Planet Lab: Instructional Design Principles

Planet Lab’s instructional design strategy (including curriculum, KPIs and rubrics) follows several evidence-based practices for teaching and learning in the sciences. This blogpost lays out the major research frameworks that undergird this networked approach to science and technology education.

1) The First Framework: Learning happens in a network.

“STEM Ecosystems” research shows how organizations can collaborate across sectors to provide engaging learning pathways for youth.

“A STEM learning ecosystem encompasses schools, community settings such as after-school and summer programs, science centers and museums, and informal experiences at home and in a variety of environments. Together [these experiences’ constitute a rich array of learning opportunities for young people. A learning ecosystem harnesses the unique contributions of all these different settings in symbiosis to deliver STEM learning for all children. Designed pathways enable young people to become engaged, knowledgeable and skilled in the STEM disciplines as they progress through childhood into adolescence and early adulthood.” (Traphagen and Traill, Noyce Fdn Report, 2014)

This approach requires schools and institutions to work together; they must identify and overcome barriers and form integrated, strategic partnerships for engaging learning pathways. (Olson and Labov, National Academies Press, 2014) This integrated approach has impacts on important indicators for student success, including learning and achievement, and interest and identity. (Honey et al, Natl. Academies Press, 2014)

Similarly, the Connected Learning framework studies how youth engage on-line tools, communities, and opportunities to create learning experiences that cross anyone institutional. This framework celebrates the uses of digital and mobile tools and opportunities for authentic youth engagement, helping formal and informal educators use these tools in the context of designing learning. From this point of view “Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (or “homago”) on-line are valid forms of learning and participation, and at at times, offer more excitement and possibility than the traditional school classrooms. Connected Learning principles seek to build upon the frameworks of social media, building and tinkering in makerspaces, and “hacker culture” in order to leverage new resources to build quality and access in education. (See Ito et al, Digital Media and Learning Hub, 2012).

Planet Lab builds an ecosystem for sharing learning resources across organizations, engaging youth in collaborative challenges that scale-up geographically to provide new networks for learning and exchanging ideas. Planet Lab seeks to create a space for positive youth engagement on-line, opening up new opportunities for knowledge exploration and exchange via networked technology.

2) The Second Framework: Reading and calculating in the sciences means putting ideas into practice. 

In order to improve elementary reading and numeracy outcomes, we must help students to practice real-world problem-solving challenges. In these challenges (also known as problem-based learning), students must practice data collection and analysis, informational reading, recording their observations, and designing diagrams to communicate information. If these “core skills” in math and literacy are practiced in conjunction with science and technology challenges, schools can help lead the way to “cradle to career” pathways for youth.

The U.S. Next Generation Science Standards provide a framework for this integration between science, math and literacy by highlighting key “practices” that engage math and literacy skills. (Examples include asking questions and defining problems, engaging in arguments from evidence, and using data.)

Literacy and science can serve each other, and the study of science can offer a space for engaging reading instruction. A key problem, however, in the U.S. “STEM pipeline” is that over 61% of elementary educators feel unprepared to teach science (Natl. Survey of Science and Math educators. A number of evidence-based programs have focused on multi-modal approaches to science pedagogy. These programs integrate tools like a scientists notebook for recording observations, or an illustrated storyboard to show a process at work.

The instructional design of Planet Lab “quests” is based on these approaches, drawing inspiration and design strategies from evidence based programs for engaging developing readers through the sciences: Concept Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI), Guided Inquiry supporting Multiple Literacies (GIsML), In-depth Expanded Applications of Science (Science IDEAS), and Seeds of Science / Roots of Reading.

3) The Third Framework: Professional Learning Communities are key for school improvement. 

A common dilemma for schools and teachers is to track, implement, and study the impact of professional development programs. In many cases, science-engaged teachers seek out specialized workshops, but have little time to share what they have learned with other staff in their school setting. In many schools, some teachers develop special skill sets–such as engaging youth through the school garden plot–but with little opportunity to learn from their peers, they can’t leverage their leadership to impact the whole school climate.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are an effective approach to implementing new instructional techniques and school change efforts. In contrast to shorter-term professional development, PLCs grow school based support networks from the ground up. PLC’s support educators to share, implement, and study new instructional methodologies. Extensive research has identified best practices for PLCs; they should emphasize collaboration, shared values, a focus on learning outcomes, and opportunities for peer exchanges and horizontal mentorship. (See Ruebel, 2012 for an excellent research review, Annenberg Report, 2009)

Because PLCs are based in exchanges between teachers in a situated learning community, they allow for a differentiation of professional learning in order to best enhance each educators’ instructional toolkit. Technology can greatly enhance the impacts of PLCs. Video-based reflection and lesson studies are important practices for enhancing professional learning. Teachers can use these tools to document and share examples of their own practice. Using technology, they can reflect on the practice of other teachers and offer supportive advice with reference to student-learning outcomes. (See EdSurge Report, 2014).

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