Sally Rushford, principal at Beechwood Elementary Pre-K – 5 in Pittsburgh, knows firsthand the power of real-world learning. “As we looked at the rubric provided by STC,” explained Rushford, referring to Schools That Can’s Real World Learning Rubric. “We were really inspired to develop our STEAM program to provide more real world learning experiences that would expand the vision for us of academic success.” As a result, they increased opportunities for more integrated curriculum and student-centered learning by holding school-wide “Blow Off Some STEAM” days, where the entire school dives into STEAM projects for half the school day. “What we noticed immediately, when we grouped the students, is that many students who have identifications as Special Education or struggle academically excelled in group problem solving, planning and implementing a design,” Rushford explained.
“They were better at starting over, using materials in innovative ways and supporting their co-workers,” Rushford said, referring to students. Rushford pointed out that since all staff is involved in projects over the course of the day, everyone has the experience of getting to see students and their abilities in a new light, an example of real-world learning bringing out the best in every student.
Rushford said the school is beginning planning for a Makerspace donated by Matt’s Maker Space, which involves a special, real-world learning opportunity for students, too. “I asked four fifth-grade students to join our Parent School Community Council and launch the planning for the space,” explained Rushford. Students will help identify the space, survey other students, and help order the materials. In addition, a spin-off planning group is working on creating a sensory wall with an Artist in Residence. The initiative will transform a peeling, painted wall into a space students can interact with while they’re waiting in line. “I was inspired by my recent work with STC to have students lead in these projects and have more of a voice in the planning and implementation,” said Rushford. “I hope to have these student leaders have real life experiences in planning and implementing a project.”
Rushford also explained she is surprised at how much teachers are enjoying the more “joyful and playful” learning activities the school is designing as a result of their work with STC. In addition, the school has two grade levels that integrated Social Studies/Science/Literacy curricula, which includes a third grade River Study and first grade Apple Study. “Students studied rivers in STEAM and visited the River Rescue in late October to learn about jobs on the rivers. This study is continuing as students will study fish in science and then connect this knowledge to a novel about Native Americans in Alaska,” said Rushford. “In the Apple study students learned about different kinds of apples, different ways we change or preserve apples and how apples grow. Then the students visited an apple orchard, learned about the jobs and equipment used, watched the apple cider press and how apples are sorted. I think the field trip experiences are very crucial to the real world learning that we have provided.”
Beyond providing opportunities for students to succeed on their own terms and engaging teachers, Rushford said that real-world learning is an equalizer for students. “The racial achievement gap is narrowed when we provide all students with the adequate background knowledge to learn deeply about their world,” she said. “Innovation, creativity, problem solving and perseverance grow as a result.”