Member Kudos: Project-Based Learning, Pontiact School District

2015 Education Excellence Award Recipient

DashBoard, Oct. 7, 2015

The 20 recipients of the 2015 MASB/SET SEG Foundation Education Excellence Awards are some of the greatest examples of unique and innovative public school programs in the state of Michigan. Over the next few months, MASB will share the details of each program from their applications, presented in alphabetical order by district. This week we highlight Project-Based Learning at the International Technology Academy in the Pontiac School District.

Description: The International Technology Academy is a unique, innovative program that provides a quality, project-based learning experience to a diverse population in the Pontiac area. ITA strives to help all students achieve their full academic potential, prepare them for success in college, and equip them with the ability and the desire for life-long learning. ITA teaches its students to perform to the best of their ability and achieve academic excellence in a global context using the 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking), while preparing graduates to attend colleges and universities. This program develops and strengthens students' values transforming young men and women into productive, contributing members of society.

ITA’s Goals

  • To provide a well-rounded, project-based learning experience.
  • To train students in critical thinking and logical reasoning.
  • To prepare students to utilize 21st century skills.
  • To generate a passion for life-long learning.

Funding/Resources: At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, grant money was used to create the International Technology Academy, a project-based learning integrated technology honors school within the Pontiac School District. In the summer between years one and two, Title II grant money was utilized to send staff to NU-Tech training to learn how to integrate project-based learning into a regular school environment. Teachers also attended International Baccalaureate training and technology training at Harvard the same summer.

The ITA program began with 125 students in one wing of an elementary school and was moved twice after. First to a wing at Pontiac Middle School as the numbers grew to 210 students, and finally to its own repurposed elementary building where it now serves 430 students. Most of these moves were done with limited financial outlay.

There are many partners that work with the ITA program to enhance educational opportunities for our students. Some of these partners include GM Powertrain, Oakland University, Fifth Third Bank and the Optimist Club.

The number of paid staff has grown from six teachers, one principal and one secretary in the first year to 19 teachers, one secretary, one principal, a counselor, a social worker and two building helpers this year.

Outreach: ITA is a highly regarded program that provides a project-based learning experience to a population of 430 students with diverse ethnicities. Through this experience, ITA is expanding educational opportunities to improve the students’ abilities to achieve communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration skills. Project-based learning is transforming the roles of students and teachers in ways that benefit everyone involved.

In the PBL classroom at ITA, students develop a sense of urgency as learners, leaders and as teachers. Instead of students becoming recipients of information, they are actively leading the charge to their own quality education. The process of student engagement and connection is amazing. The students are invested in the high-quality product they produce using their collaboration, creativity and communication skills.

In the PBL environment, the teachers act as facilitators and are deemed as mentors or coaches. The goal of this innovative, unique program is to design learning that challenges students intellectually and creatively. The students are thought of more as innovators or creators. This program expands educational opportunities where the teacher designs inquiry-based units that help students generate ideas, provide models of work, consult with fellow students, give ‘critical friends’ (feedback) and structure experiences so that students’ may present to their work to a variety of audiences.

In the interest of explaining the roles of students and teachers, there are several glimpses into the successful PBL practices at ITA. A successful unit of study will use Knows/Needs to Know and essential questions to initiate student inquiry. The students focus on topics where there are problems, tension or a struggle, which encourages students to begin developing ideas and questions of their own that they then pursue through projects they create. The initial framing helps those who need guidance to develop project ideas, and also benefits those who create work that goes beyond the teacher’s initial vision.

When a PBL project is introduced to a class, it tends to spark the students' thinking and creative imagination. Students use the Four Cs: communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration to bring the product to life. Students may write text, songs, raps or other forms of creative multimedia that complement the project. The students spend a lot of time collaborating and generating ideas for their projects. Often, the students make a list of their own or work in small groups. Then the ideas are shared aloud or the group project leader collects them in Google Docs so that everyone can access it. This is an invaluable process that allows brainstorming, feedback and a vision for a successful project. Also, students are able to participate in critical friends: by evaluating their own work, giving feedback and receiving feedback from others. This type of feedback is insightful, and it allows the students to really care about the work they are creating.

At times, the students share their work with administrators, fellow students, parents or people in the community. It is quite an experience to see students speak about their project. In fact, it is important to provide the ITA students with a real-life context for their work. Not only does it help them to understand that their work has a broader application and meaning, but it also motivates the students to deliver articulate, polished presentations with an extraordinary product.

ITA allows students to discover the power of their own voice, the quality of their work and to fulfill life-changing experiences. This program designs learning that allows for inquiry, creativity and choice, which allows educators to leave the front of the room and to stand side-by-side with the students as they transform themselves through their astounding work. The amount of communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration is magnanimous. “The ITA is the only way!”

Results: Although ITA is an honors-based program, many students still struggle to read at grade level. One of the main focuses of the program over the past three years has been in the area of reading. Consultants have been brought in to train teachers on how to incorporate reading strategies into project-based learning activities. Teachers work collaboratively on projects such as Science Fair to help students incorporate reading, writing and mathematics into the science content. MEAP reading test results for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years show an increase in the number of students receiving proficient scores. Attached results for sixth through eighth grade MEAP reading data shows that the number of students not proficient in reading decreased from 61 percent in 2012-2013 to 30 percent in 2013-2014. The number of students proficient in reading increased from 39 percent in 2012-2013 to 70 percent in 2013-2014. This 40 percent increase in scores over the two years shows how the dedication of the staff and the principles of project-based learning are working at ITA.

Aside from the state required assessments, Pontiac School District also administers NWEA/MAP testing to students three times each year; fall, winter and spring. Students in each grade take four computer adaptive tests in reading, math, language usage and science. These test scores are compiled districtwide for comparative analysis. Scores for students in all four areas are consistently above the district average. Fall test scores are usually above the spring goal set for the district each year in each category.

Because ITA is a project-based learning program, students participate in many competitions outside of school requirements. This year, our sixth grade class had an award-winning project at the Detroit Science Fair. In past years, we have had Voice of Democracy Essay contest winners and Optimist Club Oratorical Contest winners.

One of the biggest project-based programs we have at ITA is our STEM program. We offer STEM as an elective at every grade level. Skills learned in STEM class often lead students to be interested in our robotics program. This is another area in which we have award-winning students. The Pontiac School District Wings of Fire Robotics team, which is housed at ITA, is a national championship team. Only two other teams in the state of Michigan can claim this honor.

Last year, the ITA program proudly presented it first graduating class. We celebrated 100 percent graduation of our senior class, with 98 percent of students going on to a two- or four-year colleges or universities. Of those students attending post-secondary institutions, 25 percent received a full scholarship. Because of their ITA pride, many graduates are now working at ITA as volunteers. We have many accomplishments to be proud of at ITA, and we look forward to continued growth and success.

Additional Information: Students and staff at ITA have an unbreakable bond with each other. Students are able to feel comfortable enough to talk with teachers one-on-one and have personal conversations. These bonds that are formed make for a positive learning environment for students and encourages them to reach their fullest potential. Because most students begin the ITA program early in sixth or seventh grade, and the program is very small, students form a bond that makes them like family to each other. This relationship makes it easier to collaborate in the classroom and guide each other in their learning process.

Program Coordinator: Stacy Calloway, Project-Based Learning,

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