A2 STEAM EXPO, In Person Again

Posted by Nathan Hatt on 9/16/2022

It was late autumn 2015, and teachers at A2 STEAM had just successfully completed their third biannual EXPO when the article entitled “Gold Standard PBL: Public Product” was published. John Larmer, editor in chief of the PBLWorks blog, discussed the merits of the “Public Product” and the significance of presentation at the end of a project based learning unit. For the A2 STEAM community, this was an extraordinary validation of our collective vision. After two EXPOs in the first year of A2 STEAM, we were finally beginning to find our groove. Collectively, as teachers and staff members reviewed Mr. Larmer’s recommendations for this phase of PBL, they nodded heads, exchanged knowing glances, and patted each other on the back. This was the confirmation we needed. Not only had the A2 STEAM EXPO been a wonderful occasion for the community to come together and celebrate our young learners, but it was also an exemplary PBL Event.

Due to the circumstances of the global health crisis, we have not been able to properly enjoy the contagious energy of EXPO since the autumn of 2019. While we were able to return to in-person learning in the spring of 2021, and our Project Based Learning curriculum last autumn, we have not had a formal, in-person, EXPO event in nearly three years. For many students, and some teachers, Autumn EXPO 2022 will be our first time coming together to present our public products and share our learning with the community.

So what do we have to look forward to at EXPO? What did Mr. Larmer write about nearly seven years ago that felt so affirming for pioneering A2 STEAM staff? Primarily, he identifies that the “Public Product” is usually the most recognizable feature of PBL. The Public Product is the centerpiece of student work at each EXPO.

“In some non-PBL classrooms you might find, say, a challenging problem, some degree of authenticity, student voice and choice and even, occasionally, sustained inquiry. But when students make their work public – that is, when it’s seen by people beyond their teacher, classmates, and maybe parents – it probably means a project is happening.”

He also makes a case for buy-in. The ambitious vision of a PBL school is that learning ought to be interesting and, moreover, valuable beyond the traditional student-teacher feedback loop. Through a project, students are motivated to learn because they see the value of their efforts today. While it is possible for school-aged children to be motivated to learn in order to maximize their career opportunities, they are more likely to develop critical skills and understandings if the rationale is readily apparent. Simply stated,

“When students just turn in their work to the teacher or make a presentation to the class, they (typically) don’t care as much as they do when sharing their work with people from the “real world.”

There is also an emphasis on the importance of multiple check-ins throughout the project. While EXPO is a culminating event, students have had a variety of opportunities to formulate their learning through social experiences. This is done in many ways, but one unique feature of PBL is how “experts” are leveraged for learning.

“During a project, experts can act as advisors and ask students deeper questions to prod their thinking and improve the products they’re creating... At the end of a project, experts can ask students questions during presentations that a teacher or other students might not ask – and preparing for this is a great exercise in critical thinking, as students try to anticipate what the questions will be and how they will answer them.”

Experts can be defined as professionals who work in a field aligned to a domain of learning, but also people who have certain intersecting interests and passions that can help students evolve their understanding throughout a project. Opportunities to collaborate with a project based learning unit vary from question and answer sessions, workshops, project kickoffs (entry events), lectures, and importantly, critique and revision sessions. If you are interested in this kind of project involvement, please fill out the following survey: tinyurl.com/pbl-expert.

As valuable as it is that adults assist to help improve projects before EXPO, it is also valuable that audience members engage appropriately with projects at EXPO. Projects require a tremendous effort during each unit, and their presentations are the culmination of weeks of inquiry and problem-solving. To create a public product, students must personally engage with a challenging, open-ended question, think critically through a process of social inquiry, collaborate to develop creative solutions, and present their understandings and solutions to an authentic audience. The best way to engage as an audience member is, first, to maintain an awareness of the project as it unfolds. On EXPO night, family members should come prepared to ask appropriately critical questions about the project with respect for the effort that went into it. Excellent questions are usually open-ended and use the language of PBL, such as “How did you answer your Driving Question?” You can ask “Tell me how your Public Product is a solution to your challenge?” A great question also might be “How did you collaborate with your team?” There will be more information shared soon about how to prepare for EXPO, so look for messages from your child’s teacher, administration, and the PBL Coordinator.

This autumn, we will host three EXPO events. This will allow us to take advantage of larger school spaces, which will be helpful in preventing the spread of communicable diseases. It will also give students the time and space they need to give excellent presentations, and families more opportunities to find parking in a timely manner (please consult last year’s parking map to identify good locations for street parking during school-wide events - https://www.a2schools.org/Page/12980). Our EXPO events this autumn will be organized by grade-level bands:

  • Lower Elementary EXPO (grades K-2):
    Thursday, December 8, 2022, from 5:30-7pm
  • Upper Elementary EXPO (grades 3-5):
    Thursday, December 15, 2022, from 5:30-7pm
  • Middle School EXPO (grades 6-8):
    Thursday, November 10, 2022, from 5:30-7pm

The Middle School EXPO will come in mid-November before both elementary EXPOs in order to correlate with the end of the first trimester, and both elementary EXPOs will take place in mid-December before winter vacation. We are still setting PBL goals for the winter and spring, but a flexible plan is being considered at this time. Collectively, we are working to consider our authentic audiences for projects before we put dates on the calendar. Mr. Larmer, again, reminds us to push back on the notion that “every project requires ‘a big showcase – that should not be the end goal of every project; sometimes having a few experts do real critique of student work is more powerful.’”

To put it succinctly, EXPO encapsulates the mission of A2 STEAM: Provide an environment where students, staff, and the community are actively engaged in project based learning through a student-centered approach with real-world applications. Foster students who lead and contribute to the world around them. Larmer connects to this purpose at the end of his article thusly,

"There’s one final benefit to having a public product: the proud moment when students present their work to the 'real world' is often a memory they will keep for the rest of their lives."