Bringing fresh energy to the classroom with project-based learning

A conversation with Dr. Matthew W. Shields, Charlottesville City Schools teacher and Shields Lab founder

Dr. Matthew W. Shields, Charlottesville City Schools teacher and Shields Lab founder

Dr. Matthew W. Shields is a STEM education superstar. He initiated the engineering program at Charlottesville City Schools, joined the governor’s commission to help build Virginia’s STEM curriculum, and founded Shields Lab, a company that helps schools design project-based learning programs.

It all started 11 years ago with a high school science fair project. We spoke with Matthew to hear how his first space-related project as a physics teacher changed his trajectory.

Tell us about your first encounter with a space project and how this all started.

I had just started teaching physics at my current school, Charlottesville High School. It was two or three weeks into the school year when I announced to the students that we would do a required science fair project. I was really excited about it. But the kids were totally bummed because they had been doing the same old traditional experiments year after year, like putting plants under different color lights.

I wanted to find a project that would engage the students, so I went home to do some research. I thought the idea of going to space was exciting but obviously I didn’t have the resources to make a satellite.

After some Googling, I came up with the idea to launch a weather balloon that would collect data or take pictures or run some other kind of experiment. I pitched the idea to my kids. And 29 of the 30 jumped on board.

I’m so glad I did this in my first year teaching. It absolutely changed my trajectory because pretty much everything I do now as a teacher stems from that first project. I saw how kids love space. There’s something very engaging and exciting about getting something up in the air, whether it’s a balloon or a CubeSat or a rocket.

You’ve gone from weather balloons to CubeSats. What does the program look like today?

Over the past decade, I’ve started an engineering program at my school, which is entirely project-based. And one of the things I do every day in my classroom is encourage kids to find projects that they’ll be excited about and that they’ll be proud of.

I got lucky with the trajectory of this balloon project — kids got really fired up. So, we started a club to do more of these kinds of projects. For the first couple of years, I was still teaching my physics class pretty traditionally, but this club was really ramping up and eventually became the biggest club in the school.

They were meeting basically every day after school, hundreds of kids doing crazy projects. The kids drove it. They wanted more freedom and the resources to make projects. And then eventually, because of the success of the club, I was able to convince the school board to start a program that took that kind of learning and made it the center of the curriculum.

Now, we have an engineering program at Charlottesville City Schools. It started with just me teaching one section. Now we have three full-time teachers at the high school teaching 13 engineering sections. We’ve got kids from fifth grade up to 12th grade taking some kind of engineering. There are 310 kids at our lower middle school, in fifth and sixth grade, taking what we call pre-engineering. So it’s growing within our school system.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned?

I thought I’d just unleash project-based learning on kids and they’d go crazy. But how to plan and execute a large project is something that is not innate to kids. It’s something that has to be taught.

I have kids that have all straight As and they’re just total rockstar kids, but then I put something in front of them that’s going to take them more than two days, and they really struggle with how to prioritize, how to break it up in milestones, and how to plan. Their plan will say something like “in January, we’ll code.” I help them figure out how to make that plan a little more detailed.

I just gave my midterm for the class. It was required by my school, so I gave a two-hour mini-project. That two-hour chunk of time was tough for some kids to understand  — what to do first, how to chop this one project up into a couple of little steps, then work through it and troubleshoot. Project management has become so much of what I teach now. I teach kids to really think hard and get specific about their plan.

What would you tell other teachers who are considering working with CubeSats in their classrooms?

First of all, I had never done this before. As a teacher, it immediately unseated me as the expert in the room. I’d just sit at a table with students and say, how are we going to do this? Which turns out to be, in my opinion, a much more fun way to teach.

It’s really backwards to tell a teacher, OK, your kids are going to launch into a project and it’s going to involve things you don’t know about — especially with anything technical like robotics or CubeSats or microcontrollers like an Arduino. These are things that probably didn’t exist when most teachers were in school.

It’s impossible for me to be an expert in all of these things. What I tell other teachers is that you don’t have to get your aerospace engineering degree, you just have to be willing to be a coach and a mentor. It’s like flying a kite. I let the kids do the flying, and I’m just standing on the ground.

One of the things that sometimes I get pushback on is that it doesn’t look like learning. Sometimes, people have this idea that it’s not rigorous and it’s not real learning unless you’re at home with your head buried in a textbook, or doing homework, or memorizing equations. But these projects are a lasting kind of learning. Kids who have graduated still come back and talk about the balloon project from 11 years ago.

Bring space missions to your students

Students need more opportunities to make, break, and learn by doing. Designing and building a CubeSat prototype gives students permission to experiment while learning creative, collaborative, and technical skills. Form a team and submit a mission proposal by 5:59 p.m. ET on October 16 to enter CTE Mission: CubeSat — no in-person collaboration or prior experience with CubeSats is required.

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