Eighth-grade students at Breckenridge High School are working together to research sustainability measures and grow solutions to present to professionals Monday, Oct. 16.

Business teacher Derek Grahn and science teacher Travis Ekren are team-teaching a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) 8 course in which they are integrating both computer applications and science for students to problem solve and develop a solution to a sustainable environment. This project is the first of six major projects the students will be working on throughout the year with Grahn and Ekren.

The co-teachers gave the eighth grade students a letter that posed the local area was looking for a solution to environmental sustainability. Students are collaborating in groups of 3-4 to think creatively to take on this project. Students are engaging in solutions such as plants, beehives, fisheries and more.

“Really it’s us trying to give the decision making and learning back to the kids,” Grahn said.

Students were asked, “How as eighth-graders are we able to participate and build sustainable energy to help, grow, research and teach about sustainable ecosystems to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) in the area?”

“A lot of them head down the same train of thought which is where we try and break them off so they are doing different things. For example, some are saying we could plant trees because it will reduce CO2 levels. Some are looking at starting beehives because that could help with pollinating,” Grahn said.

A group of students decided that they would focus their solution on the hollyhock flower. The students had a presentation they were working which explains how plants take CO2 out of the air to do photosynthesis and thus release oxygen into the air.

The students chose this particular plant because they are perennials and so they will grow back each year from their roots that go dormant in the winter. The ability for the flower to grow back saves on economic cost, thus making a more sustainable choice. They also chose the hollyhock plant because they have “really pretty flowers,” said Hailee Bruce, who is in 4-H and has many hollyhocks in her garden.

The eighth grade students gather at the beginning of class and soon enough split into two groups. One group will go with Grahn and the other with Ekren.

Integrating science and technology takes a lot of planning ahead of time. The teachers start with STEM issues and work on integrating computer applications into that issue. This integration allows students to learn science and computer skills while applying them to real-life issues.

Grahn provides content for students to learn business, technology, and computer application skills. Some of the skills he teaches are keyboarding, Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Previously, there was a semester-long course dedicated to solely these computer application skills. Now, these skills are being taught to implement them in solving the issue of sustainability.

While Grahn has the students learning those computer skills, Ekren takes the other half of students to discuss the scientific portion of the project and provides his expertise. Students sit in their groups of three or four working together on their projects. They discuss their research, call professionals, and work through the details of their presentation. When students arise with a question, Ekren is there to assist them.

Traditionally, Ekren would provide the answer to the students with a lecture. Rather, he engages with the students through having a group discussion to which he asks the students questions or will provide resources for the students to answer themselves.

“The goal of project-based learning (PBL) isn’t to give them the answer, but to essentially give them tools to find what the answer is,” Grahn said. “The goal is not to print something off and have them read it, but rather to research and learn from professionals.”

“That’s a big belief that we have. Realistically, in their pockets, they have something they can now research anything in the world about. Us telling them what they should do, traditionally, has shown to not be as effective as going through the process and learning on their own,” Grahn said.

For some students, it is difficult to work on in a group atmosphere rather than individually. However, the overall goal of PBL is to prepare them for the real world where realistically, they will be required to work with others.

“So giving them the opportunity to collaborate and work on these things is something that is big in our minds. Sometimes and obviously, they want to work with their friends, but sometimes their friend isn’t who they are going to work the best with and sometimes if it is someone they haven’t spoken with before, it may be difficult to launch into the project that way,” Grahn said.

The goal is to present their solutions to professionals in the area and receive some funding. This requires presenting their research, evidence for the necessity of change, and evidence for why their solution will be beneficial. Showing this requires the integration of computer skills, such as using a spreadsheet, and sustainability research.

Students will present their projects to professionals and large stakeholders around the area such as farmers, banks, and the mayor. Grahn and Ekren want those to come to be experts in the field and have the ability to help solve the problem.

Students were given a tentative limit of $1,000 that their solution would cost so that their solution could be reasonably implemented. “It would be a donation to help the students and a donation to help the environment,” Grahn said.

Eventually, both teachers hope to open this presentation up to parents and others. Considering this is their first time executing this project and presentation, they want to fine-tune the process initially.

This is the first year that Grahn and Ekren have co-taught different subjects while integrating them.

“It really has been a learning experience for us as well as neither of us has co-taught before. We spent a lot of time over the summer working together to help plan our projects and classroom activities. We also spent time reading about different practices that are used by other teachers. Our teaching personalities complement each other well when we are doing large group discussions and we are able to play off our strengths. We also have mini-lecture days in which we break up into smaller groups and we each teach our content area,” Grahn said.

PBL is a new technique that is being implemented into the school’s curriculum. “For this class, I really enjoy how it is working. I found that it’s enjoyable to have another teacher in the room so that we can work together and we don’t have to be an expert on both technology and science to execute the project,” Grahn concluded.

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