Let me try to paint this picture.
We were sitting in our school conference room on a Skype call with a Norwegian company, First Scandinavian, who creates and runs Newton Rooms around the world. Across the table from our High School Principal and Student Design Lab teacher were two leading research scientists from The Center for Forensic Science Research and Education.
In the middle of the conference room table sat a PCR Machine (which if you asked me what this was a few years ago I would have no idea what it did). How does PCR work? To amplify a segment of DNA using PCR, the sample is first heated so the DNA denatures, or separates into two pieces of single-stranded DNA. Next, an enzyme called “Taq polymerase” synthesizes – builds – two new strands of DNA, using the original strands as templates.
This PCR Machine was now our second donated device letting students in our Genetics of Cancer course (and other courses) actually do work with DNA.
The conversation was back and forth about partnership opportunities and what each of these organizations could do to help our students learning experiences be more authentic and real inside of school.
And, this wasn’t just an idea session. We were reflecting on real work that had already taken place at William Tennent High School, where our Forensics students were tasked on their final “exam” to run a crime scene investigation and lab created by our teachers and The Center for Forensic Science Research and Education.
After the meeting ended, I looked at our Principal, Dennis Best, and STEM Coach, Ignacio Jayo, with big eyes.
“This could be huge!”
We left excited about the possibilities, but even more, pumped about the work our students and teachers were already doing.
I couldn’t help but think…how did we get here?
Authentic Partnerships and Authentic Learning Experiences
I remember walking onto the job as Director of Technology and Innovation (before moving over to the instructional side) and hearing about a project happening at our school. CentennialX was in mid-swing and I couldn’t wait to see what all the excitement was about.
As I watched kids working with pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and PRA Health, I kept wondering how this all started.
Turns out, it started with an email and a conversation.
In fact, almost every single partnership developed in the past few years (listed below) started with an email….and then a conversation:
- Drexel University (our students go to Drexel Med to work on real cadavers)
- The University of Pennsylvania (our biology and psych students work with lab rats and we recently built a lab with real rats in our HS)
- The Character Lab (Angela Duckworth’s team is doing action research in our schools and working with our teachers and students around grit and character)
- St. Joseph’s University (our students work with undergrad students who are performing neurosurgery)
- Fox Chase Cancer Center (the TRIP program and our Genetics of Cancer course)
- ShopRite (we have a Shoprite store in our HS where students work at and the community shops at)
- Eli Lilly and PRA Health Sciences (sponsored student challenges for our design teams to solve real medical problems while in school)
- MIT Cycling Team (our students developed a new cycling performance sock for the MIT Team during CentennialX)
- Panther Boards (our homegrown student-led company is pioneering entrepreneurship and manufacturing by designing, manufacturing and selling custom skis and snowboards in our trailer on-site)
When I asked Ignacio how so many of these partnerships had been formed, he responded simply: “Well, we had a need, and created a list of organizations, individuals, companies, and institutions that could help us out. Then we sent emails with a clear ask, and hoped for the best!”
It is so simple, that it is scary.
We host many different visits every year to our schools. Without fail, every group has at least one person that asks, “How?”
And we respond, “you’ve got to be the one that sends the email!”
Whether it is a 2nd Grade teacher emailing the Orkin man to talk to their students about insects (and how to exterminate them), which then leads into a shark tank experience where the kids create “indestructible” insects to present to the Orkin man on his return visit…
Or, a 7th-grade teacher partnering with an organization that matches up artificial hands we are creating at school, with those that need it around the world…
Or, an 11th-grade BCIT teacher partnering with Inspiring Teens to launch our first student-led fashion show…
Each of these started with a need, an email, and a conversation about how we can make learning more authentic for our students.
How to Get Started At Your School
I get to work with many different schools who are doing this kind of work, and when I lead full-day workshops on project-based learning and authentic partnerships, we always use the design thinking process to guide our work.
Here it is in a nutshell, The LAUNCH Cycle, developed by John Spencer and myself as a way to bring the design thinking process into education with a K-12 lens.
Using this process, you can follow the below steps to get started building partnerships for authentic learning experiences.
L: Quickly identify challenges and/or opportunities that you currently face in your Role.
A: Share your challenges with your colleagues. Ask questions about the opportunities.
U: Choose one Challenge/Opportunity to focus on.
N: Develop ideas for potential Solutions that you could create for this Challenge/Opportunity.
C: Choose one idea to run with as a Solution and flesh it out with your colleagues.
H: Pitch the solution to TWO colleagues. Get their feedback. Then develop a list of potential partners that could support your solution.
The key after going through this process is in the LAUNCH.
When you launch it is sharing this challenge/idea/solution with potential partners and making a clear ask on how they can play a role in being part of the solution.
So, hear’s my challenge to you (which is the same I give in workshops).
Go through this process.
Create a list of 10 potential partners.
Find their contact infomation.
Send an email to each of them. Make sure you ask, “Are you interested…”.
Follow up if necessary.
Would love to hear feedback in the comments about your process for developing authentic learning opportunities for students, and whether or not you’ve sent those 10 emails yet!
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