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220710 RE@LCast™ Transcript: Dr. McHugh

by | Jul 9, 2022 | RE@L StudentCorner | 0 comments

RNelson: [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Re@lCast™, a production of Real Experiences at Life. I’m Randy Nelson. Today’s guest on Re@lCast™ is Dr. Maggie McCugh. Maggie is an Innovation Specialist and a mathematics teacher facilitating learning at the Lacrosse Polytech School in Wisconsin. A National Board Certified Teacher and a Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year. Wow. Maggie is a classroom expert on using STEM integrated instructional strategies in a project based learning environment. She’s doing it all in La Crosse and she’s writing a book about it. More about that later. Maggie, thank you for joining me for this edition of Re@lCast™.

Dr. McHugh: [00:00:43] Thanks, Randy.

RNelson: [00:00:44] So, Maggie, what are you seeing today as critical attributes or drivers to a strong STEM based instructional program?

Dr. McHugh: [00:00:53] Yeah, well, STEM has been an acronym that’s been out there for a while. Science, Technology. Engineering, Math. I definitely subscribe also to STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math. And there’s so many ways to incorporate all of that into our educational program. For me, STEM really needs to be interdisciplinary, not just science, with a little technology, with a little math. It really has to fully encompass all of those disciplines together and focusing on solving a real world problem, something that students can sink their teeth into and see the purpose of. And the more that it’s the real world, the more that we can ground it in careers that are out there in local jobs, industries. And it’s also really critical that with students having that buy in, it’s something they’re interested in. So whenever I’m doing kind of STEM-based things, I try to connect it with student interests. And that goes right to the heart of knowing your students, getting to know your students, having those strong relationships with students, and then that only just us as teachers and educators having that strong relationship, but student to student having a strong relationship because for students to engage in such interdisciplinary work, there’s probably a lot of collaboration. And as we know, that’s going to be a key for students to be able to collaborate and communicate as they get out into these careers that we’re helping them see. So for me, STEM interdisciplinary student driven, focused on a real problem. Those would be some of the biggest for me.

RNelson: [00:02:33] Well, you mentioned a little bit about careers and getting students ready for that step in their lives to be involved in some sort of workplace or some sort of a career. How do you specifically incorporate career exploration or experiences into that experience in the planning at your school?

Dr. McHugh: [00:02:51] Yeah, we attack that in multiple ways through the projects that we do with students. One of the big things is just to actually get out into the community. So that’s field trips and community service. Both of those will expose students to different careers and field trips. I’ve had great success calling up businesses to actually go through businesses. I think we often think of field trips as needing to be these fun. You know, go visit the zoo, go to a museum. But one of my students, their favorite field trip or what we actually like to call field studies because we’re out there studying our world was to Dynamic Recycling which recycles electronics. And so I remember walking through this, I mean, it is a massive couple of facilities and students got to see an entire TV being torn apart and just look at all the pieces, all of the electronics that are within there. And we were looking we were studying the stem problem of what to do with electronic waste because more and more people are just getting rid of their devices and getting new devices and new devices. And there really is a huge issue out there. So for students to see that, to explore that, to have that understanding of what happens, both from a live source, from an expert in the industry was just huge. So getting out into the communities, one way to look at career exploration, but I think another is to bring our experts into the into the classroom. I will say, actually, that the pandemic, for all the craziness that it was getting everybody comfortable with Zoom, was huge for bringing experts into the classroom.

Dr. McHugh: [00:04:39] Here we are doing our podcast on Zoom. And so being able to reach out and maybe say, Hey, I don’t know if you even have 15, 20 minutes of your time, you could zoom in to the class and chat with us. A lot of experts are out there who are absolutely willing. So we’ve had experts from across the United States come into our classroom, be there with our students. Just through the technology of Zoom and experts can be used to to launch. Get students hooked into a STEM activity or project. They could be used as a source of knowledge, helping students recognize that everything is from Google. That you can learn a lot just by talking and interviewing someone. They could be used as a panel, and when students are presenting, they could be. The experts can give feedback and critique to our students and for the listeners out there. A great way to start. If you’re really unsure, if you’re hesitant to, you know, cold call or cold email, there’s a great program called Skype a scientist. And Skype a scientist is is free and it’ll connect you with a scientist doing research in perhaps a STEM area that you and your students are exploring. So getting out into the community, but also bringing those experts in whether they can physically come in or use the technology platform, those are ways that we help students just explore careers and learn from experts.

RNelson: [00:06:07] So, Maggie, how is the teacher’s role in a project based, STEAM- based environment different than that from a traditional classroom.

Dr. McHugh: [00:06:17] In project based learning, you’re taking on multiple hats. All classroom teachers take on multiple hats. But I think more than ever in a project based learning, you’re taking on the role at times of manager. How do you manage student learning? And I know for me, giving up, quote unquote, the control you feel when you are leading the learning and finding those strategies to help students take on the learning took some time, took trust, and took a lot of research into instructional strategies that students could could take on. So being a manager in project based learning in STEAM activities definitely is one role that is very different than a traditional classroom. For me, a role I’ve continued to embrace, and when I’ve named it, it’s been helpful not only to me but to my students. And I call it the Lead Learner being the Lead Learner, because there’s a lot of things I don’t know and I’m comfortable and again, took time to be comfortable saying, I don’t know the answer to this. I’m not the answer giver. I’m actually the lead learner with you. And for students, especially my sixth graders, coming from elementary school and middle school, the first time I say I don’t know. The answer to that is students.There might be like a gasp, right? Or a what? “Dr. McHugh, I thought you knew everything,” and I absolutely don’t. And and so being the Lead Learner helps not only my students, but me embrace the idea of what does it mean to question material? Then how can I help model those really good questions? How can I help shape experiences I would need to learn and then translate what I would need into what student friendly and student appropriate in these activities. And I am often doing a lot of learning, maybe alongside my students, maybe, you know, the night before as I’m prepping an activity. But it’s really fun to engage in learning. I think teachers are in the profession, many of them because of a part of who they are, is being a lifelong learner. And so to kind of free yourself during STEM activities, during project based learning, taking on the role of Lead Learner and naming that with students is really beautiful. It really is a gift and keeps me going day in and day out. So yeah. So being a manager, being a Lead Learner, those would be two roles that I find I embrace more, more often than not in the project based learning realm.

RNelson: [00:09:13] My guest today on RE@LCast™ is Dr. Maggie McHugh, a secondary mathematics teacher, who is leveraging stem based learning, in a project based learning environment. I’ll be back with more from Dr. McHugh right after this.

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RNelson: [00:09:59] Welcome back to RE@LCast™. My guest today on RE@LCast™ is National Board Certified Teacher and a Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year, Dr. Maggie McHugh, an expert on STEAM-based instruction in a project based learning environment. Maggie, before our break, you were mentioning the teachers role in the project based learning and STEM environment. Let’s focus a bit on the student aspect. Explain for our listeners how a student develops a project proposal at your school. Who sees it? How is it presented and how is it approved?

Dr. McHugh: [00:10:32] Yeah, students at La Crosse Polytechnic all develop personal projects. Elsewhere, personal projects sometimes are called Genius Hour or Passion Projects. Our students follow the project process over the course of a semester and really dig deep into a project. And that all starts, as you said, with a project proposal. That project proposal helps give them a driving question. They develop the question. They’re interested in a summary, what sort of products that they want to create written products, physical projects, digital products. And in the students present those them to their advisor. And so as educators we actually rename ourselves as advisors because we are advising our students guiding, facilitating their learning. So when they present their proposal the first time and there’s always a first time, it really becomes a conversation between the student and the advisor learning what the student’s goals are. Students actually select and work towards finding the learning targets they’re interested in. So as many districts are moving standards based, our school and our district uses standards based grading. And so the students know their standards, which is really exciting in that project proposal. But a big thing is helping students plan with the end in mind. So they have some sort of question they want to answer and they have some sort of product they want to create. And then together we talk about what are the steps you need to take to get from point A to point B? Right. And there are a lot of steps students need to take, including contacting experts, researching, finding materials. Sometimes students are writing grants. And so that’s a really exciting project process. But the approval doesn’t happen until students also share that with family members. We always ask for a student to share with Mom, Dad an uncle, step mom, grandma, grandpa, sometimes even an older sibling, just so they get the practice of communicating their learning and so that people at home also know what’s going on. Because I know in my early years, student would go home and say, “What did you do today?” “Well, I worked on my project about hypoallergenic dogs.” And then the next day, “What do you do?” “I worked on my project on Hypoallergenic Dogs”. And after two or three weeks they go, “Well, do you do anything different?” And so communicating, what are those steps that there’s a lot of things going into that learning. So the project process very dynamic and the more students talk, I think we all know, the more you communicate about it, maybe the more you solidify your own ideas and refine those ideas. So that’s kind of the initial part of a project proposal with students. Then it becomes a really dynamic process throughout the course of the semester. And the best part is when we get to the end, we have a big showcase event. Students are sharing their learning. The next day or so we reflect upon it and we go back to that proposal and see how much has changed, how much the students grew, and helping normalize the fact that you’re going to change your mind. And that’s okay. Why did you make those changes? How did they benefit your project? Did you make changes that didn’t benefit your project? Maybe you didn’t have enough time. You weren’t as organized as you initially meant to be. And so I think the truest learning happens at the end. During reflection, yes, we celebrate the students at the showcase event. It’s really a joyous evening. But when. We reflect and look at the whole process. That’s where the magic happens.

RNelson: [00:14:18] Just wondering at what point of the process do you find students get most stuck or you’re having to help them through or ask questions and help facilitate them to the next level? Where does that happen most often?

Dr. McHugh: [00:14:31] Oh, a couple of weeks in after the honeymoon period has worn off. There’s always that initial excitement towards a project where students going to change the world. Right? And then they get into the weeds of it and they realize how difficult their ideas are. And that’s a beautiful point, though, right? That is a beautiful point where students are working hard, persevering. It’s a beautiful point when students realize that their big dreams are going to take more time, more energy, more resources than maybe what they’re capable of at 11, 12, 13 years old. And that’s okay. That’s the point where as advisors, we come in and help refine those ideas with students. Maybe instead of creating the movie that they wanted to create, we pare it down and say, Can you create a scene instead of the entire movie? And to help students recognize that that is still going to move them towards their learning goals. And so helping students get unstuck really is the art of teaching. It goes back to what I said earlier. Knowing your students, having that relationship with students and then having that bag of tricks to write all those instructional strategies to help students maybe use a graphic organizer to plan out everything that would need to happen to have students talk to experts in the field. At our school, we keep a running list of experts, family, friends, so that when a student is stuck, needs an expert, but they’re unsure of who to call or it’s very scary to call or email. Someone will say, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got Randy over here. And Randy was in the radio business and I know he’d be happy to talk to you. I’ve got his email and we can start facilitating those conversations.” So getting stuck is natural. It’s normal for all of us, and we normalize that process to help students then find those pathways, develop that perseverance, that grit, that problem solving to really move them forward.

RNelson: [00:16:46] Maggie, as if all of the things you have going on in your life and in your classroom right now isn’t enough. You’ve also been busy writing a book. And I wanted to give you this opportunity to talk to our listeners about that book and what it’s about and what’s your and what when is it going to be out there for people to purchase?

Dr. McHugh: [00:17:03] Well, the book is about project based learning in math classroom. The more I go out with PBLworks in the summer, I consult and help teachers learn project based learning the more I’m faced with. Yeah, but how do you do this in math? How do you do this in math? And how do you really get to a rigorous level in the math classroom? And so I’ve spent many years, including this past year, I was able to go into elementary classrooms, work in my own middle and high school, continue to have conversations across the United States about project based learning in math and sort of refine my ideas through writing this book. I’m publishing with Corwin Press, and I’m right on the precipice of finishing the first complete draft. And the goal is for the book to be out next spring. We’ll see. I mean, like everything, timelines can change. I just talked about getting stuck and unstuck, so we’ll have to see what points I get stuck with. But I’m really excited. I’m really passionate that teachers will connect with the stories in the book. I tell a lot of stories of what’s happening in classrooms, but more so that they’ll make movements towards project based learning. Because there are so many amazing things when you look at STEM project based learning that can elevate your classroom practices. And so even if teachers aren’t fully ready or their district or their curriculum isn’t fully ready to embrace PBL, what movements in terms of bringing in a more authentic connection to the classroom, in terms of bringing in those experts, developing that role of being a manager or a lead learner, helping students, you know, take on more learning and become self-directed learners. What elements there can they highlight so that students eventually could experience a project and feel successful?

RNelson: [00:19:11] Exciting. What an exciting opportunity for you and what a great gift for your colleagues to be able to share your classroom experiences and the thoughts that you have based on your work inside of a project based classroom and bringing steam activity. Is this all of those things coming together? What an opportunity. So, Maggie, I just want to thank you on behalf of everyone here at Real and also our real cast listeners. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights for all of our listeners here in our RE@LCast™.

Dr. McHugh: [00:19:42] Thanks, Randy. It was great chatting with you.

RNelson: [00:19:45] For Real Experiences At Life. I’m Randy Nelson.


Randy Nelson


Randy Nelson is a retired educator of 38 years. He served students as a high school speech, theater, and English teacher. He served colleagues as a director of curriculum and instruction; and, most recently he served the La Crosse, WI school district as its superintendent of schools. He has a strong leadership track record promoting choice and innovation via unique community partnerships. He currently serves RE@L, inc as its Director of Education.