Our NSF Grant:  Systemic Transformation of Inquiry Learning Environments or

By Kim Van Wyck, CTSC Facilitator

August 2023

At the Center for Technology and School Change (CTSC), we believe that educational excellence is achievable when teachers are empowered as curriculum designers. In this spirit, one of our projects is a National Science Foundation grant, working with New York City public school teachers at eighteen different school sites to do just that. Our professional development work is focused on a research initiative designed by CTSC’s research team called STILE, the Systemic Transformation of Inquiry Learning Environments for STEM (NSF DRL 2010530) grant. The study is focused on researching the development of a process for supporting the adoption of transdisciplinary STEM practices in K-8 classrooms. Through STILE, we are working alongside teachers to guide the development of inquiry-based, transdisciplinary Project-Based Learning (PBL) STEM units. When the grant is over, we will have worked with approximately 250 teachers and administrators from across the City.

CTSC facilitators forge relationships with participating educators, starting with online summer institutes. Participating teachers from across NYC boroughs gather virtually to discuss and learn about transdisciplinary PBL design strategies that incorporate Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework. Our PD team is dedicated to the development of innovative learning environments that include social and emotional learning components and culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies in their classrooms.

Summer institutes are followed by a ten to twelve week virtual planning series in which educators step through the PBL backward design process. Teachers work together to identify priority standards, a big idea, essential question, and problem statement to center student engagement, empowerment, and authenticity. Our facilitators have found that putting a problem at the heart of PBL design enables students to take an active role in uncovering knowledge and building skills that will help them in addressing complex real-world problems. During the design process, we also work with teachers to create formative assessments and lesson plans for the unit. We also encourage teachers to integrate technology into their PBL units as tools for investigating the problem and designing solutions.

Following the planning series, we support the implementation of the units by going into classrooms and working with teachers as they teach the unit they have co-constructed with us. Fostering relationships and designing units alongside teachers is an incredibly valuable way to monitor teacher growth and create trusting relationships with educators. During implementation, teachers and facilitators are able to see first hand the joy and dedication students show while engaging with PBL units. The excitement in the classroom is palpable. Students are engaged in their learning, conducting research, having discussions and considering solutions. Teachers glow with pride and excitement seeing their students step through the PBL process.

Following the design and implementation stages, grade level teams participate with CTSC facilitators in school-based reflection sessions so that unit plans are iterated for the next school year. A celebration and sharing of projects together across all schools caps the STILE work with CTSC. 

CTSC is excited to continue STILE in the next school year with a second cohort of teachers representing a new grade level at each of the participating schools.