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World Bridge: Students Made Ready

College, career and life readiness in action

By Stewart I. McDonald

Make students ready –  ready for college – ready for a career. Make them ready for college algebra so colleges can increase their graduation rate. Make them ready for jobs that have yet to be created. Make students ready for what?  No Child Left Behind pushed us in the direction of making students ready by making them proficient in English language arts and mathematics.  Race to the Top asked us to make students who were both college and career ready. Maybe the right question to ask is not ready for what? But rather, how do we make anyone ready for anything?  How does that happen? How do we prepare people to live and learn in a world that is currently being made before their eyes?  

Possibly the answer lies in understanding who is in the know. And who is not.  Our students need access to facilitators, mentors and teachers who hold real practical and useful knowledge. They need access to those who know more than how to write a paper or solve an equation and graph it.  To make a student ready they need to spend time with those with the right kind of knowledge.

Project-Based Learning is a reasonable approach to making students ready.  We have seen many forms of this work called by many different names – place-based, problem-based, service-learning and more.  These forms of learning promise students will develop ownership, relevance, a critical voice, skills to navigate uncertainty, cooperation and collaboration.  These students may even become creative innovators.  So where is the curriculum for that?  What does unit one look like?  Lesson one?  There are process learning curricula available for process industries and that gets closer to the work, but it is not quite there.  What inspires and transforms students to be ready for life is the interconnectedness of the relationships formed with practitioners who practice their field knowledge.  

The World Bridge, real-time, real-world, project-based learning developed between Trillium Learning, LLC and the Kodiak Island Borough School District found some solutions to connecting students to industry leaders with the right stuff.  That’s right, NASA. Well, NASA Ames Research Center to be exact.  The idea developed around the notion of needing “learning” professionals to lead students through a project management and rapid prototyping pedagogy. This is a way to steer students directly into problems or projects with no known solution and create a real product needed by an actual industry to solve a real problem right now. This is not the stuff of a science project or graded rubrics. There is no teacher with an answer key – no teacher working students through the same set of projects for the Nth time. Their evaluation process involves the inspection of real industry leaders focused on meeting real industry standards with an iterative process, writing standards, accuracy, replication, economy and completeness.  

These learning professionals are not just found at NASA, they are industry leaders of every kind. What is a “learning” professional?   Peter Drucker once said, “Workers should be conducted like and orchestra and not bossed.”  That is an interesting statement full of depth.  A member of an orchestra deeply knows his instrument and how to play. These musicians spend countless hours with their cello learning how to produce anything written on a score.  These musicians can leave the score and improvise within the key and tempo to synthesize embellishments to enrich the over-all effect at a moment’s notice.  These musicians are learning professionals.  They own their job.  They work for continuous improvement because they are professionals.  When these learning professionals sit before a conductor, they are made ready.  The effect is not the cacophony of fifty instruments tuning and warming up.  It is not fifty soloists improvising to their own tune.  It is fifty attentive responsive learning professionals listening to each other and watching a conductor – readied to employ their special set of skills.   The conductor only needs to set the tempo, cue the dynamics and provide the direction to create an interpretation of musical notations on a sheet of paper.  The inputs and outputs of each learning professional working with each other, at times cooperating and others collaborating.  When this act is done well it is magnificent.  

Creating learning professionals makes students ready.  What knowledge does a teacher possess to lead students through such learning? What areas of discipline?  We give our students a set of education learning standards, assess them on those standards and pass them on to the next set of standards.  We have created credentialing models of standards-based and competency-based learning and hope that this approach fosters improved learning. Yet the evaluators of the learning hold what professional knowledge?  Our school curricula are a mile wide and an inch deep. And our students need to go a mile deep into some area of interest to develop the disposition of a learning professional.  We need to create credentialing systems that permit a student to establish a learner profile that promotes deep skills that can be transferred to other areas of study.  This is what World Bridge is.

The concept is straight-forward. Connect students to a project that is actively connected to real industry.  Allow the students to be mentored and directed by industry leaders.  Teachers enter the project at the same level as the student with one exception.  The teacher facilitates the sorting and grouping of standards and academic skills that a student needs to develop to meet the demands of the project.  The teacher guides a student to track and document a learning profile that will satisfy the credentialing of meeting a course requirement and lead to a diploma or other certification program.

The results of this type of learning are encouraging.  Finding a workforce and school structure that can embrace the instructional change is the challenge.  The Trillium Learning, LLC and KIBSD partnership World Bridge Project took high school students from sophomores to seniors and competed in an international graduate-level research university competition called NASA World Wind Europa Challenge held in Como, Italy in the summer of 2015.   These students left everyone’s jaw open in disbelief as these kids won first place.  The Europa Challenge established a high school division for the 2016 competition.  The World Bridge program introduced a new set of students to the program and were rejected from entering in the high school division.  These Alaska public high school students were required to enter the university level in 2016.  And yes, they took first place again.  

The approach is real, it is replicable, but requires a hard connection between “learning” professionals to produce students made ready. This World Bridge approach promises to transform public schools into the local economic research and development centers for communities.  These new R&D schools can produce students made ready—ready for all life can throw at them.

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