Working with Community Partners for student success – Recap & Notes

How can organizations and educators effectively collaborate for greater student success?

Our December Collab Lab conversations explored the benefits, needs and hurdles of collaboration on student learning experiences. One of the major hurdles for teachers to be able to create truly engaging real world experiences with students is the challenge of involving the appropriate outside expertise at the appropriate time in a student’s project. And if the student is encouraged to determine when that additional expertise would be helpful, things get even more messy. But since we all recognize the value of bringing in that outside perspective, what are some (proven) approaches that teachers could adopt as they venture in the world of student driven learning experiences?

Our December 2021 Collab Lab  (what’s a Collab Lab?) provided an opportunity to explore how we might leverage outside resources and begin establishing relationships to shift the use of ‘mentors’ from a 30 minute ‘song and dance’ to a meaningful semester long mentor relationship that draws out the best in each student?

After taking some time to to explore the participant’s own experience with collaboration, either as an educator or as a community partner, we asked the starting question to some great conversations: How can we create the circumstance for effective collaboration amongst teachers and (supportive individuals at) community organizations?

Common themes highlighted by all groups were:

  1. Communication, including feedback, is a major factor in successful collaboration when it comes to blending learning inside and outside the classroom;
  2. Commitment to the relationship and a plan for ongoing involvement;
  3. Flexibility of participation on a week by week basis (‘school’ is a messy workplace);
  4. Clarity around who is available as a partner and what kind of input and commitment is offered;

Nothing too stunning, and in fact these are core aspects of any successful and sustaining collaboration in the business world and public-private partnerships. What is unique is that these conversations provided an opportunity for educators and community members in non-profit and corporate settings to hear from each other what makes (common) sense to pursue if we are serious about working together for the greater benefit of the students in Milwaukee. What makes this more challenging? The complex environment we’ve created that we call ‘school’.

This list is not claiming to be complete, but it does provide several worthwhile entry points for further exploration if we want to come together in an (STEM) ecosystem to gradually implement the type of learning that we know 21st century students need exposure to if we want to develop the talent our communities are in desperate need of. A great starting point for further exploration of ‘what’s possible’! 


Interested in this type of conversation and being part of creating the shift in education we need?

Join our Collaborative Learning Community ‘inspirEd‘ and become part of creating the future of education.


What should effective partnerships offer teacher, students and partners? 

Here is what the attendees uncovered:

Teachers Partners Students
setting expectations of what’s possible setting expectations of what’s possible continuous learning made possible
involving partners enriches the curriculum enables partner to better meet funder standards getting out of the classroom in a meaningful way
It addresses the need for funds for activities (and PD) offer culturally responsive practices

opportunity for hands on activities, leading to exposure to careers

having a list of partners to pull from exposure for educators and students stimulating creativity and curiosity
Receive feedback from partner receive feedback from educators active engagement in the learning: “I wonder….?”
continuity & longitudinal experiences flexibility to work with school/grade needs

accountability to learning outcomes

sustaining relationships through transitions plan of action for building ongoing relationships more than one-time experiences
willingness to try Connect with the greater community – schools, families open-ended-ness of learning and exploring
pre-planning events open, collaborative communication engagement with people and community
ideas for what to include in teaching through learning experiences who are the partners and when are they available? opportunity to explore the Why?
community involvement in learning experiences clear idea of the goal of partnering with teachers STEM and business careers exposure
sharing experience with ‘being involved’ sharing experience with ‘being involved’ sharing experience with ‘being involved’
exposure to work, careers, etc. exposure needs and challenge of teaching exposure to mentors, work and concepts
  meaningful volunteer opportunities builds hope and ability to dream about their place in the community
  hearing from others what an organization might do for the community  
  talent recruiting  


What is needed to develop an effective collaboration for student success?

There are a lot of good intentions among those early to recognize that collaboration with teachers in real world focused student projects present great benefit and opportunity. But how do we practically get to a place where we can start realizing those benefits?

The attendees have the following suggestions:

Teacher Partner Student
access to partners access to teachers Access to mentors ‘from the real world’
budget available budget for interaction at middle/high school level learning takes time
curriculum alignment available time to volunteer training 
available time to devote experience with mentoring (middle school) students set behavior goals (accountability)
Training (pbl, technology, management) individual commitment to engage for the duration of a student project how to drive their full engagement
management support  administration/upper management support and involvement commitment to learn
transportation and other logistical resources time  co-teaching
commitment to support  alignment to learning standards alignment to learning standards
motivation a coordinators cross curricular / interdisciplinary activities
energy growth mindset growth mindset
set of goals for collaboration patience class visits
a list of ‘what’s possible’    
willingness to take risks    
growth mindset    


What gets in the way of successful collaboration ?

We all can imagine the sorts of things that get in the way of teachers doing their best teaching and community partners staying committed over time. What stood out for me was 

A lack of advocating for the benefits of hands-on learning experiences through stories of student success, both in the school context and in the community partner organization.


Here is the list our conversation participants developed

Teacher Partner Student
understanding of different learning styles understand (student) learning styles learning styles
experience with different teaching strategies funding in support of real world learning and your employee participation in it available time (none!)
funding do you have an overall engagement strategy motivation to learn
time how much time can you afford to dedicate? learning to get and receive feedback
understanding the audience understanding your audience (teachers) and their familiarity level with modern business language/disability
getting feedback giving and getting feedback about what works background knowledge
limited network / contact list matchmaking of relevant expertise need of deeper processing (time to process and follow through)
awareness of available resources and opportunities logistics Reflection
miscommunication miscommunication hierarchy of needs
logistics lack of knowledge  relatability
Creating the stories of ‘why’ one-sided decision making  
unwilling to showcase opportunity willingness to make involvement mutually beneficial  
Professional Development (related to pbl/domain/tech) admin involvement  
expectations for students and partners corporate structure  
  restrictive funds  


Would you like to join these conversations with teachers and community partners?

Consider participating in upcoming Collab Labs. Every 2nd Thursday of the month during the school year. RSVP on our Collab Lab page

Not a member of inspirEd yet? Join the Collaborative Learning Community ‘inspirEd‘ and continue this and other conversations with your peers from across Milwaukee and beyond who are experimenting with and sharing what works for our students.



Thanks again to MSOE’s STEM Center for hosting Collab Labs this season and to our featured participants for the experience and insight they brought to the discussion:

Bev Bryant – Park Naturalist at Wehr Nature Center

Catrina Crane – Director of Workforce & Business Solutions, Menomenee Valley Partners

Elizabeth Taylor – Director of STEM, MSOE

Graciela Hernandez  – Senior Universal Banker with Summit Credit Union

Natalia Hernandez – Outreach Specialist, the Harbor District

Collab Lab 43: Prototyping with K-12 students – Recap & Notes

How should we introduce modern prototyping with K-12 students?

We’ve heard from engineering instructors in both K-12 and higher-ed that students too often focus on “getting the right solution”.  This leaves the students reluctant to experiment with alternative concepts that may not pan out.  This ‘solution focus’ also leads to disengagement from the problem– students seek what they perceive to be the safest path to the “correct” solution, and fail to devote the time and energy to build a deep understanding of the problem at hand. 

Our November 2021 Collab Lab provided an opportunity to explore how we might leverage prototyping and testing to shift students’ focus from perfecting a solution to perfecting their understanding of the problem (and how it might be solved).

Photo of Collab Lab attendees
Teachers and product designers discuss iterative design and prototyping with K-12 students during Learn Deep’s monthly Collab Lab workshop


The Student experience

After exploring the participants’ own experience with when something that didn’t go as expected and the assumptions behind that, we asked “How/where can we give students the opportunity to recognize and test the assumptions behind their design decisions?

Here’s what we heard

What they need

  • Problem solving skills
  • Opportunities for voice/sharing
  • How to work effectively within a team
    • Learning styles
    • Shared responsibilities
  • Space needed
    • Get out of the building
  • Natural connections
    • Real world application
  • To know the “why” behind the challenge
  • A purpose/project that can grow with them
    • they can carry on their work on the issue as they advance in school
  • Multiple Paths
  • Varied timelines
  • Varied instructions
  • Safe environment for hands-on experimentation 
  • Models and examples for inspiration
  • Education on both content and process
  • Comfort with design thinking process
    • Empathy
    • Design
    • Ideate
    • Prototype/Test
    • Iterate
  • The opportunity to test understanding/assumptions throughout that process– in particular at the earliest stage– their understanding of the problem.

When should this happen

Teachers following the school or district’s curriculum to ensure that essential concepts and topics are introduced during the school year. This leaves them little time to deviate from the main path. Knowing this, the teachers identified 4 opportunities to introduce these concepts to students. 

  • Continuous, at every step of learning
  • Integrated into lessons during the school year
  • After school programs
  • During student exchanges

Adjustments we can make

How and where are the opportunities to experiment so you as a teacher can gain experience. Here are the variety of options our attendees developed to could consider trying:

  • Integrate STEAM into all lessons
  • Participation in competitions
    • State science fair, etc.
  • Pride in school/team
  • Invite former students back as mentors
  • Revised grading system
    • Evaluate students on process, re-work, soft skills
  • Student self-assessment
  • Peer reviews
  • Frequent check-ins
  • Evaluation of the process
  • Explain relevance
  • Wonder (genius time)
  • Develop an iterative mindset

For more information…

New Milwaukee initiative

We were delighted to have Katie Schober from STEAM Milwaukee share some of the materials available through the organization’s Lend A Lab Program host a pop-up pre-session.  For more information on that program, reach out to Katie at info@steammilwaukee.com.

Engineering life

Will Gorecki has documented his adventures building a jet suit and has captured a few life lessons on his blog.

Design Thinking

Design thinking came up at several points in the conversation.  The Stanford D School has a handy primer on the subject here. As the session wrapped up Dr. Shalamova stressed that while the design thinking process typically places prototyping and testing after ideation, the most critical assumption to test is that one actually understands what the problem is. This means looking for ways to validate that understanding before students start looking at potential ways a problem might be solved.

Michael Hohl has a great piece on the value of prototyping early and often here.

Help Milwaukee students with their Water Stories project

Our Learn Deep Fellows are currently working on ‘Our Water, Our Stories’ projects with their students.  Theresa Johnson mentioned that as part of the water projects at Wedgewood Middle School (MPS) students in Advanced Science are collecting data about water availability and cleanliness. They hope to understand the issues that impact Milwaukee in regards to water and to develop a sustainable way to improve the issues. The students have produced a survey to understand community member perspective on clean water availability. They invite you and your friends and neighbors to participate by filling out their survey here.


Continue the conversation on inspirEd.

Thanks again to MSOE’s STEM Center for hosting Collab Labs this season and to our featured participants for the experience and insight they brought to the discussion:

Ian Corrao, Michael Klug, Brandon Bakken — Northwestern Mutual

Will Gorecki— Milwaukee Tool

Dr. Nadya Shalamova— MSOE

Collab Lab 42: Recap & Notes

We kicked off our 6th season of Collab Labs on last week with a return to in-person sessions, this year at MSOE’s We Energies STEM Center. The session provided an opportunity to share a bit more about the water projects developed by our Learn Deep Fellows and hear from them how things are progressing as they implement those projects with their students. The first project focuses on student interviews about what “clean water” means to individuals work on water related issues, systems, technology, or infrastructure.  To support that work our discussion focused on interviews — what we want students to get out of them, and what both students and interviewees need to make that a productive experience.

What do we want students to get out of interviews?

Our discussion started with the question “What we want students to get out of interviews with adults in the community?”  Across the four discussion groups several key themes emerged:

  • Develop interview skills and techniques
    • Learn how to be an effective listener
    • Practice, research, prepare
    • Create appropriate questions and be able to ask follow up questions based on the conversation
    • Record responses, building conversation
    • Interview skills (asking questions, recording responses, building conversation, etc.)
    • Research skills (asking questions, citing sources, etc.)
  • Understand something more about the person they are interviewing & where they are coming from
    • We want them to be inspired by our stories
    • Exposure to different life stories & histories
    • Recognition that learning is ongoing
  • Exposure to different careers
    • They will become knowledgeable about various career paths
    • How their current learning experience connects to life after K-12
    • They can discover the relevance of the topic to their lives
  • Understand something more about the topic at hand
    • Understand the cultural significance of water
    • Real life integration & connection
    • Learn about different careers (involving water in this case)
    • Students gain knowledge about water, climate change, global warming and how they are interconnected
    • Students will understand the value of freshwater and civic responsibility
    • Students will learn 21st century skills
    • Students will gain knowledge about water politics, exercise their citizenship and take action

Cutting across all of these ideas is a goal articulated by one of the groups– the chance to expose students to what they might not know, whether that is career opportunities, uses of water, or the path that an interviewee took to the interesting work they do today.

What do students need?

Our discussion groups found broad agreement on what students need to make effective use of interviews

  • Preparation
    • Know who they are interviewing
    • Context – who am I interviewing
    • Research the interviewee/topic of discussion
    • Background knowledge of the interview subject/their work/expertise
    • Time to think about and prepare questions in advance
    • Comfort and awareness of space
  • Practice
    • Low stakes practice opportunities
    • How to ask authentic questions
    • How to listen with intent
    • Restating/clarifying
    • With the technology they will use to conduct the interview
    • Propriety
    • Communication skills
    • Drafting interview questions
    • How to check for understanding
      • Scaffold
      • Clarify both ways
  • Feedback for both practice and live interview sessions
    • Peers
    • Interview subjects (perhaps via follow-up survey)
  • Interview opportunities that work for students/interviewees — e.g. in person, or virtual

What do interviewees need?

The key concern heard across groups is that interviewees recognize who they are speaking with:

  • Understand the age of the kids (their level of knowledge and how to talk with them)
  • Understand the purpose of the interviews
  • Learning goals/needs of students

Other needs include:

  • Be prepared to ask the students questions
  • What they should include (their story/path)
  • Advance knowledge of questions that will be asked during the interview
  • The opportunity for interviewees to ask follow up questions/provide their feedback.


Water Interviews

As our Learn Deep Fellows kick off their first project this fall, we’re recruiting candidates who can meet in person or on-line for an interview with one of the teams of students from MPS and Glendale/River Hills middle schools involved in the effort.  Students participating in the project will explore what “clean” means to those who use or value water for specific purposes. This could include anyone concerned or excited about water quality, access, or technology, green infrastructure, urban agriculture, the health of the Great Lakes or Milwaukee watersheds, or other water issues.

For students, its a chance to understand both how water is used across the community, as well as the broad range of careers and interests that intersect with water access, use, delivery, and treatment. From the interviews collected, students will share stories of what clean water means to Milwaukeeans.

If you’d like to participate as an interview candidate, or know someone who make a good one, we’re collecting contact info and availability in a Google form here: https://bit.ly/LDFwaterInterviews


Collab Labs Return for Season Six!

Season six of our Collab Lab Series kicks off on October 14th. This year we’ll be back in-person at a new location– MSOE’s STEM Center.  The center was host to our STEM Studio sessions with the Learn Deep Fellows in August. The ample whiteboard space and standing tables of the Center’s Lab work well for collaborative efforts, and on-street parking should be much simpler.

Collab Lab 42, our first session of the season will focus on the series of water related projects the Learn Deep Fellows developed over the course of the STEM Studio sessions that they will run over the course of the 2021-22 school year.  Subsequent sessions will provide further occasions to explore with the Fellows the challenges and opportunities that come with engaging students in hands-on collaborative work focused on real-world challenges.

November – Prototyping/testing ideas
December – Working with community partners
February – Student experience
March – Connecting projects across grade levels
April – Fellows experience (what have we learned/how do we want to adjust)
May – Welcome Cohort II

Collab Labs will run from 5:30 to 8:00 pm on the 2nd Thursday of each month from October to May, with the exception of January.  They are free to attend, but space is limited, so we’ll ask you to register ahead of time.

We’ll be following MSOE’s Covid protocols for on campus meetings. At this point, that includes masks for all attendees, regardless of vaccination status.  As that policy changes, we’ll provide updated information in the details for each session.







Learn Deep Fellows – Water Projects

Our Learn Deep Fellows wrapped up the STEM Studio workshop on Friday with a presentation and discussion of their projects to colleagues and program partners.  The projects developed over the course of the past two weeks focus on water, but are aimed at the much larger goals the fellows have for their students– that they can see a broad range of career possibilities, that they can see themselves as creators and that they think of themselves as someone who can make a difference in their community.  Those three goals led to a sequence of three projects which flow together over the course of the school year.

Our Water Our Stories

Students will talk with each other, people in their lives, and others in the broader community involved in the provision or use of water and tell the stories of what clean water means to our community.

Our Water, Our Design

Students will collaborate to design and build a prototype or model of a device to test water for qualities they care about.

Our Water, Our Community

Students will identify a location in their community, how it uses or is impacted by water, the issues posed by the current systems, and propose an equitable, sustainable solution.


What’s Next?

Across the arc of the three projects, Fellows identified points in each project where students can collaborate with and support the work of their peers at other schools. While the timing will vary by school, Fellows will get students involved in the first project come October.  We’ll be working to build up pool of interview candidates that represent a broad range of perspectives on water and how it is used. If you’d like to participate as an interviewee, we have a sign up form for you here: https://bit.ly/LDFwaterInterviews

STEM Studio kicks off at MSOE

The STEM Studio sessions for our Learn Deep Fellows kicked off today at MSOE.  Over this week and next our Fellows will work together with input and support from community partners to design of real-word challenges focused on water.  Today’s work began with a focus on goals Fellows have for the program.  Through repeated cycles of asking “Why?” we saw those goals grow from tactical hopes for the skills students or teachers might development to visions our Fellows have for their students — that they can see themselves as creators, citizens, individuals who can make a difference in their community. We’ll use those much loftier goals drive the vision for projects knowing that we can hit the initial, tactical ambitions along the way.

We are grateful to MSOE’s We Energies STEM Center for hosting us over the next two weeks and look forward to covering any available surface with ideas and plans to engage students over the coming school year.

Welcome the first cohort of Learn Deep Fellows!

We’re excited to announce our inaugural cohort of Learn Deep Fellows! Both the participating teachers and their schools reflect the energy, passion and diversity that is Milwaukee. We look forward to learning with and from these teachers how to design Learning Experiences for every student in Milwaukee. They will be supported in their work by a great group of community partners from higher-ed, industry, and non-profits. That work kicks off in a couple of weeks with a workshop to surface ideas for innovative and challenging collaborative projects focused on water.

With a drum roll, please welcome:

Andrew S. Douglas Middle School (MPS)

  • Michelle Young – 6th, 7th, 8th grade; GE Innovation Lab
  • Stanley Levells – 7th & 8th grade Math

Audubon Technology & Communication Middle School (MPS)

  • Adrian Wade – 6th, 7th, 8th grade; GE Innovation Lab Instructor (6 – 12 schoolwide)
  • Amanda Glunz – Grade 8, 9-12 Computer Science

Glen Hills Middle School (Glendale/Riverhills)

  • Lalitha Murali – 6th 7th, 8th grade Enrichment classes
  • Jennifer Clark – 8th grade; Science and Green Team
  • Sarah Lapp – 6th grade Science
  • Chloe Stuesser – 7th grade Science

Hayes Bilingual (MPS)

  • Miguel Ramirez – 6th 7th, 8th grade; GE Innovation Lab

Rufus King International Middle School (MPS)

  • Susan Kridler – 7th grade Science/PLTW; GE Innovation Lab
  • Connor Morris – 7th grade Math

Wedgewood Park International Baccalaureate (MPS)

  • Elkin Hernandez – 6th 7th, 8th grade STEM
  • Theresa Johnson – 6th 7th, 8th grade PLTW and Computer Science
  • Jessica Buckley – 6th 7th, 8th grade Advanced Science/Social Studies/Science

Collab Lab 36: Recap & Notes

Last Week’s Collab Lab gave us a chance to share some updates on two projects we have running with students and the impacts we’ve see running those in a distance learning environment. That set up a longer conversation about what educators need as they look to engage their students in a real-world challenge.

Several of the concerns we talked through were issues prior to the pandemic:

  • How can I connect and work with local professionals who can offer domain expertise?
  • How can I figure out who I need to know in Milwaukee (beyond domain experts) to execute the project?
  • How do I get students to the point of figuring out what they want to explore?
  • How do I assemble a real audience for students to present to?
  • How do I get students to recognize that their teacher is not the audience?
  • How do I give students the experience of doing work in the real world?

Distance learning has imposed new concerns in taking on new challenges. Chief among these is gaining student engagement, but educators also struggle as the find effective ways to use distance learning technology. That this is so new to educators means that everyone is trying to figure things out at the same time. There is no colleague or expert to turn to for a definitive answer.

This, and the conversations that continued after we wrapped up the formal discussion, suggests to us that the key need for educators who want to engage their students in real-world work, particularly in a time of distance learning, is a network of colleagues who can offer support, ideas, and connections.

Collab Lab 35: Recap & Notes

We kicked off our 5th season of Collab Labs on Zoom last week with a discussion focused on what educators were running into in the early weeks of the school year. We started the conversation by asking about what folks are seeing themselves or hearing from other educators:

  • Stakeholder involvement pushes teachers and school leadership to learn fast
  • When we lose control, we latch on to what we can control, e.. following the rules
  • Star testing on Chromebooks without reliable internet/devices does not work
  • If students aren’t in synchronous session they miss out
  • How do you reach the students who don’t come back to engage? Students feel they are so far behind that they can’t catch up.
  • teachers are overwhelmed, too many subjects to go deep, how do you check for understanding?
  • One week before start of school, we were told we will be using PBL with our students.
  • Lack of student perseverance – checking out when it gets to be too difficult
  • how do you replicate observation in the classroom?
  • fear of making mistakes?
  • students go to community centers during the day– how do they help kids when kids have so much work to do. The partners need to understand what is useful to learning.
  • frustrated trying to get content across, frustrated with attendance. Cuts across city & suburban districts.
  • kids at same grade level show up at same daycare, all with different assignments.

That prompted some further discussion around getting above a tactical level…

  • we’re still trying to deliver curriculum rather than learning.
  • Rethink what is accountability?
  • how to use tech tools to level the playing field and create empathy among students?
  • how to use synchronous and a-synchronous teaching in a structured way.

…and what teachers/schools need to make this work:

  • creating ‘digital citizen culture’ for using technology to learn together
  • Why is presence needed for learning?
  • How do we use tools strategically
  • How does a person demonstrate learning?
  • How does a person demonstrate learning?
  • Lots of time up front how to use tools of virtual platform.

We wrapped up with the recognition that post Covid, schools will end up somewhere new:

  • Systems have been cobbled together overtime. Now we are starting fresh. Can we think about how we ought to fix this?
  • Can we create a new framework for learning experiences that gives students a choice of opportunities to pursue?