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Tech has revolutionized industry. What about schools?

How hands-on, problem-based learning can bridge the gap between school and career

5 min read

Career-Technical Education

time for change


Smartboards. Smartphones. Smart classrooms. Edtech entrepreneur Ian Kanski asks, “Smart to what end? What are we using the technology for?”

His question resonates with many educators who have been inundated with new devices, apps, extensions and programs over the last decade. Although exciting and potentially transformational, the relationship between edtech and improved learning isn’t simple. Even if every classroom is connected to high-speed internet and every student carries the power of computing in their back pocket, the structure of school often does not reflect the interconnected, interdisciplinary world beyond its walls. 

What if we reimagine technology as a bridge to rebuild school-to-career pathways?

Too many graduating students enter the workforce unprepared, and too many companies depend on importing technical skills from other countries. Kanski and his team, working alongside the Wheelhouse organization, have pioneered a “school to table” model where skills aren’t learned in a vacuum but instead are applied to indoor agriculture installations. In this program, aquaponic systems for raising fish and plants are managed and nurtured by teams of students who also market their products to local buyers. All proceeds return to the school.

This hands-on, problem-based approach demonstrates one model for fixing the broken school-to-career ramp. Industry has been revolutionized by technology, but the education system has been slow to keep pace. Kanski claims that “repair technicians in agriculture used to wield a wrench, but now they need to program computers.” Where will they learn those skills?

In the school to table program, students learn biology by studying living organisms and chemistry by studying interactions between nutrients, energy, and water. They also develop systems thinking as they interact with food from seed to harvest and then participate in its marketing and distribution. When students graduate, they have acquired an important set of skills directly applicable to careers in science, agriculture, food service, and customer service.

Instead of learning computer modeling through a hypothetical project and math equations from a textbook, Kanski points out that “students are learning about interdependent ecosystems, both scientifically in an aquaponic system and economically in how their food products impact the local community. There is an urgency and immediacy to everything they are learning. This changes their engagement with learning and skills.”

Technology is infused seamlessly both in the aquaponics system itself as well as the tools students use to run it. Computer models help students understand the energy grid that supplies light and heat. They can also help students explore the balance of water chemistry needed to keep both the fish and the plants thriving. Students document growth through management software. They advocate for a change by using data visualization to convince peers and teachers of an innovative idea or approach. When they need to find buyers for the food they produce, students leverage marketing tools on multiple platforms.

In this model, teachers are also entrepreneurial agents. Their role is that of an expert coach: helping students understand the data they collect and providing contextual knowledge to facilitate problem-solving. Within the School to Table model, teachers leverage technology by creating micro-credentials and co-designing curriculum with scientists and industry experts. These plans are stored and shared on a learning management platform.

The first school to table prototype installation — a 3000ft2 aquaponic greenhouse — was placed in a district in crisis. In 2015, 75% of students were categorized as economically disadvantaged, and the district has been under state Corrective Action for four years. However, the apprenticeship model of the School to Table system has proven successful by multiple measures. To date, the food produced from this site can be found in nearly a dozen regional restaurants, including the high school’s own cafeteria. Students participating in the program increased their standardized test scores–a result that Kanski credits to students being more engaged in school because they can see a direct relevance to their lives and their potential futures. These students have also been eager to promote and share their work through formal presentations and interviews with local media.

When I reflect on “innovations in edtech” I am drawn to wonderful new platforms like Write About and the rise of classrooms connecting through Skype, Instagram and Twitter. These help bring the world inside our classrooms a bit closer to the complex world beyond them. But as educators continue to discuss edtech innovations, we need to broaden that discussion beyond mere tools and resources. We should determine the skills needed to thrive in a complex, technology-rich world, and we innovate our educational system to prepare students for future careers in that world. Disruptive models like School to Table will help us imagine and implement that shift.

Kanski remembers: “As a kid, I didn’t pay attention well enough in math class because I never really connected with how I was going to need it. But if I had worked in an aquaponics system and had to apply ratios to keep the fish alive, if my learning affected my project, my team, and my life, I would have learned to pay attention.”

Brianna Crowley (@akaMsCrowley) is a former English teacher and instructional technology coach from Hershey, Pa. A 2014-15 CTQ teacherpreneur, she embraces innovative approaches to learning and leading. She is currently a Value Creation Strategist at the Center for Teaching Quality, and she blogs at Red Pen Reflections. To find out more about the aquaponics systems contact Ian Kanski [email protected]. Also check out this video.


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