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Commentary: Making learning relevant

November 28, 2012 - By Lynne Garrison, Vice President, NC New Schools -- James Guy, a history teacher at Edgecombe Early College High School, had his doubts about using learning approaches usually associated with math and science for lessons in his humanities classes at the innovative school, which has a STEM focus on energy and sustainability.

Then he joined a group of teachers last summer for a visit to FREEDM Systems Center, an energy research center at N.C. State University. Guy observed teams analyzing, evaluating, creating and solving problems. Now he challenges his students with energy-related questions such as "what does the energy of the future look like?"  He finds it inspiring to hear his students talk about alternative energy sources that can transform the world.

Every teacher and student deserves to benefit from experience that anchors classroom learning to learning in the adult world.

Imagine a school where students learn in classrooms and workplaces alike; where students' "teachers" come not just from the classroom, but also from the kinds of jobs they're likely to hold, like in advanced manufacturing, health care, biotechnology and engineering. Imagine a school where there's no boundary between the classroom and the real world; where the lessons students learn come as much from hands-on experience and real-world challenges as from textbooks or computers.

Imagine a school where students graduate with strong skills that reflect not only rigorous academic standards but also skills that are in sync with the expectations of higher education and employers.

These may sound like the schools of the future, but they're the schools we need now.

In communities across North Carolina, these kinds of schools are quietly taking shape, assisted in their development by various interests that may differ in mission but that share a common cause: a crucial need for students - all students - to graduate from high school well prepared for the challenges that await them - in continuing education and in the workplace.

For years, it's been commonplace for educators and political leaders alike to talk about the need for business involvement in schools. Business leaders, for their part, haven't been shy about citing what they see as the shortcomings of schools and their graduates. But a growing number of schools that partner with North Carolina New Schools is changing that dynamic by developing the kinds of relationships with businesses and other employers that have teaching and learning at their heart.
 
Through shared forums known as Industry Innovation Councils, educators and representatives from key industry sectors and higher education are developing approaches that broaden opportunities for students to learn more and in different ways. These councils reflect areas of growth in our state's economy: health and life sciences, energy and sustainability, biotechnology and agriscience, as well as aerospace, advanced manufacturing and security.

With their focus on economic themes and deep connections to industry and higher education, the schools provide critical, real-world relevance to students who might otherwise lose interest in learning. These innovation councils are helping educators develop a clear framework of optimal strategies to cater to students' hunger for relevance and to fuel the state's talent pipeline.

Students need more opportunities for internships and work-based learning where they're truly challenged to think, solve problems and communicate within the context of a workplace or research lab. Teachers need opportunities to expand their own learning beyond their classrooms through externships with professionals in industry and research organizations to gain new perspectives and new insights on real-world applications of what they teach.

Leigh Ciancanelli, a science teacher at Wake NC State STEM Early College, participated in an externship during the summer with ABB at its Smart Grid Center of Excellence.  Leigh is now using the knowledge she gained about the renewable energy grid as a theme for a project in Earth Sciences.

Vance Kite, a biology teacher at City of Medicine Academy in Durham, is developing a public health course inspired in part by his summer experience at NC Prevention Partners, a statewide nonprofit with a mission of prevention first for a healthier North Carolina.

Whether the focus is energy, health care, advanced manufacturing or biotechnology, the deep connections being forged through these Industry Innovation Councils are helping to create the schools of the future, now.

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