South Carolina is at risk of a water shortage. With $500,000 in grants available for innovative conservation projects, it's up to the students in Bryan Coburn's introduction to engineering course at Northwestern High to devise solutions.
Armed with smartphones and an array of Web tools, the teens spent much of last semester on that hypothetical assignment. By the project's end, they had created elaborate online portfolios showcasing their research, 3D designs and multimedia packages.
Students said they never felt so enthralled by school work. Some were inspired to become engineers.
"It was amazing," freshman Parker Hooten said. "We didn't just sit there and learn. We actually did stuff. It made the class much more fun and involving. You want to be there."
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That's the kind of school experience that Coburn, the state's Teacher of the Year in 2009, and the founders of a national program want to replicate.
Coburn is among a cadre of celebrated teachers rethinking how to prepare students to excel in an age of rapid innovation and global uncertainty.
The project is called "The Model Classroom."
Run by the Pearson Foundation's New Learning Institute, the two-year-old program invites Teacher of the Year winners from around the nation to Washington D.C. during summers for workshops on making better use of technology.
While schools wrestle with how to regulate online access, often requiring students to shut off cellphones, the Model Classroom says, "get with the program."
Educators learn to tap into smart phones and mobile apps "in a way that empowers students to explore, experiment and discover solutions to problems," Model Classroom Co-leader Brian Burnett said.
But it's not a technology training course. And it doesn't prescribe rigid guidelines.
The Model Classroom teacher is more of a guide who lays a foundation, then helps students along as they learn on their own.
"It's really removing the teacher from being this didactic downloader to being a facilitator and a coach," Burnett said.
A group of educators each year try project-based lessons with support from the Institute.
Since taking part, "I look at things differently," said Christopher Poulos, a Spanish teacher at Joel Barlow High in Redding, Conn.
After a field trip to El Museo de Barrio in New York City, Poulos' students performed interpretations of art work, which they filmed, edited and uploaded to YouTube. They created a virtual tour of the museum and a website for their project. They designed QR codes, which visitors print, then scan with a smartphone to view students' videos.
"It was interesting to see that the school was finally catching up to technology," a former Joel Barlow senior said in a class interview posted online.
An important role
Rock Hill schools haven't shied away from technology.
Classrooms are outfitted with interactive white boards, digital touch screens the size of their dusty, chalk predecessors. Students are testing district-issued Net books and iPads. Principals keep up with work through iPhones and Blackberrys.
Superintendent Lynn Moody often calls students "21st century learners" who must be prepared for jobs that don't yet exist.
Yet, schools tread cautiously.
Few classrooms issue mobile devices or tablets. While Coburn's students were free to use their phones and sites such as Weebly and Prezi, they couldn't access YouTube, which the district blocks.
That was limiting, sophomore Chris Costley said.
"Technology can really play an important role," he said.
Still, Coburn's approach was refreshing.
"It would be great if it could spread around to other classes," senior Lakwasa Heath said. Heath was so inspired by the project that she spent a weekend learning to write Web code to enhance her group's website.
Coburn long has shunned rote learning in favor of hands-on projects. He prefers to teach fundamentals, then turn teens loose to learn on their own.
"They don't write definitions; that's crazy," Coburn said. "Which is more valuable - having them memorize a definition, or know how to use the word?"
His style is popular with students as well as educators.
The Model Classroom sharpened his method, Coburn said, by broadening his view of the role students can play in their own learning and the tools they can use.
Beside phones, his students share software and skills. Last semester, a teen taught classmates about video editing. Another brought in a green screen for video presentations.
"It just never occurred to me to leverage student knowledge and materials," Coburn said.
School lessons often are crafted around a specific state learning guideline. For instance, to cover the requirement that students learn about ethical Internet use in engineering class, a teacher might have students create a Power Point presentation of examples.
Even Coburn, who pans the notion of "teaching to the test," has designed lessons that way.
Now, he said, "I find a project and say, 'How many of my objectives and standards can I fit into it?'"
Last semester's ethics lesson evolved when Coburn posted a question on www.polleverywhere.com, to which students responded via text message.
One text was offensive.
After the teens stopped giggling, Coburn zeroed in on the message, explaining that students' actions online leave a trail. He clicked on examples from news headlines to buttress his point. He pointed out that inappropriate acts could lead the school to ban cellphones. There hasn't been a problem since.
Like other Model Classroom alumni, Coburn is an evangelist for the program. In education, it's easy to get swamped by the day-to-day work and miss new opportunities, he said.
"So often, they get caught up with meeting the standards and pacing guides," he said. But "just doing things to be doing them has no meaning to these kids.
"There are just so many ways of thinking differently about what hooks students."
To learn more, visit: newlearninginstitute.org/digital-media-programs.
Click on The Model Classroom in the center of the screen.