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A pilot program at STEM School Highlands Ranch to support teachers in implementing non-traditional lessons in classrooms has gained traction with both educators and students so far this year.

In addition to traditional classroom lessons, STEM teachers are encouraged to create problem-based learning units that focus on having students think through and create diverse solutions to a central problem or question.

Recent feedback from teachers found that they needed more resources to support them in planning, creating and teaching problem-based learning lessons, prompting STEM to start the Teacher Support Team — a group of dedicated staff members that help create and coordinate problem-based learning throughout all grade levels.

“The purpose of the team is we can go in and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a teacher and say ‘let me help you plan this unit,’” said Michelle Gasser, director of professional development and Teacher Support Team member. “Not only do we help the teachers come up with the ideas and the real-world problems, and how to move through that unit.” 

The team is currently made up of three staff members, each of whom have areas of specialization, such as adjusting lessons for gifted students and students with learning disabilities. 

The team also gets assistance from industry partners, guest speakers and local mentors who volunteer their time to supplement the problem-based learning units. 

Day-to-day schedules of the members of the Teacher Support Team are often unique. Problem-based learning specialist Mackenzie Harper said she typically splits her time between multiple classrooms, as well as meeting with industry partners and her team.

“If there’s a big unit going on in one grade level then I’ll spend more time with them and then on the side, I’ll meet with people to start building skeletons of those units,” she said. 

Several lessons enhanced by the Teacher Support Team have already appeared in classrooms, including a unit on space exploration in first grade. In teacher Susan Graham’s high school literature class, students had a unit digging into the accessibility of the American dream in connection with reading “The Great Gatsby.”

Graham said she worked with the Teacher Support Team to build a lesson that let her students influence how they interact with the material. 

“There’s a lot of freedom and support to be more creative, so it’s more student-driven and the kids have more buy-in that way,” Graham said. “Some kids did a podcast, some did a video with interviews, some wrote a traditional paper, and I had one student use photography.”

Fifth-grade teacher Carissa Elliott agreed she sees more engagement from students with problem-based learning units. Elliott said the support team has given her the ability to add more engaging lessons to her classroom.

“What’s so great about working with the team is that as a teacher you feel confident that you can do really innovative things with your class and you have people there to help you along in each step,” she said. “It really takes all of the scariness out of it.”

Prior to the formation of the Teacher Support Team, STEM had coaches, who were teachers that had one period each workday to spend helping others construct problem-based learning units and realize the lessons in class. 

Now, the fully dedicated staff of the Teacher Support Team are working to formalize a problem-based learning model that can be adjusted by topic, student needs and teacher ideas.

“This is a brand-new concept,” Gasser said. “We’ve had to make adjustments, but our hope is that next year, we’re increasing problem-based learning and … we’re raising the level of quality in our instruction by providing that differentiation.”

Ultimately, Gasser said, the goal is that the structures implemented this year around problem-based learning will be refined and replicated in other schools.