Project-based Learning that’s Preparing Students for the Future

At first this project made my head hurt. Okay, that’s not quite fair, but I had to read Lou Zulli’s application to the Partners in Learning 2011 US Innovative Education Forum twice before I really realized, or maybe believed, that kids were doing this kind of work in high school (I know I certainly wasn’t, I remember struggling with that thing called BASIC). So, in short, high school students are building and managing the school’s intranet which integrates campus communication, curriculum planning and facilities management into one site.

imageTheir school’s intranet (aka CATNIP) is based on Microsoft SharePoint 2010, which uses Windows Server 2008 R2 and SQL Server 2008 R2 and they’re using professional grade dev tools like Visual Studio 2010 and Expressions as well (btw, if you’re liking where this project is going and you haven’t checked-out DreamSpark, you can get all of these tools for FREE for your school, certainly worth looking into).

The educator behind this project is Lou Zulli Jr., who is the IT Instructor and Network Administrator at the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High School in Saint Petersburg, FL. The school provides STEM oriented students an opportunity to pursue a science, math and technology focused curriculum alongside of a more traditional high school curriculum. The school received a nice shout-out by Newsweek magazine in their listing of America’s Best High Schools in 2010 (16th on the list). The school is home to a Microsoft IT Academy that enables students to earn professional certifications while in high school.

On this set of projects Mr. Zulli worked with his 11th and 12th grade students to build and support this operational school-wide intranet site adding services and features that are in daily use throughout the school community. Individual students took on a range of projects from developing a virtual school tour using Microsoft Silverlight and Expressions Blend to the creation of lesson plan tracker, a hall pass system and systems for tracking IT assets in the school. Each of these projects was led by students demonstrating autonomy and ownership that resulted in projects being put into production across the community.

The irony of this project is that in Lou Zulli’s application to the 2011 US Innovative Education Forum, which is how we met, he specifically stated: “This project was never intended to integrate with the core subjects identified in the 21st Century Skills Framework.” Instead, as he goes on to write, these projects were meant to augment core subjects in a 21st century environment and he intended this to be “…an exercise in enterprise level development that would prepare these students for similar project development in college or business.” Well he got that right. Zulli's students at work

Not only is this an amazing example of project-based learning, the nature of these projects requires students to practice project management skills, work closely in teams, interact and engage across multiple levels of the school community to meet the objectives of the given project, while dealing with numerous higher-level logic and problem-solving activities not only within the software development pieces of the project, but the roll-out of these school-wide systems.

How do you assess a project like this? In Lou’s mind (and in his practice) you assess this through the completion of the project. Traditional assessment models just didn’t apply.

Lou is encouraging his students to do real-world work and pushing himself to evolve his way of teaching (perhaps more so facilitating) and preparing his students for what lies ahead. Not surprisingly Lou was a "double winner” at the Partners in Learning 2011 US Innovative Education Forum. He was awarded 1st place in the Use of Technology for Learning category and was on the team of educators who came together while at the event this summer and designed a new project that combines computer science, business and media arts which was ultimately selected as an Educator’s Choice project (see my previous post: When Fish Fly for more on that one).If you'd like to see a nice video of clip of Lou and his students as featured on their local Fox News affiliate go here.

If you’d like to go under-the-covers even more on this project we’ve captured a webcast that is led by a couple Microsoft education technical experts as well as Lou and his students. If these types of projects are of interest to you I would highly recommend you tune into Alfred Thompson’s Teaching Computer Science blog and you can follow him @alfredtwo where he shares many insights from teaching computer science as well as being a software developer himself.

Lou and students have been working on some new projects this year including building online channels for teachers to hold virtual office hours and conferences using Microsoft Lync and integrating SharePoint and Moodle. I look forward to hearing more about these projects and seeing Lou at the Partners in Learning 2011 Global Forum next month in Washington, DC. Keep track of the Global Forum on Facebook or follow me @TeachTec looking for the hashtag #PILGF