Science project. What images does this phrase bring to mind? For many of us, the words likely conjure memories of spur-of-the-moment innovation and late-night preparation for evaluation at the school science fair. But after the big event, blue ribbon or no, these assignments likely ended up as school project “fossils” in the basement. Imagine if those genius ideas extended beyond a specific unit of instruction, were interest-driven, and managed to impact the world around you in tactile ways.

A micro network of socially and economically diverse schools across the country, including Pittsburgh Barack Obama, Pittsburgh CAPA, Clairton High School, the Ellis School, and Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, PA, will give students the opportunity to do just that through STEM projects that will have long-term, real-world effects in the community at large. As 2014 LRNG Innovation Challenge grant recipients, the team will train educators to lead students in designing and implementing plans for market-ready products to present in a regionally sponsored competition. More than 50 students from six Pittsburgh area schools have started projects focused on several community issues, including food sustainability, career preparation, and creating assistive devices for wounded military veterans.

What’s the common thread between the project categories? Service. At its foundation, this work is fueled by the idea of linking communities with STEM projects from a place of compassion. As the team describes it, “The overall aim is to create an ethos of empathy, excitement, and passionate learning ‘for the sakes of others’ where science, engineering, creativity, and caring intersect.” Inspired by teacher and team leader Dr. Michelle Parker’s own experience as a student in a participatory democratic school, teachers and students will work collaboratively to address issues of disadvantaged communities using academic strategies and concepts.

Though the competition will not take place until later this year, projects have kick-started over the past few months. For example, a core group has used collective learning to explore ways to minimize food waste and increase food accessibility in the community. Collaborating with others to design community gardens and a community food truck, students have had the opportunity to work with representatives from TechShop Pittsburgh, Interactive Story Adventures, as well as Dr. Fritz Yambrach, Professor of Packaging in the Department of Nutrition, Food Science, and Packaging at San Jose State University, among others.

Volunteering weekend time, students have met at Trader Joe’s to collect and distribute food, learning not only about the food packaging and supply process, but also how food instability is a very real issue affecting their own neighborhoods and surrounding communities. Using this hands-on experience, students will imagine and create products to repackage and redistribute donated food to low-income and low-access areas (designated by the USDA as food deserts). Team leaders believe that the program will ultimately function as an easily adaptable blueprint for other students and teachers to use to meet specific needs in their own communities.

Dr. Parker describes the depth and reach of the student work. “What sets this project apart from others is that student aren’t just distributing food, but educating community members who need food about where it’s available and how to access it. As the saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’”

A cornerstone of the project involves teacher engagement and professional development. To establish a community of practice, instructors representing each of the micro network’s sites will meet in a series of face-to-face strategy sessions at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at Pittsburgh’s Bakery Square. Teachers will also expand their tech savvy and craft approaches for implementing flipped learning in their classrooms at the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project Summer Institute. “Dreamspace for Teachers,” a by teachers, for teachers professional development program led by tech marketing expert Helen Manich, will allow teachers to collaboratively design ways to integrate STEM with multiple learning disciplines.

Though much of the learning and project development is happening asynchronously, the project process will be carefully documented, and students remain engaged through several online channels. Distilling knowledge from multiple sources and hands-on experience, students will continue to bring their assistive products to life—from packaging that will prolong the shelf life of food, to software to link students to corporations for internship opportunities, to technologies for wheelchair-bound consumers.

Students are excited to create and contribute to work that not only allows innovation, but also reaches beyond their everyday experiences. Dr. Parker distills the work down further. “The goal is simple: to improve the quality of life for people using a collective wisdom and knowledge. This is Connected Learning.”

By Maranatha Bivens
Photo/ Kandy Newell