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Microsoft in your community

Expanding the Project-Based Learning Network (PBLN) in West Des Moines Community Schools

Creating new pathways to learning

In 2019, West Des Moines Community Schools received an award of $25,000 from the Microsoft Community Empowerment Fund. West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) embarked on the Project-Based Learning pathway three years ago in response to the local business community. Local business leaders were having trouble finding workers with the skill sets to be able to successfully work in teams, actively problem solve on their own, and be agents for their own learning when it came to difficult tasks. Starting the PBLN pathway at the elementary and junior high levels has created home-grown student learners that have been involved for a few years before entering the high school ranks. Now that the pathway is growing into Valley High School in the 2018/2019 school year, the community of West Des Moines will get to experience the positive effects of the pathway’s growth on a more regular basis. The classes are more specific, and the students are more mobile.

West Des Moines Community Schools logo

This project will support seating and collaboration options for Project-Based Learning Network (PBLN) at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. The purpose of this project is to provide a pathway for students to create authentic problem solving purposely connected to the real world and 21st-century skills. Microsoft can pair with Valley High School to support the PBLN innovative and flexible space, in addition to providing programming and career opportunities in the PBLN pathway.

A huge component of Project-Based Learning schools is grounded in the equity work. The goal of the program is to have the student numbers within the program mirror the student numbers of the entire district. The amount of collaboration and written and oral communication involved in this pathway has proven to have a positive influence on language acquisition for the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). The positive coaching around career and social skills has been a positive influence for the learners with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) as well. The ability to have 1:1 devices for the students and a curriculum that meets the standards while involving student choice has provided a more equitable environment for all learners.

Upgrading spaces and technology for educational opportunities

The learners in the PBLN pathway have multiple exposures and experiences in the community that could lead to them identifying career pathways of interest for themselves. As they age into their junior and senior years, they will have some job shadowing and work experience opportunities that will help them solidify those interests and help to create a workforce beneficial to the types of careers and companies available to them in the West Des Moines community. The district’s mission is to provide an innovative environment for learners and facilitators that promotes teaching that engages, culture that empowers, technology that enables, and outcomes that matter.

The best practices of Project-Based Learning implement a student-centered approach grounded in collaboration and agency. The current traditional classrooms at Valley High School do not have the physical set-up to enhance the teamwork woven into the PBLN pathway. Purchasing furniture that accommodates technology and is flexible will not only mirror the working world more closely, but aid in enhancing these pathway’s goals. With the help of Microsoft, the physical environment can allow for more facilitation and better community connections.

This project establishes new relationships all the way up to the superintendent and including teachers and students. The school is currently Google-based and because of this community engagement they are starting to increasingly engage with Microsoft on the value of technology solutions. The Project-Based Learning Network program is engaging schools, parents, businesses, and non-profit communities into a new delivery model that breaks away from a traditional classroom. The learners engage with content while learning 21st-century skills like agency and group collaboration. The junior high portion of the pathway has already made connections with organizations like Microsoft, Shive Hattery, Principal Financial, JOPPA, and West Des Moines Human Services. Microsoft can aid the pathway’s growth into Valley High School by helping fund an innovative and collaborative space.

Community members provide feedback to help the teachers to provide grades for the students. School districts from around the Midwest have visited these spaces, and will continue to do so, to see how the school looks. Microsoft can be a part of the support system as these students will become a part of the community of West Des Moines that Microsoft has invested so much into. This program offers new ways for the community and schools to collaborate. Students have the chance help shape the program. Participation is on a volunteer basis where the students can participate, and there is no income block for this as the school provides computers. The program starts with the end in mind, with students guiding the process—what they know and what they need to know. Teachers then bring in the curriculum.

The PBLN pathway strives to create authentic opportunities and projects to help teach the curriculum standards. Oftentimes this plays out in the form of creating authentic audiences from the community. Currently, the school spaces are not equipped to host these audiences in a meaningful and successful manner. The teachers work hard to create spaces with the rooms and furniture they have, or host events in gymnasiums or large auditoriums, or look to go off school grounds to host public events. The more flexible the space and furniture in the Valley High School PBLN classrooms, the better the opportunity for individualized settings depending on the projects. Community members, and neighboring schools, can come into a setting to participate in small group workshops aimed at individual skills like sound editing a video, or large group events open to the public, like an Indian cultural festival.

At the junior high and 9th grade levels, PBLN courses have already executed projects addressing pollinator gardens, water quality, and wind energy. The 8th grade science course presented to the school board advocating for the purchase and construction of a wind turbine on district land to produce power for one of the buildings. Recently, the 9th grade Science Communications course investigated and presented possibilities of leasing some of the rooftops to cell phone companies for booster towers to generate income and fund green initiatives throughout the district. Next year, with two of the integrated courses at the sophomore level, BioChem and Analysis of Society (sociology and advanced composition), the number of opportunities for student learners to affect the environment will increase.

Sharing best practices across districts

As the PBLN pathway extends into Valley High School, there are set meeting and planning dates with city and chamber leaders to help inform the business community of the commitment to fostering learners that are college and career ready. Microsoft will be present and able to highlight the partnership and contribution. These groups will help set the courses and curriculum of the PBLN pathway at the high school so that opportunities to connect are embedded in how things are done. Family, business, and community partners are integrated into the programming not only to create authenticity, but to help drive the program as a change agent into the future. Parent Advisory groups at PBLN are building along the way, and will do the same at Valley High School. This gives families the opportunity to offer feedback to facilitators, but also provide an audience for the facilitators to display their own learning.

Other districts around the Midwest are eager to experience Project-Based Learning in WDMCS so that they can bring elements back to their school districts. District representatives and teachers have been asked to present on the experiences at national and state conferences. Once the new space is established, digital videos will be created to showcase the pathway’s growth in Valley High School, including student and staff quotes, images of the space, and some spots from the community leaders, including local Microsoft connections. The goals of the video would be to showcase the support of the local business community in the Project-Based Learning Network model and to publicize the program to families interested in opting into the program going forward. These videos would also be integrated into the presentations when hosting tours and presenting at conferences. This will show Microsoft’s commitment to the community beyond their recent datacenters, and WDMCS’ commitment to the innovative spirit and inspiring success, just like Microsoft has done for some time. This is the first school district in the Des Moines area to implement the idea started by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They do work hand in hand with other schools to share this repeatable process.