As the Boeing distinguished professor of mathematics education and mathematics, David Slavit has researched teaching and learning in Washington schools for more than 20 years.
He has investigated many approaches as well as the ways teachers work together to make learning more powerful for students. Those interests came together during his professional leave in an intensive on-site study of how Vancouver iTech Preparatory School had evolved in the two years since opening. His particular focus was an instructional method called project-based learning (PBL), which seeks to instill 21st-century competencies. Slavit also wrote a chapter on PBL that will appear in a forthcoming yearbook of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Slavit and colleague Tamara Holmlund Nelson, professor of science education, were on the planning committee for Vancouver iTech Prep, a magnet school dedicated to middle- and high-school-level science, engineering, technology and math (STEM).
It was developed to prepare students for a rapidly changing, highly technological and global society, and PBL is a major part of the school’s vision.
In PBL, students explore a problem or question from multiple learning perspectives, such as science, math, social studies, language arts and creative arts. A project might be completed in a day or last for weeks.
Slavit observed that PBL was a great way to build enthusiasm and help students see how different approaches can tie a subject together. For teachers, however, he observed that not all learning should be project-based (too many projects can overwhelm students) and that the necessary interdisciplinary collaboration is difficult. Also, PBL is a natural way of understanding student progress, as assessment is embedded into the learning, rather than only as a test at the end.
The opportunity to immerse himself in daily classroom activities is essential for his teaching. “Every class I teach is grounded in practice—the way classrooms are running, the way curricular materials are being used, the way teachers are teaching,” Slavit said. “This is information I can use in talking to our own students.”
Prospective teachers need to know about PBL before they enter their own classrooms. “Project-based learning is not just a trend,” he said. “It’s growing more intensified, and they need to know what it is and how to make sense of implementing a project.”
Slavit and other researchers on all WSU campuses who are looking at STEM schools across the state will make a joint presentation in January at the National Science Teachers Association Conference.
Research on Vancouver’s STEM school continues. This year, Slavit and Nelson plan to gather more data on student outcomes. They are collaborating with Kristin Lesseig, assistant professor of mathematics education, who has a grant to examine PBL in two middle schools.
Slavit also spent time last year on a cross-campus collaborative effort that has developed a Ph.D. program in math and science education.