Business Partnerships in PBL…What Does That Really Mean?

By Tony Donen
There is a common theme that appears consistently in the media. The theme is that high school and college graduates are unprepared for the workplace. This theme has been present for years, even as far back as when I graduated high school… and we’ll just say that I graduated over 25 years ago. So why the disconnect?
The answer is actually fairly simple. The schoolhouse and the business community have been separated into mutually exclusive entities. Education has been left to the educators, the experts in instruction of state required content. However, businesses have been left on the outside looking in with little influence as to the content, and no other recourse except to point fingers.
In my work at STEM School Chattanooga, I have found several ways to have effective business partnerships. I have focused on finding inclusive, cost friendly solutions that help to build the workforce that businesses crave and the student work that teachers love. For lack of a better way to explain it, I have chosen to call it the “Business Partner PBL.”
A Business Partner PBL is a project established for students that helps address a current issue a business faces.
For the sake of this article, when I refer to “business” I mean any community group. It could be an actual business, it could be a college, it could be the local YMCA or it could mean any other organized group outside the walls of the schoolhouse. It could also mean a single person, like a college professor or realtor. The important piece is that the business partner is not the teacher.
Let’s focus on the Business Partner PBL and answer the following three questions:

  • What is the purpose?
  • How do schools connect with businesses?
  • What are the baseline requirements for a business to be involved?

Purpose of Business Partners to Support PBL

We want students to be ready for the workforce and we want business to be part of the solution. In order for those two items to happen, we must create opportunities for businesses to “have skin in the game” and work collaboratively with educators in developing worthwhile, meaningful work. This changes the conversation from a blame game to a team game. When businesses are part of creating and implementing meaningful work, they become part of the process, and business has an invested interest in making sure student work is quality.
As for the work, businesses add a lot of value in helping educators create tasks that are meaningful. When students work on problems and issues that matter, students take more ownership in their work and provide higher quality results. Expecting teachers to understand the ever-changing workforce needs is unrealistic and archaic. Businesses are experts in this area.

How Can Schools Connect With Businesses?

The process here is simple. There are three primary methods I use for connecting with Business Partners:

  1. Use your network. Contact someone you know who is not an educator and is part of some business. This is generally the easiest because you already know the person.
  2. Cold call. Call a business and let them know who you are (i.e., I am a teacher at Washington High), that you are interested in working with someone from that business on creating a meaningful project for kids and ask if there is someone at the business who you can speak to about this idea.
  3. Email. Email a business. Very similar to #2. One short email asking a business to help develop a worthwhile project for kids is often received with excitement from the business partner. They rarely, if ever, have been asked to help in this inclusive way.

3 Baseline Requirements to Ensure a Successful Business Partnership

The key to a successful Business Partner PBL is creating a minimum baseline for what the educator/school needs from the business partner, while at the same time allowing for the business partner to participate even more fully if they desire to do so. Here is what I use as a minimum baseline for business participation:

  1. Time. The business partner is willing to spend 30-60 minutes with an educator (or group of educators) to create a project idea. This is generally a dialogue where the educator(s) can listen to what type of work the business partner does and problems that arise in that work, and together develop a driving question or statement for the project.
  2. Project Kick-Off. The business partner is willing to meet with the students/classes involved in the project to kick off the project. It may be to provide background information on why the partner needs help, information students may need to start the project, etc. This can be as brief as a 15-minute visit to the school by the business partner, or as extravagant as a field trip to the business partner location.
  3. Project Presentations and Feedback. The business partner agrees to come back at the end of the project and hear the final presentations by the student teams. It may be that the business partner listens to the top three teams only. But the goal is for the partner to listen, and provide both positive feedback and constructive feedback to the teams.

Remember, these are minimum expectations. The business partner may want to come more often and meet with teams throughout the project. The business partner may want to have the students come and present at their workplace to a room full of people. The business partner may want to provide the supplies needed to complete the project. There are many ways to enhance this process. The key is to set a manageable minimum expectation, which often leads to a more robust Business Partner PBL in the future.
The goal for improving education moving forward is to find ways to create meaningful experiences for businesses and schools to connect and create meaningful work for students. This results in positive and purposeful dialogue to improve educational opportunities and breaks down the barrier between the schoolhouse and the world outside it.
When businesses and schools work together to create meaningful Business Partner PBLs, students, educators and businesses all win.
Tony Donen is the Principal of STEM School Chattanooga. Follow him on Twitter: @tonydonen

This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more about this series and to learn ways that you can contribute, click the icon below to go to the Project-Based World page.

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