Arcadia University and Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia Partner to Provide Enriching Project-Based Experiences for both Graduate Level and Middle School Students

Posted on February 1, 2017

By Caitlin Fritz

Arcadia University, a PHENND member campus, partners with Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia, an academic enrichment program for students in sixth grade through college. Recently, Breakthrough and Arcadia collaborated on a graduate level education course, where Arcadia graduate students developed and taught a project-based lesson for eighth grade students involved with Breakthrough. Here, Miriam Leisman Rubin, Director of Operations at Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia, and Dr. Augusto Macalalag Jr., Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education at Arcadia’s School of Education, discuss their collaboration.

Caitlin: First, Miriam, can you provide a general overview of what Breakthrough does?

Miriam: Breakthrough has a dual mission. One is to increase the academic opportunity for highly motivated, underserved students and get them through college ready to succeed. Secondly, Breakthrough works to inspire and develop the next generation of teachers and educational leaders. Our service model is “students teaching students.” Overall, Breakthrough works to have a regional impact on urban education through local partnerships and extends its reach still further by engaging with 25 partners in a national collaborative.

Caitlin: Augusto, what in particular have you been working on with Breakthrough here at Arcadia?

Augusto: I was working on developing a graduate level teacher preparatory course on STEM and I needed field placements for the students, so I reached out to Breakthrough. Arcadia had already partnered with Breakthrough around teaching social studies, so this seemed like a natural fit. The graduate students in my course design a STEM, project-based lesson, what we call “STEM in a Box.” This past spring the graduate students developed a lesson on the physics of drag, called “A long way down.” Through this lesson the Breakthrough students explored the concept explored the concept of force by investigating the effects of different materials, area and shapes in the descent of parachutes.

Miriam: Pairs of the graduate students came to Breakthrough on two Saturdays and taught the lessons they developed to a small group of eighth grade students. Each Saturday lesson consisted of two hours of instruction, one hour to develop the hypothesis and design the experiment, and one hour to work on conducting the experiment and analyzing the results. The students ran multiple trials of their experiment, which gave them the opportunity to tweak their experimental design.

Caitlin: What makes this partnership different from other teach prep field placement experiences?

Augusto: This is more of a tangible experience. The graduate students can manipulate and work collaboratively on the lesson design. They also are able to run through the lesson at least three times. First, during the graduate class, then twice with two different groups of students from Breakthrough. After each run through of the lesson, the graduate students revise their lesson design based on feedback from each other and the Breakthrough students.

Miriam: In many ways this reminds me of when I did my lesson study while I was in graduate school for education. My fellow graduate students and I worked collaboratively in a team to develop our lesson, test it with a real live group of students, and receive feedback that informed our revisions. At the time I may not have felt the importance of the intentionality of the lesson study, but I now really appreciate the value of this process.

Caitlin: What has been some of the graduate students’ reactions to this experience?

Miriam: The graduate students have found this to be a very valuable experience. They put a lot of work into the development of the lesson, including the timing instructions and the level of detail. In practice, however, they quickly learned that especially when engaging in a more project-based lesson, you have to quickly adapt your timing and approach while in the moment.

Augusto: The graduate students were also pre-K to 4th grade or Special Education, K-8th grade pre-service teachers.  For many of these graduate students, working with middle school students can be intimidating, but this was a real eye opening opportunity. The graduate students expressed they were really surprised by the background knowledge and skill level of the Breakthrough students.

Miriam: The graduate students also reflected that they really learned the importance of being OK with not knowing all the answers as teachers. They really began to understand that their job is not to know everything about a particular topic but rather to open the students’ minds. It is a continual process to encourage students to come up with their own hypotheses.

Caitlin: Finally, where do you see this partnership going from here?

Miriam: One of the challenges is that semester to semester the number of students in the course can fluctuate. This can be a bit tricky, because we want to balance the number of graduate students and the number of Breakthrough students. In addition, scheduling is important because many of the graduate students work full-time during the week, so the lessons are taught in out-of-school time.

Augusto: To help with scheduling we have thought about adding a special event outside of the regular curriculum, and in this way we can also deepen our impact. In addition, we would love to offer the experience to seventh graders as well.

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