comments

Teachers from Centennial High School discuss their plans for the year that explore "How does climate impact you?" with Ann Stroyzk (left) from the Howard County Conservancy.

Teachers across the country are gearing up for another school year by reviewing content, aligning lessons to standards, and chipping away at the other tasks required before they return to their classrooms. What many teachers do not do, however, is meet as a trans-disciplinary team with a representative from the workforce who acts as a co-collaborator in developing projects for students.

About 40 educators from Howard County Public Schools met last week in school-based teams of 4-6 teachers to develop authentic learning situations for their students as part of NCTAF’s Learning Studios Program. Teachers from four middle schools and four high schools met for a 3-day NCTAF facilitated Design Session where they mapped curricula across their respective disciplines and collaborated with Workforce Partners to create opportunities for students to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real-world. These teacher teams work alongside NASA-Goddard scientists as part of a NASA Climate Change grant, utilize local environmental resources provided by  the  Howard County Conservancy, and  analyze authentic climate change data from AAAS’s Project 2061. During the session, NCTAF provided professional development emphasizing the importance of student voice and authenticity in  project-based learning. Each Learning Studio team selected an overarching Essential Question that will provide all of their students with a clear focus for learning during the 2012-2013 school year.

Below are summaries of what each Howard County Learning Studio plans to investigate during the 2012-2013 school year:

Centennial High School: The STEM team from Centennial High School selected the essential question “How Does Climate Impact YOU?” because “we wanted to focus our question on the students, their lives, their opinions, and ultimately, their voice.” The year will begin with an assembly for all participating students to explain the purpose and focus of the coming year’s projects. Quarter 1 will center around the question “How does local climate change impact the need to study water, quality, erosion, and runoff” and students will conduct authentic research during a trip to the Howard County Conservancy. The following quarters of the year will allow for teacher-facilitated, student-driven investigations in plate tectonics, energy, and astronomy as they connect to climate change.

Dunloggin Middle School: During the opening reflection exercise, the Dunloggin team discussed their essential question from last year and decided that it created limitations in the depth of their trans-disciplinary connections. This year the team decided to broaden the scope of their work. This will allow all team members (teachers of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students) to develop explicit connections between their classroom curriculum goals and their essential question. Dunloggin Middle School students will examine, “How do human activities impact Earth’s natural systems & resources?” The team’s Workforce Partner located useful Earth Observatory resources on the NASA website and the teachers aim to “find ways to make the lessons/activities more authentic.” To introduce the concept of Learning Studios to their students, the team will revisit the research conducted by students in the previous year. The essential question will be posted in each participating classroom so that teachers and students can refer back to it throughout the year.  The team also hopes to tie-in an existing wetlands conservation project at their school with their Learning Studios activities.

Harper’s Choice Middle School: In their first year as a Learning Studio, the Harper’s Choice team of teachers will frame their work for the year around the question, “What is the relationship between climate change and personal lifestyle choices?” The school community will learn about the Studios’ projects through regular school-wide television broadcasts as well as posters in every participating classroom reminding students of the essential question. The year will be broken down into sub-fields with Quarter 1 serving as an introductory unit on climate change. Quarter 2 will examine behaviors, laws and choices that impact climate change. In Quarter 3, students will evaluate community, national, and global impacts on climate change. Finally, in Quarter 4, students will consider future scenarios and determine potential methods for reducing human impact on climate. The teachers explained that “after building a foundation of background knowledge in Quarter 1, students will be able to find a driving question that matters to them. Students will work with their peers to discuss the information they’ve come across and decide on an area in which the impact of this information might be important to them.”

Hammond High School: The Learning Studio from Hammond aims to build strong connections across their STEM classes this year as they investigate ”How do our actions affect our Earth and its resources?” They selected this question because “it’s important for the students to realize that they are connected to these issues. It relates to ALL students in ALL subjects.” The educators decided to shift from a linear progression of teacher-assigned projects from quarter to quarter to a format that allows for student selection of their own areas of exploration within sub-fields of the essential question. In Quarter 1 students will examine issues around human impact on land use, Quarter 2 will focus on human impacts on the atmosphere, and, by Quarters 3 and 4, students will be able to select their own research areas that will have a direct impact on their school and community.

Marriotts Ridge High School:  The Marriotts Ridge Learning Studios, now in their fourth year in the program, selected ”What is the connection between human activity and environmental health?”  as their essential question for the year. The educators reflected on last year’s activities and decided to have students that participated last year present to this year’s students.  These returning students will also participate in the project development process with the teacher-team.  The Learning Studios will launch the year with a STEM kickoff assembly before beginning their investigations as a trans-disciplinary team. In Quarter 1 teachers will use authentic data from NASA satellites to investigate recent extreme weather patterns develop an understanding of the difference between weather vs. climate. In the following quarter, students will deepen their exploration of climate change data and learn how to complete a field validation of NASA satellite data. By Quarter 3 students will complete an urbanization mapping project as they investigate micro-climates and the year will wrap-up with a day at NASA-Goddard’s facilities where students will get to experience NASA scientists as “co-workers” as they analyze satellite images of climate together.

Mt. View Middle School: Joining Learning Studios for the 2012-2013 school year, the Mt. View team decided to collaborate with the Learning Studio from Marriotts Ridge High School located right next-door. The Learning Studios from each school aligned their essential questions to set the stage for peer-teaching and learning opportunities across traditional middle and high school boundaries. The team of teachers from Mt. View will present their plans for the year as well as background on Learning Studios to the entire staff before the school year launches to increase buy-in from the entire school community as they work towards their essential question: “What is the connection between human activity and environmental health?” Quarter 1 will focus on issues relating to air quality.  Students will gather data on ozone, light intensity, and pollutants with the assistance of a NASA education staff member. In Quarter 2, students will examine this data alongside a NASA scientist to determine the impact of air quality on human respiratory diseases and/or disorders. During the winter, 7th students will take on independent research by creating environmental education e-books and 8th grade science students will conduct an energy audit of the school and determine how to reduce energy consumption. Finally, students will present their findings to the community in a STEM fair and put research into action in a Green Field day when students volunteer in a day of service to decrease the school’s environmental footprint.

Patuxent Valley Middle School: In their second year as a Learning Studio, the team of teachers at Patuxent Valley selected the essential question “In what ways does our school have an affect/effect on the environment?” The educators reflected on their question from last year and deemed it too narrow in focus to encompass an entire year’s work across disciplines. This year, however, their question is broad enough in scope that it will allow them to involve the entire school across 6th, 7th, and 8th grades and utilize existing “green” resources at the school, such as a recycling program, in new ways. In order to effectively manage the process, each grade level will select a sub-topic within their essential question and then students will select their own research questions within those sub-fields to investigate: 6th grade will focus on recycling and food waste; 7th grade will focus on ecosystems and watersheds; and 8th grade will focus on energy resources or air quality. The year will culminate with student presentations in a STEM fair to share their findings to the community.

Wilde Lake High School: The team of STEM teachers formulated the essential question for the year: “How do humans interact with their environment?” because the question is broad enough to connect across content areas while focused enough to allow for investigations and connections to climate change as well as local environmental concerns. Wilde Lake Learning Studios students will  begin the year with a trip to the Howard County Conservancy to investigate and measure erosion. While there, students will use algebra skills to measure slope and draw conclusions about how slope affects erosion rate. Students will use the skills developed at the Conservancy to identify and describe erosion in their community and on our school grounds. In addition, Technology students will experiment with the integrity of various building structures on different soil types.  The team is also trying to brainstorm ways to make student work and experience “authentic”. Their goal is to allow Introduction to Ecosystems students to create a final project using what they learned and observed about erosion and run-off. For example, students in Earth Science will locate examples of erosion in the community and make recommendations for erosion management and Introductions to Ecosystems students will prepare an environmental impact report on the school’s rain garden and present their findings to the company that installed it at the school.


To learn more about other Learning Studios’ plans check out the most recent updates from Prince George’s County and Anne Arundel County on the NCTAF blog.



Laura Coscarelli, Program Manager, facilitates professional development and teacher collaboration for STEM Learning Studios. Laura also manages the NCTAF Learning Studios’ online communities and contributes to outreach and social media efforts.

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