Students guide learning in West Des Moines program

May 30, 2016
The Des Moines Register

Students at four West Des Moines schools learned about math, science, history and other subjects in a new way this school year.

They were part of the district’s New Tech Network program, which uses project-based learning to teach skills through group work and collaboration.

Gone are the days of teacher lectures and copious note taking. These students guide their own learning through projects that can range from putting on a play to engineering robots.

“I feel like we’ve grown so much as students and people,” said Joe Maxwell, a seventh-grader at Stilwell Junior High School. “It helps you find your talents and what you’re good at and enjoy, and your group helps you find a way to make that successful.”

Students still meet the same state education standards and benchmarks; they just get there a different way.

West Des Moines is the first school district in Iowa to contract with the New Tech Network, a California-based company that is backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. West Des Moines paid $1 million for the 3½-year contract, which includes training and support for teachers — they are called facilitators in the New Tech model — and a laptop for every student.

All preschool through sixth-grade students at Clive Learning Academy and Crestview School of Inquiry participate in the program, as well as 250 of the district’s approximately 660 seventh-graders at Indian Hills and Stilwell junior high schools. Next year’s program will include eighth-graders at both junior high schools.

Melissa Clayton, a humanities teacher at Stilwell, said she feels like a first-year teacher again as she works through the program and learns along with the students. The teachers have brought in community members and experts from local businesses to help with projects.

“It’s stressful but rewarding,” Clayton said.

Her class, taught alongside Peter Bissinger, combines social studies and English. Each student group researched, wrote and directed a play based on important revolutions in history.

Instead of teachers lecturing students on the facts surrounding the events, the teams were tasked with teaching themselves about revolutions through reports and projects. Acting in the plays taught them about public speaking and script writing.

In math class, students interviewed their peers to collect and analyze data and learn statistics. At Clive Academy of Learning, students engineered robots to find the most efficient way to clean lunchrooms.

Nationally, New Tech students boast higher-than-average rates of high school graduation and college enrollment. ACT scores of students in the program are equal to or higher than those of their peers in traditional schools, New Tech data show.

At Stilwell, test scores of New Tech students were slightly higher this year than those of traditional students, said Principal Eric Boyle. The New Tech students also have higher attendance and fewer instances of behavior problems, and special education students feel more connected to their peers, he said.

“We’re really getting them ready for the real world,” Boyle said.

Seventh-grader Levi Janssen said he retains information better through the New Tech program by applying what he has learned instead of memorizing facts for a test. He said it’s effective because students are tasked with finding the answers to a problem or situation themselves, instead of being told what works.

“Plus, it’s fun,” he said. “I feel the projects are something that would actually matter or change something and make a difference.”

West Des Moines schools recently approved a plan to continue the program at Valley Southwoods in fall 2017, when the New Tech students are freshmen. They will continue the school-within-a-school model, where about one-third of the freshman class will be New Tech students and the rest will follow the traditional model of learning. It will continue the year after that, at Valley High School.

The district considered turning Valley Southwoods into a New Tech high school, but an advisory committee of parents and educators recommended keeping the school-within-a-school model. Superintendent Lisa Remy said that keeping students together will provide more opportunities, such as extracurricular activities and elective classes like Spanish or orchestra.

The advisory committee must decide graduation requirements for New Tech high school students.

Support wanted
The New Tech Network program is looking for businesses that want to partner with students on projects. Justin Miller, teacher leader for New Tech, said the program also wants input from businesses on what skills students should be learning to prepare them for jobs at their companies.

New Tech partners with the city of West Des Moines, Shive-Hattery, Square One DSM and UnityPoint Health. Other businesses have gone on student-led tours to learn how to get involved. Miller said the program is seeking donations of equipment and space.

More information can be found on the district’s website,

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