Harvard Business School methodology to hit local elementary classrooms

New case-based learning curricula and classroom technology are set to enter 18 Cincinnati Public and Milford Exempted Village Schools this year. The case-based learning pilot program is designed not only to promote more effective K-8th grade learning, but also to foster student interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. The program is made possible by a $1.1 million grant from Ohio’s Straight A Fund, earned and implemented through partnerships with Smarter Schools and the Partnership for Innovation in Education (PIE).
 
The model for the current case-based learning pilot comes from a smaller scale program that PIE implemented at Kilgour Elementary last year. PIE adapted a case study from Sunkist into classroom activities in which students analyzed real data in order to find ways for the company to increase lemon sales. The curriculum was a departure from traditional teaching styles, as it based learning on the application of technology and critical thinking on authentic STEM content rather than acquisition of facts and formulas. Students practiced STEM skills as they worked through solution-driven activities involving product life cycles, data interpretation and marketing strategies. 
 
Rather than guiding students toward a single “right answer,” teachers encouraged students to find their own solutions based on the data. The results culminated in the Cash Cow Lemon Smash Android application, developed through a partnership with Northern Kentucky University’s Center for Applied Informatics
 
“The academic achievement was amazing at Kilgour,” says Mary Welsh Schlueter, founder and CEO of PIE. “The kids really did understand it. They could look at it and understand the implications, and how to solve a problem by looking at the data.”
 
Why case-based learning is critical for students' future success
Case-based learning is the methodology used in Harvard Business School classrooms, but it’s uncharted territory at the elementary school level. The method emphasizes critical thinking and data analysis skills. Adapting it to more elementary actives gets kids working on their STEM abilities, particularly in areas of applied technology and mathematics that they may otherwise find disconnected from real life. Teaching these skills early is crucial not only to students’ futures, but also the region’s workforce health. STEM occupations are projected to grow 27 percent over the next 10 years, compared with just 10 percent for non-STEM fields, according to Cincinnati’s 2020 Jobs Outlook Report
 
“Everyone talks about how they really want kids to be ready to work, and then they step back and say, ‘OK schools, go to it,’” Schlueter says. In this light, the challenge for elementary schools isn’t necessarily how to prepare children for higher learning, but how to prepare them for those STEM fields that will be vital in the future. Currently, only 19 out of every 100 bachelor’s degrees are in STEM fields, while occupations related to health care, education, business, finance and technology are the fastest growing and best paying in the region.
 
It was with this in mind that Schlueter collaborated with CPS, Milford Exempted Village Schools, Mayerson Academy, researchers from NKU and the University of Cincinnati, and Smarter Schools to create a Straight A Fund grant application budget based on the pilot at Kilgour Elementary. The goal was to get $1.1 million to cover curricula creation, technology, marketing and collaborative online media that would impact 2,400 students.  
 
“I thought, wow, how novel to take this approach I’d only seen in college and bring it down to elementary level,” says Andrew Benson, Smarter Schools executive director. “It’s a way to engage students in something that is real life and causes them to grapple and work through a problem in more than just a linear way.”
 
With the budget complete, Benson put together the Straight A Fund grant proposal.  The project received its full asking amount, and was one of only two grants awarded in southwestern Ohio, and one of 24 awarded statewide out of 570 applications.
 
“There is almost no curriculum out there doing what we’re doing, and that’s why we got the award,” Schlueter says.
 
Pairing kids and local businesses to solve real problems
PIE’s task now is to work with local businesses and organizations to find material for authentic case studies, and then adapt it for the classroom. Schlueter is building partnerships with such organizations as the Cincinnati Zoo, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, The BonBonerie and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in order to collect data for case studies. The studies will have the same format as those used at Harvard Business School but with the data volume, exhibits and language scaled down. Students will still be analyzing organizational background, charts, graphs and figures with an aim of solving a real problem for the organization.
 
“Your job in this world of overly aggressive data is to find an answer based on inference and data,” Schlueter says. “A case is not necessarily linear. It’s a lot of information wrapped into a story, and students have to pick apart the noise from the story and find what’s useful.”
 
Students will also have an opportunity at the beginning of the 10-week program to interact with a business leader from the organization from which their case was developed. The idea is to create a larger impact by having the actual CEO or business owner there to present a problem that their organization is actively working on. 
 
“The kids are being asked to solve a problem and we’re valuing their input. That’s something that hasn’t really been done before,” Schlueter says. 
 
More than half of the program’s budget goes toward classroom technology. Students will use iPads and other devices to manipulate data and apply it to SWOT analyses (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and the four Ps of marketing (Product, Place, Price, Promotion). And in the case of an organization like the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, students will look at phenomenon like the Doppler Effect, using science and math in ways that show the applicability and interconnectedness of different disciplines. 
 
The current pilot is set to run this spring in six Milford and 12 CPS schools. The program’s budget also covers marketing, outreach and a collaborative web portal through which teachers can learn from one another and share successes via stories, videos and procedures. Every application and case developed within the program will have a companion website.
 
“Ultimately, our goal is to build a model that can be replicated elsewhere,” Benson says. “We think it would be a good tool in teachers’ toolboxes for training higher-level thinking and delivering STEM content.”
 
The push for case-based learning doesn’t stop there, though. This year, Ohio awarded just $88 million of the $250 million allotted for the Straight A Fund. More will become available next year, and PIE has designs on expanding the program from the current two school districts to as many as 14 in 2015.
 
“We want to enable and engage Ohio as a global leader in education, and push the limits of innovation in education,” Schlueter says. “We’re getting so many calls from people and schools even in other states; I think it shows that we’ve got something really engaging.”
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