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Digital Learning with the NCTAF STEM Learning Studio

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December 21, 2011 02:53 pm


The following article comes from Melinda George. Melinda is the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future’s (NCTAF). Contact Melinda at

An algebra teacher, a biology teacher, a media specialist, an English teacher, a social studies teacher, and an engineer are sitting around a table… Sound like the beginning of a bad joke? Actually, it is a recipe for ensuring that every student is provided quality teaching in a school organized for success. Add in robust, targeted technology and you have a learning environment that engages students, professionalizes teaching, and brings about deeper learning for both students and teachers. This is what the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future’s (NCTAF) Learning Studios are all about. Learning Studios create a culture of collaboration among teachers across different disciplines with support and resources from community content experts. This purposeful collaboration inspires and engages students and brings positive results in student achievement.

Let me take you to Hammond High School in Howard County, MD. In 2009, Hammond instituted a NCTAF STEM Learning Studio with support from NASA. For the past several years, a team of Hammond teachers has come together over the summer and then quarterly over the school year to design hands-on projects that are inquiry-based and designed to address a shared student learning challenge. The Learning Studio at Hammond facilitates collaboration among different subjects/classes as well as group work within each participating class. For instance, in an 11th grade web design class at Hammond, students created interactive seismic maps of the world. These maps were then shared with Hammond’s 9th grade earth science class to use for their research on tectonic plate activity. The 11th grade students said that they felt like they had a contract to fulfill, and that their investment and sense of accountability in making the maps was high because their peers were going to use what they produced. These students felt like they were in a real-world work environment, and this made their learning more relevant and their drive to succeed stronger. In district assessments, these kids scored at the top of their class on constructive problem solving, outpacing their non-Learning Studios peers by as much as 30 percent.

As part of Anne Arundel Public Schools’ recently launched district-wide STEM initiative, Old Mill Middle School created a Learning Studio to draw the connections among STEM subject areas and to encourage teachers and students to gain deeper understanding of common threads of inquiry across the core content areas. The learning challenge identified by Old Mill focused on understanding and improving the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay. Again, technology played an instrumental role in increasing collaboration and engaging students. As part of their introduction to STEM, students began the year by interviewing one another on video about what they already know about STEM and about the environmental issues in their local community. The videos then functioned as a pre-assessment to determine what the students already know, so at the end of the year they can go back and see how much they have learned.

At Gwynne Park High School in Prince George’s County, MD, with the culture of collaboration firmly in place based on two years of Learning Studio experience, students in the afterschool ecology club sent a video to the Tech Ed class challenging them to design and build an instrument that would help the to get glass out of their compost pile. The challenge was a real-life problem that the students had to solve. The video challenge linked two groups of students that would not have interacted otherwise. Because the students worked together, they were able to salvage the compost and use their school’s greenhouse again. The collaboration was enriched by the challenge of having a shared problem and a student-created solution. There was also community support and expertise as an engineer from their local community came and spoke to the tech class about materials design.

Educating students in the 21st Century requires reengineering and reorganizing schools in order to change the way learning occurs. NCTAF’s research and practice demonstrates that key to improving teacher satisfaction and student achievement are is a network of collaborative learning teams for students and teachers that are supported by ongoing, targeted technology resources. Every student deserves effective, high quality teaching in a school organized for success. Learning Studios can make this goal a reality. For more information on NCTAF’s Learning Studios, visit


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