Learning Laboratories

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EAST helps us understand how to:

+ Equip students with the knowledge and resources they need to investigate the world around them

+ Offer students opportunities to determine their own learning objectives in a collaborative environment

+ Build a network of students who serve their communities today while developing the skills they will need to join tomorrow’s workforce

If I send them on a quest for information on something that they are interested in, they’re going to retain 75 percent to 80 percent of that, and more importantly, they’re going to know where to go to fill the gaps in the stuff they forgot.
— Matt Dozier, President & CEO, EAST

A few years ago, a group of students in Monticello, a small town in southeast Arkansas, went on a fact-finding mission. Their goal was to get to know a local animal shelter, conduct research, and build a website to publicize shelter dogs in need of adoption.

The delegation encountered what they described as a “corrugated lean-to.” Clearly, the facility’s needs were vast—producing a website was only the beginning. Seeing an opportunity to make a difference, the Monticello students began working on a proposal to overhaul the facility. The redesign proposal included features like an irrigation system to prevent mosquito-borne diseases from entering the animals’ water supply. Through community fundraising and grant writing, the students secured $65,000 to pay for the shelter’s renovations. These students, whose compassion and resourcefulness helped the shelter so profoundly, were part of an Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST) class at Monticello High School.

EAST is a nationwide, STEM-oriented school-within-a-school program that challenges students to tackle projects that benefit their schools, communities, regions, and world. EAST began in Arkansas and currently serves 220 schools in 5 states. 

Matt Dozier, president and CEO of EAST, sees his program as a creative way to promote STEM. “There’s not a textbook,” he says. “There aren’t lectures. There aren’t tests that you would normally have.” 

Instead, EAST offers access to technical tools that can help students solve the real-world challenges they identify in local communities. Because EAST teachers do more facilitating than lecturing, they give students the time and space they need to figure out scientific and mathematical concepts and applications. Students who need extra attention receive it; those who are further ahead have the opportunity to advance in what they learn and create.

Dozier is adamant that outdated classroom techniques such as lectures sell students short of their learning goals. “If I stand up in front of a classroom of students, no matter how good my jokes are, no matter how deep my content is, no matter how well I can outline it on the board, they’re going to retain about 10 percent of what I tell them,” he said. “If I send them on a quest for information on something that they are interested in, they’re going to retain 75 percent to 80 percent of that, and more importantly, they’re going to know where to go to fill the gaps in the stuff they forgot. Which would you rather have?”    

This “quest for information” through self-directed tasks is part of a growing trend in STEM education, though EAST has promoted this approach for more than 20 years—long before it was in vogue. And the results are both clear and tangible: a report by a University of Central Arkansas research team found that in 2010, EAST students contributed a total of 1.5 million service hours, which benefited Arkansas communities economically to the tune of $15 million. Community-based learning experiences offer students a valuable preview of the challenges they will encounter as professionals and equips them with skills necessary for using modern technology. Dozier says there’s a practical reason EAST employs geographic information system (GIS) technology in its classes, citing that for every GIS-qualified employee, there are 15 open jobs. 

EAST has received high praise for its innovations, but its challenge is one of scale: the organization has had to decline requests from large schools to implement EAST. Providing learning experiences that prepare students to tackle real-world problems requires a delicate balance of direct instruction and exploration in order to maintain fidelity to the state’s math and science standards. EAST’s response to this concern has been to work with a new cohort of schools to develop the EAST Core program, which ties explorative learning to a more conventional approach that meets the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. 

Dozier tells the story of a former EAST student who went on to study computer engineering and work as a computer programmer. The student told Dozier that, on his first day on the job, his boss assigned him a complicated project with vague instructions. “There’s an error in the code here,” the boss said. “Figure it out and fix it.” 

“I finally got it,” the student said. Dozier elaborated, “In the real world, that programmer was being paid to solve that problem. If he couldn’t solve that problem, they will go find somebody who can.” 

“That’s what we’re preparing students for. You only do that through hands-on learning.”

EAST has partnered with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock to provide out-of-school STEM instruction. Through this partnership, EAST is continuing to prepare students to become scientists, engineers, and computer programmers.