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What being a connected educator does for students

By Nicole Krueger
February 22, 2017
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The next time a natural disaster strikes Southern California, every public safety agency in San Diego County will coordinate emergency helicopter communications using a map designed by high school junior Katie Anderson.

Across the globe, wildlife protection officials in Tanzania are using forensic techniques developed in part by students in an 11th-grade biology class, who helped refine more affordable and efficient ways of testing for illegally poached meats in African street markets.

Students have a lot to offer the world. Yet we often talk about their potential as if it’s something that belongs only in the future. Why not harness their abilities now? Human beings have a lot of collective problems to solve, and kids have a certain creative magic that allows them to dream up answers adults would never think of. Experts in a wide range of fields are increasingly turning to students for help  —and kids are stepping up to the plate, contributing innovative solutions, fresh perspectives and expert-level knowledge of their own.

“Our students are capable of doing authentic work that adds to the abundance in ways that can make the world a better, richer place,” says educator and consultant Will Richardson.

Too often, though, they don’t get the chance. At High Tech High, where working with adults in real-world settings is built into the very fabric of the school, it’s impossible to graduate without contributing something of value to the greater community. But what about students in traditional classrooms at conventional schools? How can teachers and ed leaders open up these types of real-world opportunities for their own students?

By being connected educators — that’s how.

Connected educators are magnets for rich learning opportunities. As they expand their networks outward, not just to other educators but to industry experts both locally and across the globe, they’re able to attract the sorts of experiences that authentically connect the classroom to the real world.

Being a connected educator does more than just help you develop professionally. It can open up real-world opportunities for students, such as:

Mentorships, internships and ongoing collaborations

As a sophomore, Naihema Powell wrote a one-act play as part of an English class project. As a junior, she got to see it performed on stage.

Along the way, a professional playwright helped Naihema and her classmates craft dialogue and revise their work, honing their plays for entry in a statewide young playwrights festival. As the students prepared to share their work with a broader audience, incorporating feedback from their professional mentor taught them to express themselves more effectively as creative communicators.

Humanities teacher Joshua Block credits his professional network with transforming his high school students into young — and in some cases award-winning — playwrights. By drawing artists, historians, poets and playwrights into his network, he was able to form ongoing collaborative partnerships that opened real-world doors for his students.

“I strongly believe that my students and I should be doing work that matters in the world,” he says.

Publishing opportunities

When Minecraft was developing its education edition, the software company asked programming teacher Steve Isaacs to create some tutorials for the game. A well-known leader in game-based learning, he’s made a lot of connections with game developers, who often turn to him when they need help.

As usual, he punted the opportunity to his eight-grade students. They created the video walk-throughs themselves, posted them on YouTube for the development team, and got to see their work featured in a Minecraft blog.

Isaacs’s game development class has also helped beta test a groundbreaking new video game and participated in a study on virtual reality in the classroom with Foundry10, a nonprofit educational foundation. One student even co-wrote a book with him on GameMaker’s programming language, which was published and is now selling on Amazon.

When students are able to publish their work for a broader audience, they become influential knowledge constructors who synthesize their own learning to help teach others. A connected educator opens up new channels of communication between students and the wider world.

“We create opportunities for our students,” Isaacs says. “It’s really powerful for kids to realize they’re being heard.”

Real-world problem solving

In chemistry class, one group of California high school students learned about lab research by performing experiments to separate DNA. The data they generated is helping biomedical researchers analyze human DNA to better understand how and why diseases develop.

“This kind of research can lead to the development of drugs for disease treatment and vaccines for disease prevention,” says OPB.

Performing authentic research for scientists thousands of miles away helped these young global collaborators understand what it means to take part in something bigger than themselves. Although their research comprised just one small part of a much larger project, they worked with the knowledge that even the smallest bit of information could prove crucial to the overall effort.

These are the kinds of experiences that can arise when educators partner with industry experts to bring student learning into the real world. There are plenty of professionals out there who are hungry to harness the innovative potential of today’s students. They’re just waiting for connected educators to reach out and find them.

Find articles about students who are changing the world on ISTE's EdTekHub.