Indiana embraces Project-Based Learning


Most higher education institutions take pride in maintaining tradition. UIndy’s Department of Teacher Education and its Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning revel in upending it. Together, the two are helping to revolutionize teaching and reinvent classrooms, both on campus and across Indiana.

“When it comes to education reform, we pride ourselves on asking the question, ‘Why couldn’t we do that?’” says Kathy Moran, School of Education dean.

This type of proactive thinking, paired with a hands-on approach to transforming education, serve as hallmarks for CELL and the Department of Teacher Education. Driven by a commitment to student success, both have made a tradition out of continuous improvement and innovation to improve Indiana’s K-12 schools.  Take a look at some of the unique ways they are tackling the challenges educators face today.

Project-based classrooms
Classrooms largely have stayed the same over the past 200 years, but expectations for student achievement have escalated. To bring Indiana’s classrooms more fully into the 21st century, CELL promotes  project-based learning, an approach that marries academic content with developing such crucial advanced skills as collaboration,  communication, and critical thinking through rigorous, real-world class projects.

PBL is not new to education, but thanks to CELL, its popularity in Indiana is. CELL co-created Indiana’s Project-Based Learning Institute, leads the state’s only PBL school network, and recently received a $74,000 grant from the Talent Initiative in northeast Indiana to train and evaluate PBL school coaches in that region over the next two years. CELL’s support for project-based learning has helped nearly 1,000 K-12 educators across the state—and has influenced UIndy professors as well.

After attending the annual Project-Based Learning Institute, for example, Physics Chair Tim Duman worked with his colleagues to create a group project using a high-altitude research balloon. School of Occupational Therapy professors Rebecca Barton, Julie Bednarski, Candy Beitman, and Jennifer Fogo used PBL to create a health, wellness, and prevention project that turned OT students into consultants for community organizations. (See “Gym dandy.”)

These high-flying experiences and on-the-ground learning opportunities helped students better retain the subject matter, engaged them in the coursework, and taught valuable life skills along the way.

Angry Birds. Smart kids
Ever consider the parabolas and geometry behind a game like Angry Birds? UIndy student Kaley Robbins did, which is why she partnered with Plow Digital, an Indianapolis-based interactive game and software developer, to create a class project teaching statistics through gaming.

Kaley’s project was part of her coursework for UIndy’s Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellowship, which recruits talented individuals from across the nation and prepares them to teach math or science in Indiana’s high-need urban schools. UIndy’s Woodrow Wilson Fellowship stands as Indiana’s first teacher preparation program to integrate project-based learning throughout the curriculum. The Fellows pair their classroom learning at UIndy with field experiences to design engaging projects for their secondary school students that address academic standards their pupils need to master.

Engaging in their own project-based learning teaches the Fellows about student differentiation, community collaboration, learning integration, and how to make content relevant for students, notes Woodrow Wilson Assistant Professor Jean Lee.

Consider the alternative

While the Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellowship represents one pathway for new teacher preparation, UIndy’s Master of Arts in Teaching program takes a different road to develop high-quality teachers. As with many in the Fellowship program, MAT candidates are career-changers drawn to teaching at the secondary level.

UIndy’s MAT faculty identified that few, if any, Indiana transition-to-teaching programs provided learning experiences in alternative schools—nontraditional schools that often struggle to attract and retain talented teachers. To fill this niche, the faculty developed a class called Introduction to Alternative Education and made it a required course for the program. Through the class, MAT students become immersed in alternative school environments to learn best practices, develop educational plans for high-need secondary students, and engage in service-learning. Candidates complete the course prepared to help students succeed in alternative schools.

UIndy’s MAT program boasts a list of accomplished graduates, many of whom have chosen to teach in alternative education programs as a result of this one-of-a-kind experience. UIndy’s principal preparation master’s program, meanwhile, uses virtual reality to train leaders for the actualities of today’s schools.

Dose of (virtual) reality
What would you do if the superintendent demanded a plan to improve your school’s academic performance or if one of your teachers had classroom management problems? If you are an iLEAD student, you need only log on to a computer to test your leadership skills in handling these and other situations that confront today’s principals. iLEAD is Indiana’s only principal preparation program to use vLeader, a computer simulator allowing students to practice different leadership styles in a controlled environment. The program also offers training in turning around a struggling school by way of a custom-designed “alternate reality” game. The game provides a learning forum that requires students to analyze school data, create a turnaround plan, and work with teachers to gain support.

CELL and iLEAD created a scholarship designed for candidates committed to working in low-performing districts. More than 50 percent of iLEAD’s current graduate students now come from high-need schools, placing iLEAD in a position to become one of the state’s premier principal preparation programs for improving Indiana’s struggling schools.

Power in collaboration
CELL and the Department of Teacher Education’s success largely stems from continual collaboration—both with each other and among stakeholders. When CELL’s High School-to-College Transition Project identified Indiana’s dearth of secondary teachers qualified to teach dual-credit courses (where students receive both high school and college credit), UIndy’s Department of Teacher Education partnered with the College of Arts and Sciences to address the issue.

The result? Indiana’s only Master of Arts in Curriculum & Instruction with a concentration in dual-credit English. To support the Education and Arts and Science faculties’ work around 21st-century learning, Dean Moran proposed that CELL host one of its school tours at Columbus Signature Academy. The New Tech model focuses on student collaboration in self-directed, interdisciplinary projects, thus changing the teacher’s traditional role from lecturer to facilitator. While CELL and the Department of Teacher Education may have different stakeholders, they work together toward the same goal—ensuring that Indiana’s students receive a world-class education.

The Woodrow Wilson Fellowships
The innovative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) teacher-education program recently announced its third cohort of Indiana fellows, 54 select students who will pursue master’s degrees in the coming year at UIndy and three public universities. Meanwhile, the program’s second-year fellows have completed their intensive coursework and will begin teaching math and science this fall in high-need urban and rural Indiana schools. Since its Indiana debut, the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship has been launched in Michigan and Ohio.