Professional Learning Communities as Social Capital in STEM/STEAM Learning
Written by Krista M. Stith & Rachel L. Geesa STEM Integrations, LLC
The Indiana Department of Education’s Office of School Improvement defines Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) as “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively to improve student learning” (IDOE, 2020, para 1). One of the hallmark features of meaningful PLCs is the time and space for educators to strategize to best serve students and thrive through collaboration with peers. Educators within PLCs can support one another as they explore and reflect upon their educator resources, personal educational experiences, and the experiences of their colleagues.
For organic educational experiences to support students’ authentic learning in science, technology, engineering, arts/humanities, and mathematics (STEM/STEAM), PLCs provide critical time and space for discourse. Discourse regarding STEM/STEAM should include strategies to build robust and equitable programs and opportunities in schools and districts. One strategy for deeper, authentic, and organic engagement of STEM/STEAM experiences for students is developing and implementing community partnerships.
In reviewing the Office of School Improvement’s recommendations for educational leaders, the following are some actions recommended by the IDOE as providing a foundation for Indiana teachers’ PLCs.
A school vision and mission focus on the core values, goals, and desired future of the program’s long-term results within a school and community. At Brownsburg High School in Hendricks County, Indiana, grade-level leadership teams model PLCs for leaders to address all students’ social, emotional, academic, and career and college readiness needs by each leadership team working with the same group of students throughout their four years of high school. Each team consists of an assistant principal, academic coach, school counselor, administrative coordinator, and two teachers of record. The organization of these teams allows leaders to build relationships, communication structures, and ways to collaborate with students, teachers, staff, families, and community and industry partners.
Educators and leaders within a PLC should accurately reflect in what ways strategic planning with community partnerships can be a part of the school’s larger organizational strategy – a clear plan- to prepare all future learners for a scientific and technologically-driven world.
During PLC meetings, teachers provide diverse voices to crystallize what concepts, skills, and contexts students should be able to know and do, as well as plan lessons accordingly. Unpacking standards with the lenses of inquiry and problem solving can provide real-world relevance to students. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered with students of K-12 schools, universities, and informal learning organizations to empower students to confront global food security, sustainable energy, childhood obesity, climate variability and change, bioenergy, and water and food safety (Bott-Knutson et al., 2019). A significant outcome of this partnership program was evidence of youth capacity to apply their new knowledge and experiences as designers of solutions.
In PLC meetings, educators can think of these global issues, as well as local issues, and share what they feel problem solving solutions can provide rich and rigorous experiences that align with Indiana standards. Integration of the technology/engineering standards and the employability standards can be particularly helpful in planning community partnerships to enrich STEM/STEAM curriculum.
Students should engage in real-world problems at the local, state, national, or global levels as thinkers and designers to innovate solutions. PLCs can be a valuable platform for the collaborative efforts to create multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary experiences for students.
The principal of Brownsburg High School, Dr. Bret Daghe, credits PLCs’ effectiveness with regularly scheduled meetings in a common meeting space with focused agendas to guide each 45 minute meeting and meeting minutes shared at the end of each PLC meeting with faculty and school leaders. Expectations are that all teachers and administrators participate in these PLCs and have focused conversations related to curriculum development, teaching the standards, instructional strategies, and consistent assessments to determine what students know and how best to support all students. PLCs present their data to the administration team on a quarterly basis, and they reflect upon the data to make decisions about next steps to ensure all students have opportunities for success. Brownsburg hosts a STEM PLC with educators of diverse STEM strengths and backgrounds, so that they are well-positioned to add community partnership discussions to the agenda.
Maximizing PLC time for Discourse on Partnerships
Where should educators begin when it comes to thinking about community partnerships while in a PLC meeting? Below are introductory prompts that can provide a starting point for thinking about community partnerships to enrich STEM/STEAM curricula:
- Describe the authentic problem/task for students to solve
- Identify the content standards/skills to be focused on in the lesson
- List possible community partners (e.g., local, state, national)
- Provide a rationale for each community partnership integration into curricula to create an inter-, multi-, or transdisciplinary experience for students
- List potential barriers or challenges with the community partnership
PLCs provide time and space for educators to collaborate to improve student learning and achievement. From some of the actions recommended by the IDOE, we highlight community partnerships as part of a wider conversation on strategies and best practices to build STEM-capable students. Educational leaders may consider prompting teachers to use some of the PLC time to improve students’ learning through the enrichment of STEM/STEAM curricula and providing an organic context for students to solve real-world problems through community partnerships.
Bott-Knutson, R. C., Larson, B., Van Heek, N., Nichols, T. J., & Stluka, S. (2019). Community partnerships help undergraduate students to meet the ‘grand challenges’ of today. Collaborations: A Journal of Community-Based Research and Practice, 2(1).
Olson, L. A. (2018). School-Community Partnerships: Joining Forces to Support the Learning and Development of All Students. Aspen Institute.
Indiana Department of Education (2020). Professional Learning Community. https://www.doe.in.gov/school-improvement/professional-learning-community