Measuring Professional Development by Student Work

This semester I was fortunate enough to work with a local school, the San Fernando Institute of Applied Media (SFIAM).  The teaching staff reached out to the EPDC team with a vision of a project beyond ‘one-off’ professional development.

Research has shown that effective PD for teachers needs to be both hands-on and recurring.  However, the Center for Public Education has found that while PD can be engaging and build relationships with the staff, it is unlikely to be impactful without an implementation component.  That is to say, teachers need to see the success of the lesson in their students’ work.  Take, for example, studying for a test to get your drivers license.  You may be able to check all the right boxes and know the right words, but you won’t necessarily be a good driver until you get some practice behind the wheel.  Think about how much more nervous you may have been for the driving portion versus the written exam!  When it comes to implementing NGSS or transitioning to a more inquiry-based science classroom for the first time, that anxiety may be very similar indeed.

That is why I was so excited when SFIAM contacted me.  They weren’t looking for an afternoon to fill with a PD workshop, but instead began designing backwards from the goal of a student presentation of learning.  How could we implement a project-based unit where students would explore space travel in their science, history, math, and ELA classes in an integrated fashion?  The teaching staff and I constructed a series of explorations for the students, which they were able to pursue in self-directed fashion.  Student groups pursued conceptual design of spacecraft, astrobiology, and even built and tested robotic devices to traverse their planets.  Additionally, an environment of support and positive mindset was created by making mini-NASA badges with student names on them, and having kids refer to each other as ‘doctor’.  At the end of the unit, student groups presented to the grade level via a multimedia presentation to a panel of reviewers.  Students brought artifacts for demonstrations, showed videos of their revisions and progress, and highlighted the history of space travel and their future goals.

Overall, the experience was incredibly rewarding: made so because the success of the students illustrated the success to the teachers.  While they were (rightfully) anxious about such a large undertaking- the cross-curricular coordination, the sandbox environment without direct instruction- their courage paid off.  Meaningful PD that really reaches our students is similar to learning a new language.  Understandably in that first period we feel shy about speaking, worried we’ll make mistakes.  But we can’t just read the words and listen to others; just like SFIAM did, we need to immerse ourselves in the environment and take some risks.

For the activities we used for the space travel unit, please check out the Jet Propulsion Lab education lessons found here:​

​For more on the San Fernando Institute of Applied Media, please see their principal’s TED talk here:​


Dr. Brandon Rodriguez
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab