TEACHERS’ MANUAL ON HOW TO RUN A PROJECT ON THEMATIC TEACHING/LEARNING FOCUSING ON STEM-SUBJECTS. ICAROS PROJECT
SHARING EXPERIENCES MADE BY FIVE EUROPEAN UPPER SECONDARY SCHOOLS WITHIN THE ERASMUS+ STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP PROJECT
BEFORE YOU START….
WHAT IS THEMATIC TEACHING/LEARNING
The definition used in the project ICAROS was:
“By thematic learning we mean a method of education where student/teacher educational activities, within several disciplines, are focused on one specific theme. The theme is used as a vehicle by the educator to teach several concepts.”
A SUMMARY OF 10 THINGS TO BE CONSIDERED BEFORE YOU RUN A PROJECT ON THEMATIC TEACHING/LEARNING FOCUSING ON STEM-SUBJECTS
1. The project must be challenging and technically advanced
2. Real world problem solving must be central
3. Form a group of dedicated teachers and allow time for planning together before you start
4. If the project is part of a multinational partnership make sure that you plan the project together, understanding the different contexts and taking advantage of them
5. Teachers must be prepared to fail and learn through trial and error
6. Teachers must be prepared to take the part of being a guide rather than telling students what to do
7. You must expect and demand the students to take responsibility for their own learning through active participation
8. You must put a lot of effort into creating good working groups that favour collaborative learning
9. Make sure you have the support of the school leadership and the organisation to ensure adequate resources for instance in the form of time, staff, space and money
10. Create arenas for continuous involvement and embedment with important stakeholders, for instance the staff not directly involved in the project group, parents’ associations, and student’s boards
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
Between the years 2016 and 2018 a common Thematic Learning project named ICAROS was run cooperatively between five upper-secondary schools in Sweden, Spain, Germany, France and Greece. As an international project, ICAROS was co-financed by the Erasmus+ initiative of the European Union. The aim of the project was to enhance educational practices within the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM-subjects). Of course, other subject also benefitted. Furthermore, ICAROS aimed at promoting transnational teacher professional development by the sharing of methodology, best practice, collaborative approaches and results.
The project was born out of, inter alia, the perceived need of giving the students a “hands-on” practical application of acquired theoretical knowledge. Experiences from the participating partners indicated that science subjects, e. g physics and mathematics, many times was seen as purely theoretical exercises with little bearing on real-world practical problems. By offering the students a relatively complex technological design task (or theme), involving a high degree of problem solving and cooperation, the student was placed in a challenging learning environment conductive to real-world application of theoretical knowledge. As a whole, ICAROS was designed to give educators methods and tools to inspire the students to develop an entrepreneurial approach towards technology development and be encouraged to independent knowledge development through extensive use of high technology and Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
This text is intended to give educators an introduction to Thematic Teaching/Learning, as used within the ICAROS project, and to serve as an outline for the planning of similar projects. It is worth noting that ICAROS was aimed at educators and students in schools with a relatively high orientation towards STEM-subjects (i.e Technical Schools). However, this does not necessarily preclude the use of Thematic Learning in educational environments more focused on other areas than STEM-subjects. Consequently the “high-tech” theme used in ICAROS should be seen as an illustrative example. Similarly, while ICAROS was a cooperative project spanning five educational institutions in as many countries within the framework of Erasmus+, nothing should preclude the use of methodology within a single educational institution/department.
THE THEME- CORE OF THE PROJECT
Within the framework of the ICAROS project the nominal core activity of the project became, as already said, the design, development, testing and operation of small radio-controlled quadcopters, popularly known as “drones”. A number of considerations went into the choice of theme for the project. Firstly, the development of drones was chosen because this theme made use of modern technology that captured the imagination of the students. In this context, it is worth noting that the project managed to generate sustained student interest for the whole two-year duration. Secondly, drone development offered ample opportunities of integrating STEM- and other related subjects into the creative process. Thirdly, the tasks at hand were of relative high complexity, requiring the application of both theoretical knowledge as well as practical skills. Fourthly, the complexity of the tasks related to drone production and operation required a high level of cooperation between students as well as staff and offered ample opportunity for problem solving. Student and staff became “team mates”, jointly overcoming a series of technological and practical obstacles.
Consequently, it is important that the following interrelated points are considered when planning a project and its core theme:
• The theme should capture the imagination of the students and must be able to sustain interest over time
• The theme should offer opportunities to integrate a number of subjects
• The theme should offer the application of theoretical knowledge, together with practical skills
• The theme should offer an arena for cooperation between students and educators alike
• The theme should offer ample opportunities for real world problem solving
EMBEDMENT AND ANCHORING OF THE PROJECT
The importance of ensuring that the entire organisation is prepared to participate in the project and that it is supported by the management cannot be overestimated. The ICAROS project as a whole was centrally managed by the partners and the general coordinator directly responsible for the project vis-à-vis EU Erasmus+. The general coordinator visited each participating school before the start of the project in order to ensure the embedment of the project in the organisations. Regular transnational project meetings were undertaken during the project life-cycle, visiting all partner schools at least once, thus allowing for management, staff and students to meet the core-groups from other partner schools.
As already mentioned, the ICAROS project involved five upper-secondary schools in an international context. Bearing this in mind, the organisation of the project within the individual educational institutions was similar. Important aspects of the actual project organisation were the group of educators, the group of students, intra-project communication, and the allocation of resources for the project. It requires a lot of planning and the involvement of the whole organisation.
To further embed the project and provide more input and support, each partner of the ICAROS had its own steering group consisting of important stakeholders important for their organisation and context, e g managers from other educational providers, representatives from the local business or parents’ associations.
As the aims of the project are innovation and the development of entrepreneurial learning it also requires a measure of free maneuvering space for the project manager and participants, a budget to be managed by the project manager and the possibility to make changes as the project evolves.
When planning the project you are therefore recommended to make sure that:
• The project is well embedded in the organisation(s) on all levels before the start-up of the project
• That local stakeholders are engaged to support the project
• That there is a plan for the continuous work on embedment and anchoring in the participating organisation (s) throughout the project
• That the project is given means to enable its success, a frame with a measure of freedom for the project manager to run the project with an adequate budget (see below under resource allocation)
ORGANISATION OF STAFF
Within each partner schools the staff project teams was organised in educator-teams of five persons for the purpose of the project. The configurations of these Core-teams were instrumental to the successful completion of the project. The core teams were assembled to cover a number of STEM-subjects and general competencies. One of the educators at each school became the local coordinator, or local team leader, responsible for the local management of the project. Characteristics of core team members was their dedication to the development of educational best practice, creativity, high initiative, high professional skills, as well as their ability to communicate with, and motivate, students and colleagues.
As been stated above, both the STEM subjects covered, and the general skills needed, affected the configuration of the core team. In this context, the latter needs special attention. Since the chosen theme involved a series of relatively complex tasks, none of the educators alone possessed skills/competence enough to find solutions to all the technical and practical problems that emerged during the design and production process. Furthermore, as the design and work tasks was in constant development under the influences of encountered practical and technical problems, none of the staff had a definite key, or “crib” on the final design of the physical product (in this case – a drone). Instead the project harnessed the collective skills of the staff-team, through intense cooperation. In this context, skills/knowledge outside the educators’ professional role was also included (e.g private interests in radio controlled models, photography, et c). Furthermore, since thematic learning has its focus on students, most of the solutions to technical/practical problems arouse as a result of educator-student cooperation. Consequently, the educator had to be prepared to take the part of being a guide rather than “telling students what to do”. In addition to this, since the theme of the project, and it´s inherit complexity, was intentionally chosen to promote problem-solving, the educator (as well as the student) had to be prepared to see work task fail and be ready to learn by “trial and error”.
Even if ICAROS had a definite focus on so called STEM-subjects the project offered ample scope for the inclusion of other subjects. Subjects such as languages, art and design, et c. contributed to the project with specific tasks. It was therefore of utmost importance that the project was presented outside the core teams, in order to attract the interest of educators in other subject than those immediately covered by the project.
The following point should be considered when setting up the project Core Teams:
• Form a group of dedicated, creative educators that all show a high level of personal initiative
• Plan the project together with all core-team educators
• If the project is part of a multinational partnership, make sure that you plan the project together with all participating educational institutions, in order to understand different contexts and take advantage from them
• Be prepared to cooperate intensively within the core-team in order to share skills/knowledge
• Actively inform colleagues of the project in order to encourage cooperation
ORGANISATION OF STUDENTS
The ICAROS project, and its thematic learning around the construction of drones, was done in groups of approx. 20 students at each of the participating educational institutions. The aim of the project was to keep these Student Project Groups constant during the project life cycle. Some of the partners have instead changed groups on a yearly basis. Since the class-room activities within the project covered a multitude of different tasks, and consequently required substantial division of labour, the Student Project Groups students further sub-divided into smaller work groups in order to cover different tasks emerging during the work process. Formation of good task groups was of essence for the successful completion of the project. Intra-personal dynamics between students had to be considered all times, mixing different skill- and competence areas and levels. This was essential since the project also had the objective of fostering entrepreneurial learning; in the sense of the encouraging the students to show initiative in the problem solving process and take an active interest in the attainment of the goals within the chosen theme. Consequently, the completion of the project demanded that the student took responsibility for their own learning through active participation.
The following point should be considered when setting up the group of students that will participate in the project:
• Substantial effort should be put into creating good student project-groups that favor collaborative learning
• The students should be involved over a longer period of time, minimum one academic year
• Be prepared to further sub-divide students into work-groups in order to complete specific tasks
• Take intra-personal dynamics and different skill-/knowledge levels into account when forming groups
• Expect and demand the students to take responsibility for their own learning through active participation
ORGANISATION OF CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
Classroom activities demand a relative high amount of planning. The planning process for activities concerning the drone constructions within ICAROS was centered on the development of modular lessons, where things that needed to be done were clearly defined before the classroom activity, at the same time providing an environment that facilitated entrepreneurial and collaborative learning as well as the students’ active participation. The modular lessons related to the overall specification developed for the construction process, in the form of a general sequence of necessary steps leading to completion of the theme.
The process of creating modular lessons was truly dynamic. Technical and practical problems where expected to, and did indeed, occur. Since the student work process involved a substantial amount of hardware and software design, followed by functional testing in real world conditions (e.g. systems and flight tests), new re-design tasks was frequently needed (i. e. “trial and error” and “back-to the-drawing-board” situations). The modular lesson planning could therefore not be rigid. Instead, task requirements where reviewed on a weekly basis and modified according to the situation. Even if the planning process was in the hands of the educators, students contributed invaluable input on possible solutions to technical problems and to the content of corresponding modular lessons.
The more practical and technical tasks mentioned above were not the only content of the modular lessons developed. Since the entire work process was to be underpinned by theoretical knowledge, primarily within STEM-subjects, more theoretical lessons had to be developed. For example, subjects such as physics contributed to the understanding of the forces involved in drone operations, mathematics contributed to the interpretation of data generated by the flight electronics, et c. It is important to note that the project offered ample opportunities for integrating a series of theoretical subjects and concepts into practical class-room activities. It is equally important to note that substantial effort had to go into the creation of these theoretical modular lessons in order to integrate these concepts into the theme. Joint planning with all teachers involved was therefore required. All the theoretical subjects and concepts included in modular lessons had to be relevant to the realisation of the theme. Consequently, they had to fit in with practical tasks in a seamless way. In this manner, the relevance and role of theory in the solving of real-world problems could be demonstrated.
The following point should be considered in relation to classroom activities:
• Allow sufficient time for the creation of classroom activities in the form of modular lessons
• “Trial and error” is inherent in complex projects. Be prepared for technical and practical problems and remain flexible in your planning.
• Frequently reviews classroom activities and modify if needed to attain the goal of the theme
• Let the students contribute to the planning process
• Develop classroom activities also for additional relevant subjects and plan together with teachers within and outside the core-group
Other than the communication activities inherit in the planning of the project, an educational initiative like thematic learning demands an efficient electronic communication platform. Real time or near real-time communication between project leadership, educators and students are essential to the successful completion of the project, and much more so if the project is carried out between several schools/departments. A wide array of suitable ICT tools is available at low or no cost. It is, however, well worth noting that the one and same platform should be used by all project participants, be that educators or students. Avoid multiple platforms in order to stream-line project communications. The platform chosen should also be used during the entire life-cycle of the project. Furthermore, the platform should be easy to set up and intuitive to use. It should allow easy transfer of a wide array of file types and also serve as a repository of documentation and intra-project messages. In the case of ICAROS, the SLACK collaborative software tool was used throughout the project. SLACK offered a stable platform for the interchange of ideas, written documents, instruction movies et c, between international partners. It worked equally well in educator to student communication as it worked in peer-to-peer communication within the entire project network.
In the context of intra-project communication the following point are worth noting:
• An efficient communications platform is essential for thematic learning projects
• A wide variety of free or low-cost ICT solutions for intra-project communication exists
• The one and same communications platform should be used by all participants
• The same communication platform should be used during the entire project life-cycle
• The platform should serve as a filing system for all project documentation and allow easy file transfer.
It is an indisputable fact that the running of a thematic learning project requires resources. Like all educational activities, thematic learning generates not only benefits but also some economic cost for the educational institution, provided that the activity is not financed by external sources. Thus, resource use ultimately translates into in economic terms. The project resources can, somewhat oversimplified, be said to be time, space and tools/materials. In this context, time means the working hours allocated to the participating staff for the planning and realisation of the project and, furthermore, the hours allocated for student participation in classroom activities and other project-related tasks. Space, on the other hand, translates into classrooms and other facilities needed for project activities. In the case of ICAROS, the requirements beside adequate classrooms where, inter alia, comparatively large indoor and outdoor areas for flight tests and operator training. Tools and materials are somewhat more self-explanatory and the requirements will of course vary with the nature of the project. ICAROS was, by its “high-tech nature” quite tools/material-intensive involving, inter alia, electronic testing equipment, machine tools, composite materials and plethora of electronic components.
Since resource allocation typically is handled by school management, it is important to embed the project firmly on the management level of the educational institution(s) involved. Endeavor to present the thematic learning project idea at an early stage and invite management to active participation in the planning process. Equally important is clarity on the issue of needed resources like time. It is essential that management understands that the staff involved will need allocated work-time for the planning and carrying out of the project activities in order to safeguard quality. In a situation where the project is forced to rely on long-term “volunteer” or “pro-bono” work, project result may very well be in jeopardy. The time resource also applies to the students, since student activities must be scheduled, taking the existing curriculum into account. All this requires getting management acquainted with the actual project process, since management have the necessary overview of all organisational aspects of the educational institution. The resources time and space of course meet up in classroom activities. The time of both students and educators must be allocated into the regular schedule of the educational institution, together with the appropriate facilities like e.g. classrooms, workshops et c. Management participation is, as already been mentioned, indispensable in this area.
The resource of tools/materials is perhaps the least complicated from many aspects. A well done project plan should give the project core theme a good basis for the determination of the needs for tools and materials. This basis should be developed into a suggested project tools/materials budget accompanied with an itemised procurement list. Also count on the need for replacement materials and tools, since mishaps are bound to happen when a project involves experimentation. Present the budget to management and be prepared to motivate each item on the procurement list.
YOUR PROJECT AND SOCIETY
No project thrives in isolation. An anchoring of the project in the surrounding societal environment creates feed-back loops that are beneficial to the project as a whole and also provides the possibility to spread the results to other organisations. In the ICAROS project two main channels have been used to involve important stakeholders.
The first way of connecting with the surrounding environment was through the use of the local steering groups. The groups included local stakeholders as representatives from higher school management, higher educational institutions, local business interest, NGO:s, et c that are active in the project´s area of interest. They have provided different perspectives and the possibility to use resources outside the project, using venues, advice and the use of useful contacts.
Another way of connecting with the surrounding environment is through active dissemination at a local, regional or national level. The ICAROS project has produced dissemination materials such as leaflets and roll-ups, made sure the website and Facebook page is up-dated, produced articles and appeared in media. Every opportunity to take part in professional networks and in adequate events has been taken advantage of and local events have been arranged by the partner schools. Most of the activities were very low cost and apart from spreading the results, they have also provided feed-back to the project.
In order to connect with other organisations and stakeholders, providing them with the results and good practice, and at the same time benefiting from professional feed-back consider:
• Creating a steering group with varied competences and connections
• Producing simple, but efficient, dissemination materials
• Make a website and open accounts in social media
• Take every opportunity to talk about your project in your professional networks
• Take every opportunity to take part in adequate events
SOME LAST WORDS BEFORE YOU START…..
Running a development project based on innovation together with your peers and your students is interesting and fulfilling. You develop your practice and contribute towards better teaching and a more joyful and efficient learning. It will be hard work, but the reward is multiple.
If you want to know more about our project, look at our website www.icarosproject.com, and/or contact the project coordinator firstname.lastname@example.org.
All of us from the ICAROS team wish you the best of luck with your efforts and are looking forward to take part of your results and experiences.