She had her head down on her desk, trying to shut everything and everyone out. As a new 9th grade student to our school, Sara* (name changed) came to our school having moved in with her grandmother. Her father had been a shooting victim, and, although he had survived, he has serious brain injuries. The entire situation was quite traumatic for her.  She just wanted to become invisible.  Fade away.

As I looked around the room, though, she was not alone. Half the students were disengaged, some trying to find their way in high school, back on the bottom of school hierarchy, some just trying to get through a long day of classes.  It was fourth period, the last period of the day. The students had sat through 90 minute classes so far today, and they were dragging.

I introduced the first problem-based learning activity of the year. It was a physical science class.  We were learning about types of waves. The students were presented with the problem where they were structural engineers that had to develop a new headquarters for a local company. The headquarters was to be placed in a city near an active fault line.  The task was to use engineering techniques to engineer, build, and test a building that could withstand seismic waves as well as could withstand sinking in sandy substrate. The buildings had to hold weight while being exposed to waves of various amplitude.  Students had to research building techniques and how seismic waves moved through various materials. They also had to research where to place their  building and submit their plans and location proposal  to a “town council” and plans to a “inspector” (a local engineer) for approval before they proceeded. Students had  to be prepared to answer questions from the town council and inspector and argue for their location.

For many, this was a first true problem based learning activity. Many of these students performed project or project based learning activities, but never a problem based learning activity that included several different science disciplines and concepts, along with an engineering and a social science component. It was an nuanced project and it was relevant.

Students dug right into the problem. It took time to teach students how to interact, how to work in their various roles, how to perform proper research, how to interview people, and to teach them engineering processes. However, as we progressed throughout the process, students stepped into their roles. Sara, who spent most of her first two months with us completely silent, began to engage. She was able to take those engineering concepts and argue for design changes within her group. She presented her plans to the inspector, confidently answering any questions.

Over the course of the year, students became accustomed to these projects, each one becoming more and more adept at collaborating with each other, solving problems, understanding the application of the science and realizing the social and societal impacts of their work.  Sara blossomed in this class. She was able to use her creative ideas and apply them in new ways. She found a voice as a scientist and as a leader in the groups she worked.

A few years ago, Sara contacted me via social media. She had just recently graduated from college with a degree in engineering and had landed her first job, one which she loved. She credited some of those early high school problem based learning activities as a catalyst for her. She said it taught her to communicate, made her feel like she had something to contribute, and was able to teach her problem solving skills while using her creativity.

Problem-based and immersive learning activities are critical to student learning. They inspire, apply learning, cross-curricular lines, and allow students to learn collaboration and communication skills.  These are the types of immersive experiences we plan on offering at the Challenger Learning Center of Philadelphia. Our immersive mission scenarios will place students directly in the space program. Together, students in “Mission Control” will communicate and work with those students on the “ISS” to perform experiments and solve problems in real time. It is our goal to provide students with some of these experiences teachers cannot offer them in the classroom. We hope that you will consider supporting us in our efforts to open a center.

Help us support students like Sarah.  Please consider donating to our end of year campaign.  Thanks you.

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