By Jeff Holland | AIG teacher at Wake Forest Middle School and Ligon Magnet Middle School

It was a great pleasure and privilege to return to SummerSTEM this year. The collaborative effort between WakeEd Partnership and the Wake County Public School System has produced a powerful tool for educators. Summer is the perfect time for professional development and teachers benefit most from professional development that we choose for ourselves. This is the perfect time to develop something incredibly meaningful: when all of the other demands of school are not staring us in the face. SummerSTEM gives us the foundation that we need to engineer engaging learning experiences that call upon our students to solve real-world problems while also linking with state standards. Paul Domenico, Teresa Pierrie, and the cadre of teacher coaches have been tweaking this experience for three years now. The sessions are incredibly tailored to teacher experience and the business partners are anxious to provide expertise that goes hand-in-hand with the task we are setting for our students.

I was able to attend SummerSTEM two years ago and when I returned this summer, I found that this renewal helped drive my understanding of Project-Based Learning (PBL) even further. In two years’ time, this week with educators has been impressively fine-tuned.

I am in a slightly different situation than most teachers in that I do not have my own classroom. Instead, I work with and support other teachers. During both of my SummerSTEM experiences, I have been supporting an 8th grade science teacher, helping her prepare to carry-out PBL in her classroom. I typically work with students in language arts and math, but my time at SummerSTEM has given me the chance to cross over and work with students in science.

This year, I had the chance to revisit the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and visit the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for the first time.

Two years ago, NIEHS introduced us to a military medic who had just returned from confronting Ebola in Africa. I sat, spellbound, as I listened to how they had to problem-solve, treating such an infectious disease where medical solutions were not already in place. It is a powerful learning experience any time educators can see how professionals have to create solutions where none currently exist.

This year, Dr. Huei-Chen Lao arranged a full-schedule of talks and site tours at NIEHS. I was impressed with the degree to which Dr. Lao took ownership of our concerns and needs. All of the presenters were enthusiastic; we appreciated the session on arsenic in the soil most of all. At USEPA, Kelly Witter did a fabulous job setting up a varied schedule of lightning talks from professionals, lasting 10-15 minutes, and speed mentoring, where each PBL team met with individual EPA professionals in six-minute rotations. We were also introduced to great teacher resources that we can access throughout the year. Again, the staff took incredible ownership of their time with us.

I hope to continue collaborating with teachers to facilitate PBL. There is something exciting in posing a problem to students, giving them the foundation stones to build with and turning them loose, guiding on the side. I love watching and helping guide the process and I also love seeing the outcomes. Students gain a level of confidence while problem-solving that is incredibly rewarding to see.

I feel a deep sense of responsibility to be part of the process of fanning the flames of passion for science, math, and engineering. Our nation’s future depends upon it. My greatest hope is that students will truly love the experience of solving problems that matter to all of us and, in turn, love education. When education is relevant to us, we love learning.