Last fall, Andra Yeghoian, the Environmental Literacy Coordinator for San Mateo County, CA, reached out to IHE to let us know that our solutionary approach and Zoe Weil’s book, The World Becomes What You Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries, were serving as the philosophy and framework for their county’s curriculum development team, which serves 95,000 students in 23 school districts. As you can imagine, we were thrilled to hear this. Since then, Andra, along with Doron Markus, the Science and Engineering Coordinator, and the rest of the Curriculum Development team, have been putting the vision of educating a generation of solutionaries into practice in their county and beyond. We thought you’d enjoy hearing about their efforts and successes so far.

IHE: Andra, we were so excited to hear from you last year when you reached out to us. Can you tell us how your county’s commitment to a Solutionary Framework was sparked and how it’s taken root?

Andra: Our work began in 2015 with teacher professional development at the San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative (SMELC). The purpose of SMELC was to build teacher capacity for designing and delivering learning experiences that are student-centered, problem- and project-based, solutions-oriented, and which integrate real-world environmental and social issues. The success of this program eventually contributed to the launch of a robust Environmental Literacy Initiative (ELI) in 2017, which focuses on empowering school communities and leaders to advocate for and prioritize whole-school sustainability integration and environmental literacy for all students. 

We were the first County Office of Education in the state to launch this type of initiative, so it felt important to ground the work in a strong educational philosophy that builds a deep sense of urgency in all stakeholders and connects to multiple aspects of the education system. The concepts and principles in The World Becomes What We Teach provided this and rooted the solutionary mindset in the broader efforts of San Mateo County Office of Education’s (SMCOE) Curriculum and Instructional Services (CIS) department. 

At SMCOE, we are utilizing the solutionary mindset in varying degrees of intensity, which we refer to as “mild, medium, and spicy.” Two efforts that utilize the “spiciest” version of solutionary work are in the following programs: 

  • SMELC Teacher Fellowship Program – A program of ELI
  • Project Solutionaries Informed Action Civics – A program of CIS

Both of these programs incorporate the ideas of solutionary teaching and learning with the PBLs (project-based, problem-based, place-based, and phenomenon-based learning), inquiry-based learning, and systems thinking. In SMELC this work has developed into a Solutionary Unit of Study Framework, which is essentially a style of PBL that can be leveraged by any subject area.

The goal of both programs is that every student at every grade level will have at least one unit per year that allows them to be agents of change in their own community. 

IHE: Andra and Doron, you offered five Summer Institutes this summer to provide solutionary professional development to teachers in your county (and beyond). How did they go? Any particular stories or experiences that you’d like to share?

Andra and Doron: This summer was our biggest cohort of SMELC teachers, as we worked with over 130 teachers in five different institutes, some in more than one session. It was a very successful summer, with 97% of teachers reporting that they were either very or extremely satisfied with the institute. Each institute utilized the Solutionary Unit of Study Framework with a focus on different themes: 

  • Science and the Environment: Preparing teachers to design Next Generation Science Standards-aligned Solutionary Units of Study that focus on a local environmental phenomenon/problem. 
  • Clean Energy, Clean Water, and Zero Waste: These all provided in-depth exposure to the problems and challenges within the corresponding system (energy, water, waste), and an opportunity to design and envision solutions for a more sustainable future. 
  • Safe Routes: This institute was slightly different from the others, as it was based around a model curriculum that the SMCOE curriculum and instruction (CIS) department designed for K-5 teachers. The curriculum focused on the transportation system, and how to support students in being solutionaries for “Safe Routes to School.” 

Running so many institutes really put our Solutionary Unit of Study Framework to the test, because the first two days of each institute is when we modeled our own concentrated Solutionary Unit of Study. This is a very powerful professional learning technique as it allows teachers to experience the unit as a learner, and receive training in teaching strategies before they are asked to design their own unit. 

Another important part of the institutes is the integration of Community Based Partners (CBP), who join as learners, teachers, and coaches. Each CBP offered experiential learning activities that gave teachers the opportunity to determine how they might integrate this CBP into their unit either through a field trip or an in-class experience.

The Summer Institute is often a transformational professional learning experience for teachers, and many have powerful takeaways, such as these:

  • “My enduring understanding is how urgent the need is for teachers to teach these topics to students. I also developed a new understanding that solutionary thinking is the best way to empower our students to be positive agents of change in the world.”
  • “I’m most excited about providing a highly engaging, motivating series of lessons for my students that calls them to take action. I’m excited to see their emotions throughout the process as they develop from worry, fear, and anger to feelings of hope and empowerment. I am also excited to see the solutions they come up with, and how they will be intrinsically motivated to make a real impact locally and globally.”
  • “I have been through various trainings and institutes that model PBL. I also went through a Master’s program working with PBL. This institute provided the most clear and concise example of PBL that I have experienced. I am feeling so confident and ready to use this model when creating additional units in the future.” 
  • “I am excited that I will be teaching about a problem we face in California with a purpose. I am hopeful that my unit will not just give my students information, but will empower them to make connections, have awareness, and be able to change habits to lower our environmental impact.”

IHE: What are the next steps for these teachers?

Andra and Doron: SMELC is a semester-long fellowship program that has four components: i) Pre-Learning, ii) Summer Institute, iii) Guided Implementation, iv) Capstone Presentation. The program was designed this way because research shows that in order for professional learning to have a significant impact on student learning, efforts must range between 30 to 100 hours and include an accountability mechanism (Yoon et al., 2007). 

The SMELC teachers are now in the Guided Implementation phase, which means they are finalizing their planning process and implementing their Solutionary Units of Study, all with the support of an instructional coach. The coaching process is a really important element to the program because it allows teachers to get customized help on aspects like student outcomes, teaching strategies, and technical assistance in the solutionary phase. Most teachers are unprepared for this type of teaching because it has historically been left out of teacher credentialing programs, and many teachers are the first in their schools to be implementing project-based learning with a solutionary outcome. 

Upon completion of their Solutionary Unit of Study, teachers will complete a reflection process that asks them to summarize what they did, collect evidence of student learning, and reflect on their own learning as an educator. This all gets presented at a Capstone Event in January and February, which also serves as a celebration for program completion. Teachers are paid a stipend for completing all four phases of the program and submitting their final case study and Solutionary Unit of Study write-up. 

IHE: Tell us about your plans for the Solutionary Fair on March 15. What inspired this initiative and how is it being received so far?

Andra and Doron: For over thirty years, the San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE) has hosted the SMCOE STEM Fair. Each year, over 400 students in grades 5-12 from our 23 school districts enter our fair with the hope of receiving an award and the opportunity to compete in other regional, state, and national fairs. As part of the entry process, each project is reviewed to ensure that students have followed the scientific method or engineering design process, and the work is original. After reviewing many thousands of students’ projects over the years, we have found that students tend to ask the same or very similar questions to those asked many times before. Moreover, the types of questions students typically ask not only bear little relevance to the more pressing issues that humanity and our planet are experiencing, but also few tend to focus on a solution. 

As a result of our findings and our efforts to be in line with our own solutionary mindset (the world becomes what we teach!), the San Mateo County Office of Education will host a Solutionary Fair on March 15, 2020. Students who wish to participate in the fair must enter work that addresses and attempts to solve an environmental, social, economic, technological, or scientific problem. By making this significant shift in the acceptance of problem-and- solution-type projects, students will be required to shift their own foci and mindsets toward more relevant problems that they observe around them in the real world. At the fair, students will share their ideas and solutions with judges, many of whom will be Silicon Valley and university employees. Students will not only compete for awards, as they have in the past, but also for the opportunity to implement their solutions in the real world, and ultimately have the potential to help all living beings and the planet. It is our hope that this model can be applied to all levels of competition. 

This first SMCOE Solutionary Fair will take place alongside our traditional STEM Fair. These events are held under the umbrella of our larger event that we call “The Next Big Think.” This six-hour event, visited by thousands of members of the San Mateo County community, includes a mini-maker faire, our SMCOE Arts Expo, which includes poetry, live performances, and hundreds of pieces of student artwork, and tables where our districts showcase their students’ innovative work. We are very excited to pilot the SMCOE Solutionary Fair this year, and we are hopeful it will serve the purpose that we intend, namely, shifting our students’ and the public’s mindset toward becoming active solutionaries.              

IHE: What do you hope will be happening in San Mateo County, and even more broadly in California, because of the Solutionary Framework you are embedding in the curriculum? What are some of the outcomes you’d like to see over the next few years?

Andra and Doron: Our hope is that the Solutionary Unit of Study Framework can be a true catalyst for driving environmental and social transformation across school communities. Because these Solutionary Units of Study culminate with civic engagement projects that call for greening facilities and operations, reducing an individual’s ecological footprint, and/or designing landscapes that are ecologically beneficial for other species, we inevitably see a sustainable paradigm shift in these communities. 

We are getting closer to reaching a critical mass of teachers in San Mateo County, who have been trained and are implementing a Solutionary Unit of Study. Once we reach this critical mass, I believe we will see a tipping point in how educators in our county approach curriculum and instruction, and in how we invite students to take part in their own learning process. The Solutionary Unit of Study Framework also provides a clear model for how students, community-based partners, and educators can come together to solve real-world problems, and imagine and create a more sustainable future. 

We are also hoping to act as a catalyst across the state of California and beyond, which is why we share this Solutionary Unit of Study Framework more broadly at conferences, and with other County Offices of Education who offer similar teacher professional development programs. 

IHE: Anything else you’d like to share?

Andra and Doron: We are incredibly grateful to Zoe Weil and the Institute for Human Education for partnering with us in developing the Solutionary Unit of Study Framework. It has been inspiring to work alongside Zoe as we develop and iterate the framework, and we look forward to a rich, ongoing collaboration.