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PBL Program Shows How to Tap Local Expertise

| Suzie Boss

Technology executive Blake Lewin could be sending his sons to a high school within walking distance of their home in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Instead, they're up at 5:30 each morning -- without complaining -- for the 20-mile commute to the Center for Design and Technology.

CDAT is an interdisciplinary, technology-rich program based at Lanier High School, part of Gwinnett County Public Schools. Only two years old, CDAT already is demonstrating that students can master core academics while at the same time "learning to make something real," Lewin says. In a studio setting that emphasizes academically rigorous project-based learning, students design digital games, produce music recordings and videos, make 3-D models, and tackle a wide range of other projects for which they earn credits in subjects ranging from language arts to health to digital media.

For schools interested in ramping up the real-world rigor in project-based learning, CDAT offers some smart strategies to borrow. One opportunity to learn more about the program is Edcamp Gwinnett, a free "unconference" for educators interested in PBL. It takes place at CDAT/Lanier High in Sugar Hill, Georgia, on June 4-5.

Although the district has provided CDAT with state-of-the-art technologies and time for professional development to grow this unique program, one practical strategy that other schools can borrow costs nothing -- yet pays big dividends: Forge strong connections with local industry leaders.

Reflecting Reality

It's no accident that what happens at CDAT reflects Georgia's thriving digital gaming and entertainment industry. Even before the doors opened in 2010, CDAT lead teacher Mike Reilly had recruited an advisory committee of experts from business, higher education, and government.

"They talk with us about the big ideas in their industries. They let us know what's coming," says Reilly, who switched to teaching after an earlier career in business. Input from advisors helps CDAT's interdisciplinary teaching team decide which programming languages to teach, which software suites to incorporate, and how to help students turn their current passions into opportunities for entrepreneurship. As the program grows -- starting with ninth-graders in 2010 and expanding to grades nine to 12 by 2013 -- CDAT continues to fine-tune its approach.

At the same time, industry leaders "add legitimacy to what we're doing," Reilly adds. Whether it's giving feedback on student projects or ensuring parents that there are, indeed, careers ahead in fields like digital gaming, the experts "provide a huge dose of reality."

Blake Lewin is both a CDAT parent and an advisory committee member. President of TransGaming Digital Home, he sees CDAT as a pipeline for developing the talent and entrepreneurial thinking that his industry depends on. He also appreciates the practical applications of what his sons are learning. "You need to know how what you're learning fits into the world. This program fosters in kids how you interact on a project, how you approach a problem, how you look at knowledge as integral to experience. When I see my son at home editing film, working on a script, or planning a schedule with other team members to produce a game together, I know that's not busywork," he adds. "That's valuable."

Asante Bradford, who heads the Global Commerce Division for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, brings to the advisory committee a statewide perspective. Programs like CDAT can help to prepare tomorrow's workforce and prevent a brain drain of young talent. "Our ability to offer expanding or relocating companies a highly skilled and trained workforce through our colleges and universities is key to the future success of the industry in Georgia," he says. "Programs like CDAT are crucial to the success of the industry by providing opportunities to students, including access to companies in Georgia."

Technology investor Gordon Rogers, managing director of Vernon Bridge Ventures, has been a CDAT booster even before the doors opened. A few years back, as a judge for a student technology competition, he kept running into Mike Reilly's students. (Reilly taught at North Gwinnett High before coming to CDAT.) "I wanted to know what he was doing. He seems to have a magical ability to instill curiosity and initiative in kids," Rogers says. When Reilly asked him to serve on CDAT's advisory committee, Rogers was eager to get involved. "I want to help move the needle on education. When you see a program like this -- a little on the edgy side -- you want to help it succeed."

How can a school make the best use of expert advisors? Here are three suggestions that are working well for CDAT -- and could work anywhere.

Make it easy to engage: Reilly is careful to respect his advisors' busy schedules. They meet as a committee twice a year to talk about big-picture topics. In between, Reilly looks for opportunities to connect individually. He might ask an expert to give feedback on a student project, host a field trip, or recommend an internship. "Each person has a niche. If we can ask each advisor to help us do one thing a year, that's huge," he says.

Build connections: Advisors can be connectors between school and others in the community. Through its advisory committee, CDAT has forged new connections with higher education and a host of industries. "These people are super connectors," Reilly says.

Focus on students: CDAT advisors are keen to know what (and how) students are learning. Before committee meetings, they take time to talk with students about their work. They celebrate students' stellar performance on achievement tests. They also regularly get to see what students are making and designing . At an end-of-the-year showcase event, Gordon Rogers was in attendance along with CDAT parents. "We can see for ourselves that these kids really enjoy learning," Rogers says, "and that they're learning useful skills." It's a 45-minute drive from his Atlanta office to CDAT, he adds, "but I always look forward to going there."

How does your school bring real-world perspective to project-based learning? Please share your strategies in the comments.







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