Fun With GIS 113: PBL? Look EAST!

Stories of education woe abound. But good news exists, if you know where to look. Recently, I was privileged to attend two important events: the National Governors Association winter meeting and the annual conference of EAST Initiative.

At the NGA meeting, governors and audience heard a powerful presentation on the importance of entrepreneurship. Knowing how to engineer products is critical, said the speaker, but of limited value if not coupled with the ability to connect creation with user. When one governor asked why the US is not more successful getting students to complete school able to move into STEM-related jobs, the speaker replied (I’m paraphrasing here) “Our education systems may have worked in the past, but not anymore. What students need to do is projects, where they can engage deeply, take something from start to finish, learn how to do things that don’t have a clear right answer, and solve problems.”

At that point, I half-expected Governor Beebe from Arkansas to jump up and say “Come see what we have!” Had I sat closer, I’d have elbowed him to do so. Arkansas deserves attention for their project-based learning (PBL) program called EAST, for “Environmental And Spatial Technology.”

Last week, I was at the annual EAST conference. About 2000 students from around 200 schools gathered at a convention center to show what they had done, learn from each other, celebrate their collective efforts, and inspire each other to reach higher. Adults designed EAST and lead the overall program, and each school has a “facilitator” to oversee things, but most of the day-to-day work through the year, and much of the conference, is conceived, designed, led, and performed by students. The students are given license — and expectation — to explore, create, organize, evaluate, problem-solve, and present. They learn quickly that hurdles abound in the world, and they must figure out how to overcome them. All activities must benefit a community beyond just the engaged student/s, which means presenting a product to the “audience/ client/ customer.” ALL work must consider the needs and desires of the recipient from the outset.

EAST classes are most often in high school but range in age from early college down into early elementary. Going to conference is an “earned privilege” at most schools. And student work ranges from “a good start” to stunning.

As part of a broad suite of advanced technologies, all EAST schools have ArcGIS Desktop Advanced (“ArcInfo”) and extensions. Most EAST classes have a few students who engage more deeply in working with GPS and GIS. They learn enough to get underway, and continue learning “as needed.” Some students are just now beginning with ArcGIS Online; some have used ArcInfo for several years.

Esri hosted a “showcase competition” for GIS projects. Receiving honorable mentions were a community energy audit (7th graders from Harrisburg Middle School) and a community auto accident analysis (senior from Fayetteville High School). The winning project was a fabulous community storm water mapping project by seniors from Greenland High School, who completed for their town something that communities across the US must do.

The range of projects containing at least some GIS was impressive; the full range and quality of EAST projects is, in a word, stunning … like the kids themselves. Telling observation: hotels are more excited to have EAST Conference show up than to see school or college sporting events, even though EAST kids vastly outnumber adults. In a decade of attending such events, I have yet to hear my first word spoken in anger. But I hear “May I show you …” and “How did you …” constantly. These are kids excited about at least some of their school experience. In its history, EAST has served 150,000 kids.

PBL is not easy for teachers and administrators to adopt quickly. It is not how most educators were schooled, and it is not easily supported by current policies which value precisely defined machine-scoreable metrics following a prescribed sequence of uniform experiences. But life is not like that. As the NGA speaker indicated, PBL can foster kids engaging in education more deeply; help them learn practical skills and integrate learning; allow them to explore, create, stumble, fail, revise, and move beyond; and keep them as an integral part of the community instead of apart from it.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Schools Program Manager

Charlie Fitzpatrick

About Charlie Fitzpatrick

Charlie Fitzpatrick is the K-12 education manager at Esri. Before joining Esri in 1992, Charlie taught social studies in grades 7-12 for 15 years.
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