Building Community and a Joy for Math

Math = A Traumatic Experience.

It’s almost universal and it stands in the way of our current generation navigating elementary, middle and high school with a different experience regarding math.

Parents who have a negative experience with math are less likely to engage with their student children about homework, encourage them to attend school, etc.

So this school year, Learn Deep is conducting a pilot, in coordination with Carmen Schools of Science and Technology’s Stellar Elementary, faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Math department and our friend Bernie Traversari, with a small seed grant from the Wisconsin After School Network to experiment with how we might provide opportunities for parents to modify their perception of math.

Our experiment Tuesday night: arrange for parents and their children to spend time together in discourse, while attempting to solve math-based puzzles in an after school setting. Since many parents are non-English speaking, we provided UWM student support for translation when needed.

The overall sentiment at the end of the evening: I enjoyed working on solving the challenges together, I will definitely be back for the next math evening, I wish we had math in this way when I went to school x years ago.

Are you a school district interested in addressing parent math trauma as a way to enable parent involvement in the learning process? Follow our story as we host 2 more Math Events this school year.

Thanks to Dean Joshua MackKevin McLeodGabriella PinterDanny McCormick


Collab Lab 57: Recap & Notes

Following the Hero’s Journey theme of Collab Labs this season, our November session explored stepping out of the known world and dealing with uncertainty. Our discussion began with an exploration of the uncertainty participating teachers and students already deal with in school.  That set some context for the next round of conversations focused on fears/worries about engaging students in open-ended challenges.  We wrapped up the discussion with an inventory of strategies and practices teachers, students, and attendees from outside of K-12 have seen or use to manage uncertainty around projects — whether that is where the project will lead or how the team will get there.

This week we pulled those factors into a system map, connecting elements based on what we heard in the discussions. What’s striking, though not unexpected, is the importance of trust and open communication in all of this. It is what allows both teachers and students to take some risks, try something new, and be willing to accept and learn from efforts that don’t work out as hoped. 

You can view the system map here, and we welcome your thoughts and input on what else we might include, or how we might better repent the dynamics at play. Those of you who have explored the map produced from last seasons sessions focused on feelings of safety and affirmation at school, will recognize a number of familiar elements. Going forward, we’ll be looking at how we can merge or otherwise use these maps and what we hear in upcoming Collab Labs to paint a more complete picture of the forces at play when we look to offer students the hands-on community-engaged learning experiences they deserve.

Next up on our Hero’s Journey, we meet the mentors and helpers as we explore what it takes to support authentic work.  Join us on December 14th for Collab Lab 58.

Thanks again to our Featured Participants:

Thanks also to MSOE’s STEM Center for hosting the Collab Lab Series, as well as the students from Pathways High School and Bradley Tech who joined in person/on Zoom.


Love The Problem

STEM Forward’s annual sySTEMnow conference brings K-12 educators together with folks from higher-ed, industry, and nonprofits that have an interest in advancing STEM Education.  With such a diverse group in attendance, we wanted to create an opportunity for students to share not what they have completed, but the problems they are working on as part of a longer running project– a chance for them to articulate the problem the are focused on and get input and feedback from a broad range of perspectives.  

Our session at the conference last week gave four teams of students the chance to do just that, with two rounds of feedback followed by a general discussion to pull out overarching themes, advice, and commendations for the participating students and their teachers. Participating teams included:

  • St. Francis High School -Independent Study Robotics Cohort
  • Glen Hills Middle School -Future City
  • Golda Meir Middle School -Fire App
  • JCI / Elmbrook Schools -FIRST Robotics

After our session students had a chance to share their work with more attendees as part of the Generation STEM showcase. A big thanks to Milwaukee Succeeds for sponsoring the session!

St. Francis High School – Independent Study Robotics Cohort
Glen Hills Middle School – Future City
JCI / Elmbrook Schools – FIRST Robotics
Golda Meir Middle School – Fire App Team

Collab Lab 56: Recap & Notes

For our 8th season of Collab Labs, we’re exploring how the lens of the Hero’s Journey can inform how we approach community-engaged project based learning, and what more we can offer students when we do so. Over the course of the 2023-24 season, each of our Collab Labs will focus on a different phase of the Hero’s Journey. We kicked things off last week with Collab Lab 56, a session focused on the call to adventure.

How do we motivate our students to take the first couple of steps on their own learning journey? How do we channel the enthusiasm of some students who clearly identify with a topic and want to set off in pursuit of the prize, bypassing what we as educators believe are essential knowledge and skills in the order we believe these ought to be learned?

What makes a call compelling for students?

We began our discussion with the question, “What makes a call compelling to students?” As attendees explored the conditions for getting students engaged in a big challenge they noted:

  • Authenticity of subject, intrinsic motivation
  • A teacher’s excitement & confidence
  • Proximal development
  • Involvement in ‘the process’
  • Confidence in the person leading the process >> proper guidance and support, constant work on trust and relationships
  • Align with student’s experience and expertise, attitudes and aptitudes (don’t set the student up for failure)
  • Culturally responsive and relevant
  • The end result will be tangible
  • (Appropriate) level of autonomy & power to choose the path that seems most interesting or rewarding

Additionally, much relies on (role modeling) a certain mindset:

  • Overcoming competing forces that may hold someone back
  • Failure is an opportunity to learn. “A bump in the road is not the road itself”

What has your experience been with creating compelling ‘call to adventure’ for your students?

What do educators and students need to commit to the journey?

With that inventory in place, we moved to a discussion of what needs to be in place for students (and their teachers) to commit to the journey.
On the student side, that includes:

  • Trusting relationships, respect, sense of belonging
  • Build an iterative experience that gets progressively more challenging
  • Create oral/written feedback opportunities that encourage engagement
  • Defined roles based on prior experience
  • Adjust composition of the learning space to reflect the work
  • Normalizing uncertainty
  • Being able to see your peers as resources
  • Learning how to co-create
  • Know and/or find yourself as a learner (EQ)
  • Develop understanding of what ‘commit’ means

Barriers for students fully participating in these challenges include:

  • Housing instability
  • Health issues, Food availability
  • May exist outside the school environment >> teacher less aware
  • Overall stability inside & outside the learning environment

For educators, the list includes:

  • Bring (or gain) personal experience with the journey you’re asking students to take on.
  • Professional development on relevant concepts, such as PBL, collaboration, etc., by experts >> those actually doing this work, from a ‘learner first’ perspective >> practical, hands on
  • Best practices that are share across schools and districts
  • A framework for designing and managing, similar to ‘design thinking’
  • Sustainable partnerships to 1) support student projects and 2) share resources
  • (how do you) develop community support for a different approach to learning
  • (time and energy to) Pursue grants to help support ‘extra’: field experiences, resources, PD, etc.
  • Admin support for taking risks with experiments.

If you are a teacher, how are you navigating the hurdles to offering student driven inquiry projects to your students?

In the discussion of barriers for students, several participants brought up a recent piece in the New York Times that noted that economic stability and integration of families, as well as higher levels of teacher pay in the US Defense Department’s schools were among key factors that allow those schools to outperform public school systems. You can find the article here. One caveat noted in the discussion– the focus of these schools is on a standardized curriculum with traditional models of instruction.

A special thanks for our featured guest, Andi Gomoll from Gomoll Research & Design who brought her extensive experience with understanding what motivates and engages users (customers) to the conversation. And, as always, we’re appreciative of MSOE for letting us make use of the NM Lab in the WE Energies STEM Center every month.

Up Next

Collab Lab 57: Dealing with Uncertainty Thursday November 9th, 5:30 to 8:30 pm at MSOE’s STEM Center

Actively using some form of PBL with your students and looking for ideas or encouragement from others? Consider joining your peers in the inspirED Community.

Challenge Feedback Opportunity for Students

Between science and STEM fairs, project reviews, and open houses, students have lots of opportunities to show off their solutions and designs. Those solutions will never be as good as they can be if students don’t love and deeply understand the problem they are trying to solve. Yes. it’s a great experience to present completed work. But at an event full of STEM professionals, educators, and advocates wouldn’t it be useful if students could talk through their ideas and get feedback on their approach while they are still trying to understand the problem?

Love the Problem

As part of this year’s sySTEMnow conference, Learn Deep is hosting a breakout session that will give teams of students the opportunity to talk with participants about the challenge they are working on, the assumptions they need to validate, and how they plan to do so. We’ll ask participants to probe your students’ understanding of the problem they want to solve, suggest how others have may have looked at it, and point them to resources or ideas that can help solidify their approach. We don’t want to see ideas for a solution or a solution in search of a problem. We want to see a love for the problem. That’s where great solutions will come from.

Do you have students working on something big that they care deeply about?

We’ll select up to 8 teams to join us for our break-out session at the conference. Students will share their thinking on the challenge they are exploring. We’ll rotate attendees around the room over the course of the session, so each team will have the chance to talk with at least three groups of STEM professionals. This is a great opportunity for your students to ask questions of ‘real’ experts as they validate the challenge they have selected to work on. Help your students with submission of their proposal using this form.

Selection Process

This year’s conference takes place on Wednesday, November 1, 2023. If you’d like your students to participate in this session please complete the proposal sign up form by October 1, 2023. We look to provide balance in the types of projects, ages of the students, variety of schools/organizations. We will review all submissions and confirm if your group was selected on or before October 9, 2023.

Participants in this session will get free admission to the conference, including an invitation to lunch!

Date: Wednesday, November 1, 2023
Session Time: 9:30 – 10:20am
Location: sySTEMnow Conference @ Italian Community Center



Collab Labs Return

We’ll be back at MSOE’s STEM Center on Thursday October 12th to kick off our 8th season of Collab Labs. If you’ve been looking for an opportunity build connections with individuals who share your passion to do more for students, exchange ideas with folks inside and outside of K-12, and explore opportunities to collaborate, this is the place to do so. If you are a student that would like to see your school value all that you can bring, take on real challenges, and build connections to the broader community, this is your place to.  Building off our experience with students in our April and May Collab Labs, we’re now extending a formal invite to middle and high school students who want to be part of the conversation.

Our discussion topic for October is Heeding the Call of the Student — where do we hear that want to go, how can create opportunities for their concerns and passions to drive a richer exploration of what you had hoped to cover anyway?  Collab Labs run 5:30 to 8:30 pm on the 2nd Thursday of each month October through May, except for January. There is no cost to attend, and beyond great people and great conversations, we provide food and drinks.  We look forward to seeing you there. 



Arch 302 Student Presentations

Lorianne Flaherty,  Valentina Romero-Moran, Kaylee Bertrand concept from their proposal Auer Avenue School

This spring our collaboration with UWM’s School of Architecture & Urban Planning (SARUP) and Center for Student Experience and Talent placed 128 architecture students in service learning roles in 15 Milwaukee and area schools.  These students were enrolled in Arch 302, Architecture and Human Behavior, and the focus of their course work was the design of learning spaces. Over the course of the semester, each UWM student provided 20 hours of support to a classroom teacher, most often working directly with students. This provided a unique way to get a sense of both how the learning spaces they were in functioned, and view of what the school experience is like for both teachers and students.

UWM students used their service learning experience to identify spaces that could better support students and teachers. Working in teams of 2 to 4, the UWM students spent additional time in the school to interview students, teachers, and staff about the spaces they used. From that, the teams developed design proposals to address issues of concern or opportunities to tailor the space to better meet the needs of users. That work was shared in a public presentation at SARUP, and with each participating school.

The bigger story here is the exposure this created for the School of Architecture. Across the 15 schools, some 2,500 K12 students had regular opportunities to interact with UWM Architecture students, learn who they are as individuals and what motivates their work.  This is the broad end of a funnel to develop and recruit talent not just for UWM, but for the industry. Given the demographics of the schools involved, where 3/4 of the students are non-white and 2/3 economically disadvantaged, it’s also a funnel aimed at groups that are underrepresented in the field.

Given the overwhelming positive response from both UWM students and the schools they served, we’ll continue the collaboration over the coming school year with some expanded opportunities for participating schools. As part of our STEM Studio Workshops this summer, we’ll be working with K-12 educators, UWM, and industry partners to develop a design challenge for middle and high school students focused on space within their school. Arch 302 students will be available in the spring semester to serve as near peer mentors for K-12 students engaged in that work. We’ll be lining up additional support and on-campus experiences to support the work of students and teachers participating in the project.



Collab Lab 55: Recap & Notes

How does mental health manifest itself in k12education? How is it compromised and what are the levers we may use to positively impact the learning culture for our students (and teachers etc.)

May is Mental Health Month.

It felt appropriate to continue the work our #CollabLab54 attendees had begun with a follow up conversation. So last Thursday, we hosted Collab Lab 55 to create a safe space for conversations about the factors that influences mental health negatively/positively for students, teachers and others, such as trust, empathy in education, difficult conversations etc..

Building on our first conversation in April, we gave our attendees a first draft of a model map of factors we collected together. Attendees at each table reviewed this map for accuracy and completeness using their particular perspective. They could focus on a specific area, review it as a particular stakeholder, etc. This was truly a ‘kitchen table conversation’ where people from different backgrounds, ages and experiences engaged in open dialog about what they experience every day. Together we identified how many of these factors are connected (but differently for teachers and students) and what we might do to break through the negative cycle many are experiencing.

You can find our updated mapping here

Where might this lead?
– Over the coming months, we’d like to see additional conversations taking place with people representing all stakeholders at the table
– We’re going to make our STEM Studio time available over the summer for teachers (and students) to participate in a student project design lab.
– we’d like see a project develop to add stories from students, teachers, parents to the map as illustrations of when culture ‘works’ to affirm students and build a positive culture of respect and collaboration in learning.

There are many more opportunities that present themselves from having a comprehensive mapping like this. We’ll be exploring those over the coming months. Curious about the map that’s is under development? Have an idea you’d like to explore to address youth mental health in education?

Since this was our final official Collab Lab of the 2022-23 school year, We want to thank Milwaukee School of Engineering for offering the use of the STEM Center this year (and again in the coming school year!), as well as Northwestern Mutual for sponsoring ‘our lab room’ in the STEM Center.

The Collab Lab formula keeps getting better every season. We’re grateful for all of our attendees who came out for one of the Thursday evening sessions. We look forward to seeing many of you again next season and can’t wait to hear what cool learning you are offering your students as a result of the conversations you’ve had.

Have a great summer!

Collab Lab 54: Recap & Notes

Collab Lab 54 explored issues around youth mental health and violence. One of our largest groups to date, which included middle and high school student leaders, focused on factors that impact the degree to which students and teachers feel safe and affirmed at school.  Matt Nink and Vanessa Rodriguez from SKY Schools kicked things off for us with a mindfulness exercise, after which we dove into the discussion.

The output of those conservations was a long list of interrelated factors, and some initial thoughts on how those influence each other. We pulled those factors into the first draft of a system map. If you’re not familiar with a system map, each of the factors identified in the Collab Lab is represented as a node. Solid arrows connecting two nodes indicate that an increase in the factor represented by the first node leads to an increase in the factor represented by the second node. A dashed line indicates a negative relationship between nodes. 

As an example, zooming in on one area of the map, we indicate that Students’ feeling of affirmation are driven by level of student voice and leadership, and in turn an increase in the degree to which students feel affirmed at school leads to higher levels of respect for teachers and greater levels of engagement. Conversely, we suspect that an increase in the frequency of policing interventions will lead to a decrease in students’ feeling of affirmation.

We invite you to explore the map in greater detail here. Again, this is a first draft, we haven’t been able to connect all of the factors raised in the session, so we know we are either missing nodes, or don’t understand how those do connect. It’s also likely that the connections we show between nodes might be off, and the phrasing used for some of the factors is unclear. Your feedback and ideas are more than welcome. Let us know what you see, or join us for Collab Lab 55 on May 11th, where we’ll use the discussion to get to an improved version, identify nodes where community partners are already focused, where some of the projects we’re looking at for the 2023-24 intersect and how this mapping might inform how we approach those.

A special thanks to Kyle Ashley, Lawrence Battle, Nate Deans, Clintel Hasan, Maria Hamidu, and Sharlen Moore who got us started on this path, helped us plan the session, and recruit participants.  A big thanks to the students from Glen Hills Middle School, Pathways and Reagan High Schools, and Youth Forward MKE sharing your voices and experience, and keeping the discussion focused on issues that matter most to youth!

Collab Lab 51: Recap and Notes

Collab Lab 51 attendees explored the hopes and fears attendees commonly express having when it comes to letting students drive the issues that are the focus of their learning. 

What do we hope for when we offer students the opportunity to pursue issues they are passionate about?

What fears might hold us back from doing so? 


Across the discussion groups we heard a number of common themes among the hopes that were expressed — that students feel heard, they are motivated and engaged in work that is meaningful to them, they have the opportunity to discover what it is that they do care about, that the work allows them to build the skills, confidence, and empathy to take on more complex challenges. 

We also heard hopes for what that process could look like — that students have a chance to iterate and learn from missteps along the way, that we are able to design and support project based learning experience effectively, with scaffolding in place that allows students to take on the work, that teachers are equipped and supported as they do this work with students.  The overarching paradigm for participants is that student driven issues would drive the process of project based learning: allowing students to discover their passions and to let those passions drive their education.


Moving forward to create opportunities for student driven work won’t happen if we don’t recognize and address the fears that hold us back as teachers. 

Chief among those is that a lack of structure on an open ended project could lead to chaos, with some students left behind. Our participants also worry school or district leadership won’t recognize what’s going on in the classroom as productive learning, that it deviates from curriculum, that we won’t hit standards, and don’t have the right tools to evaluate student learning progress. Other fears center on the challenges we might offer students — what if the topic fails to engage them, we don’t have the time or support to pull it off, or are blocked by competing curriculum demands.

Participants also noted fears students themselves might have — how they will know if they are making progress, that they won’t get “the right answer”, that it feels weird to take on work that is by nature open-ended.

Next Steps

Our final question of the evening focused on what one might do in the next 30 days to push things forward.  For our participants, the key to moving forward is building the support to take some risks and align resources that can both support and inspire students in their work. That’s the hard work that teachers find difficult to navigate individually. 

The inspirEd Community recently established a Collab Lab group to explore these and other topics in a community setting. Consider joining the Community if this sounds like something that could help you in your teaching. 


We are especially grateful to our featured participants for the experience and insight they brought to the discussion:

  • Leslie Fee – Talent Manager – Development, J.W. Speaker
  • Clintel Hasan – Strategic Initiatives Manager, Milwaukee Succeeds, GMF
  • Maria Hamidu – High School Success Project Coordinator, Milwaukee Succeeds, GMF
  • Adam Hengel – Coordinator of Instructional Services, West Allis/West Milwaukee School District
  • Chad Johnson – CEO and Founder of Tip-a-Script, Milwaukee

Thanks again to MSOE’s STEM Center for hosting our Collab Lab series this season.

2023-24 Collab Labs

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