Two Project-based Learning Experiences at Arlington Career Center

Project-based learning (PBL) is at the core the our pedalogy at the Arlington Career Center (ACC), with it’s mission to instill a passion for learning by doing. This past week I had the opportunity to work with my students on two projects that illustrate both the joy and the academic benefits of our approach.

Laptop Configuration and Repair

Arlington Community High School (ACHS) is a sister insitution located a short walk across the parking lot from ACC that provides an alternative high school program to students 16 years and older. As an alternative program for adult students, ACHS students do not receive the laptops that are given to younger students in our one-to-one program. To help address the need for student laptops, ACHS received a generous donation of used laptops from Definitive Logic, an IT company located in Arlington. The laptops came without an operating system and with some of them needing minor repairs, a situation providing a great opportunity for PBL.

Beatriz Torres is a 41 year old student at ACHS who is in my dual-enrolled Web Page Design I and Introduction to Information Systems classes. The information systems class has the following among its student learning outcomes:

  • Classify the kinds of input devices
  • Identify the different types of output devices
  • Explain the purpose of storage devices
  • Describe processor components
  • Distinguish between primary storage and secondary storage
  • Distinguish between system software and application software

What usually happens in intro courses like this is that students are assigned readings from some god-awful textbook from a stock educational textbook vendor, complete with colorful pictures and dull, uninspiring text, and then made to answer questions about what they read. While it may be true that students who successfully navigate this challenge demonstrate a high level of self-decipline, if the goal is to help create a broadly educated and engaged citizenry about the information technology that surrounds us in our modern world, this isn’t the way to go.

With a PBL approach, Beatriz was given a laptop and the above list of learning outcomes, and asked to investigate the hardward on one of the donated laptops, upgrade its BIOS, and then install the Ubuntu operating system. She was also asked to create a web page documenting what she did and what she learned.

Beatriz installing Ubuntu on donated laptops for ACHS

This process will give Beatriz hands-on experience with the hardware and software with which she needs to become familiar to meet the course learning objectives, but in a way that is both more engaging and more memorable. She will have the concrete experience of interacting with the computer to find out what it is and then configuring it to make it useful.

What’s more, when she finishes the activity she will be providing her classmates with laptop computers more powerful and better suited to learning than those issued by the school system for the one-to-one program, which I hope will give her a justified feeling of pride and accomplishment.

ACC Django Girls

I have a group of six very bright, highly motivated students in my computer science class whom I have taken to calling the ACC Django Girls, after they volunteered to give up a Saturday back in September to attend a local Django Girls workshop. They are actively serving as ambassadors of our CS program at ACC, and this past weekend four of them agreed to give up another Saturday to lead a group of middle school girls in an introduction to Python programming workshop.

Here are Abby, Abigail, Heylin, and Lena at the Swanson Middle School Code-A-Thon.

Abby, Abigail, Heylin, and Lena teaching middle school girls CS

They used Raspberry Pi’s connected to the monitors, keyboards, mice, and ethernet cables from the workstations in the Swanson computer science lab.

I offered to setup up the Raspberry Pi’s and put the lab back the way we found it after the workshop. Everything else they did completely on their own. They planned the lesson, prepared the presentation, and delivered the workshop.

The poise and confidence with which they led the day’s activities were inspiring, and I believe can at least in part be attributed to their educational experience at Arlington Tech, where collaborate, project-based learning and student presentations are a regular part of their academic experience.

On the feedback forms at the end of the Code-A-Thon the Django Girls received high marks from the middle school student participants, evidence of a job well done and a real contribution to promoting computer science among Arlington Public School girls.