FUSE for STEM Learning and Interest Development

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An interview with Reed Stevens, a professor of the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. about his work to support STEAM exploration in a student-centered, choice-driven studio environment. See FUSE – Our Story for more information.

What is the big idea of your project?

FUSE is an interest-driven exploration program that engages youth ages 10-18 in science, technology, engineering, arts/design and mathematics (STEAM) topics while fostering the development of important 21st century skills. Students choose challenges they want to work on and who they work with, alone or collaboratively. The challenges are designed around student interests in areas such as music, design, fashion, and the environment. FUSE prepares educators to support students with guiding questions and youth-centered classroom management.

How has program evolved over the years?

FUSE has been around since 2011, our pilot year. We came up with the idea and gave it a test with some kids here at Northwestern. It seemed pretty promising. And then we started taking it out into the community.

Initially, I had not intended for it to be an in-school experience. We were modeling it after what my friend and colleague, Nichole Pinkard, had done with her YouMedia project and we had aimed for community centers and libraries. But in 2013, a local school district west of Chicago, that had heard about FUSE, came to us, and we began a conversation with them that led to us piloting it in some of their schools. And not long after, a variety of forces in that district led them them to ask us to expand to more of their schools.

Long story short, in that district, over a few years it went from being in a couple schools to being in every middle school. Every 5th and 6th grader was participating in FUSE for two years. And it is a pretty big district. So that was where we grew initially. Now, as of this Fall 2018, FUSE is going to be in approximately 190 locations. Almost all of these are schools.

In terms of the number of kids participating in FUSE, it’s about 25,000 students. And so the growth over the last couple of years has been really significant. It caught fire and has become more widely known. So, over the last two years, we have grown by more than 120%. As far as the source of such growth, there have been a number of factors. First, it seems like the schools have increasingly opened themselves up to different kinds of learning experiences and environments for kids. But we have also developed a number of funding streams, and I created a novel FUSE grant program where I give money to cover the costs of FUSE for the neediest schools, money that comes directly to me in terms of gifts and grants.

This is all done out of Northwestern, and it is interesting that we’ve done all of this without any marketing or sales. Of course, I go around and give talks and so does my project director. But there has not been any formal associated marketing or sales programs.

When a new school or district comes to you, do you now have set options in terms of classroom integration? Or is it still largely at the discretion of the partnering school or district?”

I would say it’s somewhere in between. There are two general routes that schools take. Schools are not completely unique from each other. Once we get to know a district and form a partnership with them, we consider their schools and where there are similarities in terms of scheduling and curricula with prior implementations. This has spurred growth. The second approach is more intensive and represents what we have been writing about from the research side. We’ve been generously funded—especially by the National Science Foundation—over the past six years. With the second approach, we let individual schools and districts adopt the FUSE program, follow and analyze the adjustments they make, and then assess how our partnership has evolved to help them meet their learning needs. Of course throughout, we also work to maintain an integrity of implementation that aligns with the core principles of FUSE.

In terms of teacher professional development (PD), the program often asks teachers to reconceive the teaching process. Facilitating a FUSE class is not a “stand and deliver” type of approach to instruction where the teacher is on one side of the room and the children are on the other?

NSF Project Information

Title: Scaling up an innovative STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Mathematics) learning environment through two partnership models with industry and schools (Award Details)
Investigator: Reed Stevens

Title: FUSE Studios: A New, Interest-Driven Model for Engaging Youth In STEM and Career Development Through Challenges and Partnership with Industry (Award Details)
Investigators: Reed Stevens, Kemi Jona

Title FUSE Studios: An Alternative Infrastructure for STEM Learning and Interest Development (Award Details)
Investigators: Reed Stevens, Kemi Jona

Not at all. Initially, when things were just getting started, we would have a couple hours of teacher PD to introduce teachers to the program and take their questions. Over the years, our PD has developed into something a lot more substantive, especially in terms of articulating a pretty wide range of approaches to classroom implementation. Four years ago, my research team was in seven classrooms for the entire academic year, and the teachers participating in our study were different in the way they approached teaching, by design. What I mean by that is that we worked with the FUSE coach in that district to select teachers to participate in our research who had different approaches, so we would could learn how those differences might matter for what happens for kids’ experiences. Consequently, through our research, we really gained a strong sense of the trajectory of experience for teachers with different approaches and styles. We’ve asked, and incorporated answers that we’ve found to questions like these: What were different teachers’ initial struggles? What were their confusions? How does teaching in FUSE change over a first year for a new FUSE teachers? As you said, this is a very different way of teaching than the front of the classroom approach.

So, over the last three years, we have gone from a shorter half-day PD experience to what is now an experience that extends over two days and one that often includes not only teachers but school administrators and tech personnel in the school. These have been led—almost in every case—by my project director, Henry Mann. And teachers find it to be a tremendously positive experience. Frankly, teachers don’t always have that positive of an experience with on-the-job PD. But we’ve had genuinely positive responses to our approach, because many of these teachers still teach in the more traditional way most of the day. Then they do this. And one of the things our research has shown is that participating teachers get the opportunity to see kids be very different learners than what they’ve seen before. Kids who aren’t necessarily successful in the traditional classroom environment often turn out to be really successful in FUSE. And this is a really positive thing for teachers to see and appreciate firsthand.

One of the things that successful FUSE teachers do—and we call them facilitators for this reason—is that they really help kids find the expertise in the room and reflect on whether they themselves are on a trajectory to developing it. The kids really push themselves to develop it, because it turns out to be a winning formula. It’s two-fold. First, a young person experiences the self-esteem associated with feeling like an expert for other kids, their peers. Second, kids get the experience of having to figure out who in the room can help them and not just assuming it’s the teacher. These are both valuable experiences for kids moving forward in life.

How do you assess student success in FUSE? When you’re talking to administrators, how do you talk about student assessment? If a school principal has reservations about how well FUSE will meet wider district standards and assessments, how do you and your the team address these concerns?

The first thing we do is to make a distinction between standards and assessments. We’ve had really good and positive conversations with school districts around standards. For example, we have a significant footprint in CPS, the Chicago Public Schools, and they have a district mandate that anything that comes in as science curricula (as FUSE did there) has to meet NGSS standards. Since we conceive of our work in terms of partnership, we work together to find a happy medium, one that meets the truly required standards of the district while also maintaining an integrity of implementation, so that a FUSE experience remains true to the core principles. What I’ve been happily surprised by is the amount of wiggle room that schools and districts will find in order to give their students this experience.

Here we also can go back to one of your earlier questions about integration. Because FUSE is flexible in terms of how it is implemented, different schools can fit it into their school day curricula in different ways. For some schools it’s in science, for some schools it’s an amalgamated STEM course, and for some schools, it’s a technology course. All of these present different issues relative to standards and assessments. Of these different ways to fit FUSE into the school day, this last one, the technology course, often works the best because technology education in schools is often pretty far behind the times. I mean some schools are still teaching kids to use computers as little more than word processors, and the kids are light years ahead. So, there’s a real opportunity for FUSE to provide a refresh in schools around a contemporary and compelling technology-centered course.

But returning to your question, and taking CPS as an example, teachers there are responsible for aligning the lessons to academic standards and we and they were able to demonstrate that alignment. This addresses the standards component. But in terms of assessment, familiar, uniform assessments just don’t work in FUSE. The pathways that different kids take through this experience are far too varied and far less uniform than within a standard curriculum, so expecting a single right way that can be assessed across the board is not only unrealistic but antithetical to the program itself. In general, I would say teachers find, often through conversation with us, ways to assess that meets the expectations and rules of their school and district, while preserving the core qualities of the FUSE experience. I would also say that one of our successes has been with the conversations we have had with teachers and developing some real skepticism among them about standardized assessments. Maybe they had this skepticism all along, but with FUSE, they can see the real dangers of taking the one size fits all, impersonal approach to assessments. As I mentioned before, we’ve had success with schools finding some wiggle room in how they assess FUSE. One of the things we have been associated with has been the broad (and not always very well formed but important) category of what are called 21st century skills. FUSE excels here. We do really good with kids learning to collaborate, with learning to be adaptive and solve problems in new and creative ways.

Whenever a program expands as much as FUSE has expanded, there’s always going be new challenges. What, in your estimation, are the main challenges going forward?

Over the years I’ve been in this line of work, I have seen so many innovative, well-funded educational research projects. But too often these projects don’t last. Many programs don’t sustain themselves after a few research funded years of innovation, and they do not continue beyond the initial enthusiasm of energetic professors and graduate students who go into schools for the duration of a grant. So for me, it was really important to create something that could be sustainable. That was one of the reasons why we really let schools come to us rather than the more familiar approach of going to schools and asking, “Will you let us try this in your school or classroom?” And with this approach, often researchers will pay teachers extra to be try their innovations. There are obviously good reasons to do that. But in my view, that model turns out to be less sustainable. So, we really thought about sustainability from the outset, and one of the things we talked about at the beginning was creating a program that is genuinely flexible and adaptable to local circumstances. And most of all, something that would provide kids with a different kind of learning environment, which we knew if successful, would resonate with teachers.

In this regard, Michael Cole, now a retired professor from the University of California at San Diego, has been an inspiration to me in the way that he coupled research and the development of a program. In his case, it was called the Fifth Dimension. And one of the things that Mike said in an early advisory board meeting was that one of the things he liked about FUSE was its “half-baked” nature. This got a laugh. Usually describing something as “half-baked” is a criticism, but Mike went on to explain that what he was referring to was the designed flexibility of FUSE, so that the program can be fitted to distinct contexts. His Fifth Dimension model was quite similar in this regard and has been one we’ve revisited and continued to draw inspiration from over the years.

So returning to your question about expansion, in the last few months, as my team and I have been out talking about next steps, here is part of what occupies our discussions. How do we balance the integrity of implementation so that core programmatic features are not compromised, while also allowing the program to be what it needs to be for the people who are actually using it and as it gets implemented further from our direct daily contact with those implementations? That’s the key balance we are trying to strike. I think one of the challenges going forward will be bigger adoptions. Whole school districts may decide to adopt FUSE across all their schools. And then I think we will be interacting with a different institutional scale. And I hope it will work just as well. We’ve planned for it as a new challenge.

And this likewise connects to what we just were talking about with assessment. More broadly, how can we effectively coordinate with a wide range of schools, teachers, and administrators to document the positive and also the less positive things that are happening with assessment? This is particularly important, because it gives the whole community a chance to potentially rethink some of the questions and assumptions we have long made and operationalized about student assessment.

So those are the two things I see as core ongoing challenges: first, scale—even though the organic scaling we’ve been doing over the last few years has been going quite well. And second, assessment. I think FUSE has the possibility, as it scales, to disrupt the time-worn assumptions about assessment and to help education see that we need new ways to assess, especially in assessing what students can do, not what they can’t, and in making assessment do the job it really should have been doing all along, which is to be formative, to shape future action and learning, not to be a sorting mechanism, as some educational scholars have described it.

This returns to one of the most compelling elements of FUSE—namely, how has the program changed teachers’ perceptions of their roles in the classroom?

Yes, let me just say one more thing in this regard. I was a high school math teacher. You were once a high school English teacher. What really excited me as a teacher—and still does teaching at the college level to undergraduates and graduate students—is when you see your students really get into something in a deep way. And when that happens and you know you’ve done something to help make deep learning experiences happen, it makes teaching gratifying. And FUSE gives teachers a lot to work with in facilitating these kinds of experiences for their students.

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