Heather Buskirk founded a STEM-based school centering on project based learning in rural New York.
School: Johnstown High School
District: Greater Johnstown School District
As the only high school physics teacher in her upstate New York school district, Heather Buskirk faced a dilemma familiar to many educators in her early years of teaching. “I could close my door and stay in my room and do things my own way, or I could effect change,” she says.
Buskirk chose the latter option, ultimately co-founding an entirely new STEM-focused school in a shuttered elementary school building she hopes will serve as a magnet for professional learning in her district. A Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) Senior Fellow, Buskirk was able to leverage training and support from Knowles to help make the new school a reality.
After leading summer workshops on project-based learning (PBL) for the district—which were in part funded by leadership grants from KSTF—Buskirk and district officials toured several schools focused on using PBL methodology to dramatically increase student engagement with challenging STEM content. That exposure prompted district officials to let Buskirk and another teacher launch the new school.
Called The Learning Project, the PBL-focused school promotes active, discovery-based learning through real-world projects that integrate core subjects for seniors who are on track to graduate but haven’t set clear goals. “They’re hungry for something more, but they’re not sure what that ‘more’ is,” Buskirk says. “They’re tired of sitting in rows and following directions.” Students with past records of high absenteeism are now attending school on a daily basis and are eager participants in the learning process. They are even learning new technology skills, thanks to individual laptops donated by the state.
Building on the initial success of The Learning Project, Buskirk is heavily involved in the planning process for a new regional school—Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH). Scheduled to open its doors to 50 high school students in fall 2014, P-TECH will offer project-based learning centered around four career clusters. The selected students will complete grades 9-14, simultaneously earning college and high school credit. P-TECH students will continue their studies at Fulton County Community College, where they’ll ultimately earn an associate’s degree.
Along with plans to expand the school to earlier grades, Buskirk hopes the Learning Project can serve as a place for the district’s teachers to learn about PBL and possibly offer short-term teacher residencies to help them hone their practice.