After decades in traditional education, an educator finds a better solution for learning

After decades in traditional education, an educator finds a better solution for learning
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In a corner of Pennsylvania’s Appalachian region, an alternative education system serving at-risk and special needs students is taking an innovative approach to preparing them for a future in the workforce.

Intermediate Unit 1 in Coal Center, Pennsylvania, has embraced the full power of project-based learning, a teaching method that most mainstream schools have yet to adopt — which has set our nation behind the curve. As a recent LinkedIn study shows, soft skills are the top priority for businesses training talent in 2018, but we shouldn’t rely only on workplaces to teach those skills.

Personalized, experiential projects in school classrooms enable students to investigate and respond to real and complicated questions and challenges, setting them up for success starting on Day 1 of their first job. Veteran educators such as myself have seen this firsthand. And it’s becoming clear all educational settings — mainstream, vocational and alternative schools, as well as in English, drama and math classes — need to adopt this approach.


My experience comes from having transitioned to Pennsylvania’s alternative school system, where we hosted a pilot fabrication lab (Fab Lab), a hands-on learning center featuring high-tech STEM resources. In partnership with Chevron and the Fab Foundation, we built a campus lab to explore the effects of experiential learning on the system’s highly concentrated at-risk and special needs population. Serving students from all walks of life, with educational and support needs ranging from special and alternative education and mental health programming to comprehensive therapeutic emotional and autism support, the Fab Lab is now a part of the required curriculum.

The results have been remarkable. Discipline problems virtually disappeared; attendance numbers have never been better. Students with special or educational needs, many of whom typically had trouble in group or traditional classroom settings, are active and engaged. One day I watched as a student who was experiencing severe emotional distress in the school hallway immediately calmed down when he was brought to the Lab, where he became curious about the Lab’s equipment and wanted to tinker with it, using it as an emotional outlet.

It may seem far-fetched that rural Pennsylvania might be at the forefront of a monumental educational innovation — I certainly wouldn’t have believed it before I saw it in action. But now we are commissioning a study to put data behind the results we are seeing time and again — project-based learning, regardless of student and individualized needs, spells success. We’re also sharing our insights at the USA Science & Engineering Festival this weekend in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate what we’ve seen.

What we started in the Appalachian region is particularly relevant to our local economy, given that an Allegheny Conference on Community Development study found that energy and advanced manufacturing employers will need to fill 5,000 job openings annually over the coming decade. With an expected shortage of workers with the necessary skills to work in these growing industries — including companies such as Chevron — the Lab is training students to enter the workforce prepared, providing transition plans and practical, STEM-related career and technical education.

Recognizing that others outside our region can benefit from a similar approach, we launched a mobile version of the Lab to bring hands-on learning to farther-flung school districts. And we believe its reach should expand even further.

Mainstream schools nationwide need to acknowledge that not all students are college-bound, and each student has a unique set of needs and talents. By adopting a project-based learning approach, schools everywhere can help students learn in ways that are scalable and customized to their individual needs. NGOs, private corporations and governments must invest in project-based learning, and educators and policymakers nationwide need to embrace the presence of hands-on training in schools.

Don Martin is assistant executive director at Intermediate Unit 1 in Coal Center, Pennsylvania.