Learning By Design: How the 21st Century School Building project can create better learning, collaboration and schools.

Building More Than Buildings:

How the 21st Century Building Project can improve our learning, collaboration, and the schools we build.


When Andre Alonso announced the funding of the 21st Century School Building project in Baltimore City, he restated a quote from Winston Churchill:

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

It is a reminder of the importance of this shaping, and of our opportunity to build learning and community through the design process. If our buildings are to transform our education and our communities, we must first transform how we shape them.
Meaningful involvement of teachers, students, community members and experts in the design of these buildings can inform the architects and city planners of the needs, problems and hopes for the school and community. In turn, these experts can share their insights on how to create better functioning buildings, improve neighborhood design, and access job opportunities. This collaborative learning enables us to build not just a better school building, but also a better school culture and more successful students and communities.

Charrette or Charade?

The size and speed of the school construction project is daunting.     It is easier to look across a nearly empty room and check the box for community involvement and move on. But if we are to build learning and gain the wisdom and support of our communities, we need to fill these rooms and strengthen relationships still aching from school closings. Poor communication, and short, disjointed public engagement is failing to create the sustained involvement and trust necessary for successful collaboration. Even staff and teachers have been left without valid information on the status of their school construction projects.
Failure to integrate the design process into school curriculum and after school programs robs our students of a golden opportunity to learn and to shape their future.
Shaping our learning  (we don’t have to wait to collaborate).
Building and neighborhood design processes are perfectly suited for collaborative STEM and experiential learning—the learning these new schools are supposed to foster. Engaging students, faculty and community members in this learning can prepare them to participate in the design process while strengthening their skills in math, science, engineering, health, and economics.
Starting with their existing school, students can collect data on the temperatures, humidity, air quality, lighting, acoustics, and asthma triggers. They can study how to improve bus service, reduce energy use and storm water runoff at their school. This information can help inform the school design process and prepare students to examine larger questions including:

• What are the biggest problems in the community and how can our school help solve them?
• How can our school foster the health and learning of our students and community?
• How can our school help students and their families obtain economic and educational opportunities?

Studying these issues with planning experts and community members would bring more wisdom to the design processes and demonstrate how we can learn and collaborate to solve real problems.  This is the educational and cultural transformation that Baltimore needs. If we are to build our promises, we need to start now with pilot programs and partners.

Amazing STEM Laboratory!

Last night my 10 year old son ran a DNA test to identify a jewel thief, investigated enzymes in milk, and identified sickle cell anemia using electrophoresis. Students from all over Maryland are able to do these and other experiments thanks to the Towson University’s Center for STEM Excellence. The Center loans out kits to do these experiments to schools throughout Maryland for free. They even pay the FEX EX shipping and return for the kits.

If schools can bring students to the SciTech Student Lab, TU-trained staff can lead students through a lab chosen by their teacher. There is a $10 dollar fee per student for the SciTech lab experience.

This is an amazing resource for Middle and High School students and their teachers.
The website is http://www.towson.edu/cse/

IMG_6847 by Shan Gordon.
Your students could be doing this. Zen Gordon, 10, uses the Towson University SciTech Student Lab to learn about DNA, enzymes and Sickle Cell Anemia. Steven Fenchel, a teacher from the Einstein Science School in Kensington, MD offers support. Fenchel came to the lab to be trained so he can check out labs for his students.
IMG_6813 by Shan Gordon.
Christina Romano, Education and Outreach Specialist, demonstrates how to insert samples for testing.
IMG_6803-2 by Shan Gordon.
Students mix and create their own testing media with powder from seaweed and distilled water. The porous structure of the seaweed enables the DNA to migrate through the media for testing.
IMG_6829 by Shan Gordon.
Christina Romano, education and outreach specialist, demonstrates how to conduct the experiment.
IMG_6869 by Shan Gordon.
A visit with the Diamond Backed Terrapins outside the lab is a great way to end the experience.

The Chief Eternal Optimist of Bronx County

IMG_4854 by .
I grew this!
Stephen Ritz introduces himself as the “Chief Eternal Optimist of Bronx County”.

It’s a place that needs optimism.

The Bronx is a tough neighborhood with high unemployment and the rumble of food insecurity. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger reported in December, 2013 that nearly 49 percent of Bronx children lived in a household with an inconsistent food supply.
Equally alarming, children in the Bronx have little access to fresh food, often eating foods high in sugar and fat, but low in nutritional value.
“We have some of the greatest rates of juvenile diabetes and juvenile obesity in the nation,” Ritz says. “And we can change that. We absolutely have the power to change schools in this generation.”

So where does Ritz get this optimism?
He grows it—with his students.

“The excitement and joy that these little kids feel putting a seed in the ground and watching it blossom—OMG! “ Ritz exclaims. “It’s game changing! It’s empowering!”
“When they know that they can grow their own, they really start changing the way they see their relationship to the world and their place in it,” Ritz says. “They are growing, the plants are growing, and they are responsible for it.”

Vegetables are sprouting in trays, on walls, and from the sides of tower gardens. This growing infuses the classroom—and their lessons. Students learn the science of nutrition and growth. Names of vegetables teach consonant blends. The price of supplies and earnings help students learn math. Growing puts green in their wallets and trains students for jobs and business. With their learning aligned with their lives, students can create, taste and count real reasons to come to school. School attendance grew from 40 percent to 93 percent. Students are heading to college, not jail.

“For so many, food is the problem. Yet for all of us, food is a solution,” Ritz says.

In places adults didn’t think could grow plants, Ritz and his students are growing an answer to poor prenatal nutrition, the cause of 70 percent of learning disabilities. They are growing an answer to dropping out, unemployment and powerlessness with relevant learning, work and constant encouragement. “We are Ameri-CANS!, not Ameri-can’ts, “ Ritz proclaims.

“I’m not a farmer,” Ritz says, “But I’m planting. I’m planting seeds.”

Ritz has planted success in his students with this approach. But there is only one Stephen Ritz. How do we grow crops of transformative teachers and learning projects?

Solving for whY: Finding the Right Angle to Teach Math with Meaning

posted in: Healthy Schools, STEM, STEM learning | 0

Solving for WHY: Finding the Right Angle to Teach Math with Meaning.

Poor Y. Every year, millions of students try to solve Y’s intractable problems. They furrow their brows and scratch out long formulas smudged with erasures, red ink and tears. But despite all the best efforts of the students, Y returns each year with its problems expanded and more complicated than the year before.

So year after year our children run the gauntlets of math to solve things for x without knowing why. Some students survive these battles; others are scarred as losers in a contest that appears both incomprehensible and meaningless.

This is more effective at sorting winners from losers than solving real problems or educating students for their work or their role as citizens. If math is a tool to empower our children, how is it that many of our students fear it and some of our A students can’t calculate how much seed they need for a garden plot, understand a financial statement or tell when the numbers or politicians are lying?

What if we flipped the equation? Instead of solving the problems of numbers and letters, what if we used them to help solve real problems that we have? What if we learned with and played with the math around us in ways that made our lives and world better?

Real math is going on all around the school. The building manager has to decide how much grass seed to buy for the athletic field, how much fuel oil and cleaning products to buy, how much money they could save with energy renovations, how much garbage the school produces. The janitors have to decide how to dilute chemicals, how to clean the floors efficiently, the best routes and schedules for delivering supplies and replacing light bulbs. The kitchen staff needs to create proper ratios for recipes, estimate food consumption and track food waste. The school nurse has to track absences and illnesses. Principals track student performance. The schools are built to design standards that include the rise of the stairs, width of doorways, air exchange rates, roof loads and energy efficiency. But the math which keeps us safe, healthy, saves money and solves real problems isn’t invited into math classes.

But what if it was? School staff could show students how math is part of their jobs and show them how to use it artfully to solve problems. Students could create new solutions at their schools, their homes and in their lives.

What if students calculated how much money could the school save if it turned off the lights and computers at night? Or how much food they could grow at their school? Or how they could reduce storm water runoff at their school?
What if students calculated the difference in their life span based on drug/alcohol use, exercise, occupation and zip code? Could they devise a formula to live longer and stronger?

What if students started examining the cost of global climate change vs the costs to avoid it?
These are the calculations that matter in the lives of our children.
Let’s put a real “why” back into the equations and help them solve the problems in their futures.