Collab Lab 59: Recap & Notes

After a break in January, our Collab Lab Series resumed last night with a session focused on dealing with setbacks and recognizing wins.


Began the discussion with an inventory of the challenges and setbacks students face when they work together on open ended projects.  These challenges primarily revolve around:


  • Focus on grades
  • Belief that their voice won’t matter
  • Opposing wants — freedom vs control
  • Expectations are unclear

An ability to deal with uncertainty

  • Lack of confidence
  • Being open to the idea that there is no one right answer 
  • Aversion to risk/failure

Communication & collaboration

  • Inability for team members to agree on a common approach
  • Ability to deal with personality conflicts within a team
  • Ability to give and receive constructive criticism
  • Lack of accountability
  • Lack of feedback

Project structure

  • Project lacks structure that would allow students to make progress
  • Space/time to iterate
  • Access to resources necessary to effectively take on the challenge


  • Ability to arrive at a good definition/understanding of the problem at hand
  • Time management
  • Need for higher level thinking skills


In our second round, our discussion shifted to look at strategies to help students address each of these challenges.


  • Set clear expectations with examples
  • Set up an environment with clear expectations for communication, collaboration, willingness to learn from things that did not go as expected.

Dealing with uncertainty

  • Students have repeated opportunities to immerse themselves in the challenge and circle back with their teacher for input and guidance
  • Acknowledge big feelings to help understand that “failure” is not personal

Communication & collaboration

  • Understand the context of students life beyond school and what they may need to work effectively with peers
  • Small, frequent check-ins
  • Create time/space for purposeful reflection

Project Structure

  • Students are given a clear view of the process they will follow to arrive at a solution even if they can’t yet see where it might lead
  • Decompose challenge into smaller pieces
  • Structure challenges students to stretch at each step of the process, but those steps are within reach, and build on each other
  • Connect students with what they need when
  • Repeated opportunities to practice and develop skills within the context of the project


  • Both students and teachers are equipped with the skills they need/supported in their development of those skills
  • Skills required build on those already acquired

A Simple Tool

With this inventory in hand, we recounted the story of the Number Talks Quick Refence Card that was developed out of a project we did with K-12 teachers and UWM Math faculty.  That project supported teams of teachers who wanted to establish Number Talks as a regular practice in their elementary school classrooms. Though teachers could clearly see the value of the practice, it was something new, so they wanted something that could rely on to help keep them on the right path.  One of the teachers suggested a small card of reminders that should could hold and glance down at while working with students.  The card we developed includes three sections: Talk Moves (strategies), Probes (questions to ask), and Pats on the Back (signs that things are working). 

As the final exercise of the night, we asked each of our discussion groups to develop their own Quick Reference Cards for open ended projects.  Here’s what they came up with:

Group 1


  • Give yourself time
  • Accept “I don’t know”
  • Build personal connections
  • You’ve got this
  • Accept congratulations


  • Tell me more…
  • How might we…?

Pats on the Back

  • I was afraid to try this but I did anyway

  Group 2


  • Yes, and?
  • Build community
  • Set Goals
  • Normalize failure


  • What did we learn?
  • What is your why?
  • What makes you uncomfortable?
  • What do you bring to the team?
  • How might we…?

Pats on the Back

  • Unprompted reflection

Group 3


  • Are students in the right groups?
  • What does this student need?
  • How is my relationship with this student?


  • How will you define success?

Pats on the Back

  • Students are engaged
  • Students are gaining essential skills
  • Students give and receive feedback
  • Students get the feedback they need
  • Students move from “I” to “we”

Thanks again to our Featured Participants:

  • PJ Dever — Executive Director for Playworks in Wisconsin
  • Lana M. Minshew — Assistant Professor, Director of the Human-Centered Design Lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin
  • Nina Johnston — Program Manager of the Human-Centered Design Lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin

A big thanks also goes out to Anthony, Audrey, Connor, Olivia, & Madeline, Architecture students at UWM. They are joining us this semester for Collab Labs and other sessions we run at the STEM Center as part of service learning field experience for Arch 302. In another example of 1 + 1 = 3, The students gain a field experience as they look at the design of learning spaces (in this case the STEM Center), we get help setting things up and cleaning up after each session, and our Collab Lab participants get the perspective of 5 individuals not far removed from K-12 who find themselves navigating open-ended, collaborative, community-engaged projects.

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.

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.


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.

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. 



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 53 Recap & Notes

What if students could see their work and stories impact the community?

Collab Lab 53 attendees explored new or unexplored ways in which educators might enable students to share their voice and practice advocating for a cause they believe in. They explored:

  • What experience(s) can we offer to give students a story worth telling?
  • What do students need from those experiences to have a story worth telling?
  • What are the assets we can draw upon to help students tell effective stories/share their work?

Experiences we can give

We surfaced 4 major themes as we introduced examples of impressionable storytelling to each other at our tables

Creating an inventory of experiences
Our attendees this evening first discussed an often overlooked aspect of storytelling: In order to be able to tell a story with conviction, passion etc. you need to have experienced it or something like it. How do you create space in your approach to teaching to start building that inventory of experiences? What experiences should you prioritize on, because they are new or unique and not part of the reference context that students bring to your classroom?

Discovery and Identity
Many teachers may have students in their groups that do have a lot of personal experience with certain issues, such as food insecurity or housing instability. Those experiences have certainly contributed to identity development of the individual student. That offers the opportunity to explore what that identity is and how the identity of the narrator influences the telling of the story. What are the biases that the storyteller may bring with her that may present a certain perspective. How do I as a teacher create opportunities to explore identity and bias in story telling and enable students to practice?

Using animals as proxy to tell the story
What would happen to the strength, color, impact of the story one narrates if we put ourselves in the place of an animal proxy? Will the story become more interesting to our audience because we take the human identity out of the equation? How can we as teachers encourage students to step outside their identity and tell the story from a (neutral) point of view?

Talking WITH the person, not ABOUT the person
And lastly, we can make our story more engaging and impactful if we engage our audience in the process. That means learning how to consider the audience, the perspectives that the individuals in that audience bring to the room, and how we can be respectful towards them while we also have a position that may differ from theirs, at least at the start of the story.

What students need

Before we get to the technicalities of developing a great story, we need to understand what many of our students need in order to get to a place where they feel safe and trusted enough to want to explore that. Many have been ‘burned’ by people in their environment (including sometimes teachers) in their interactions to the extent that they are confused and distrusting of intentions. Layer on top of that the many voices that are generated through access to technology, and by technology (Bots, AI, etc.)

If we want to create space for student practice in storytelling and advocating for their interest (or that of their community or group), how do we as teachers recognize our students’ needs? How do we create our own space to learn and practice, knowing that the pacing guide dictates what we should be teaching, when?

  • Authenticity of exposure
  • Trust
  • Safety – safe spaces
  • Passion for an issue – connection to an interest, their world
  • Opportunity and time to reflect


All humans have a need to share through storytelling

What students bring:

  • Rapidly building life experiences
  • Developing identity (with a lot of uncertainty)
  • A curiosity about the world they are experiencing

What we can provide them:

  • Interest in hearing them individually
  • Ability to assemble resources, create experiences
  • Structure through Process:
  • Engineering and scientific process

Are you actively experimenting with ways in which you can guide your students into deeper learning about the various stories they might consume and how they need ‘listen’ to them?

We’d love to hear about your experiences!

Need some support and guidance as you start to explore what you can do for your students? Let’s explore some experiments that you can try without a lot of planning time.

Consider sharing your experience so far by joining the Collab Lab space on our Collaborative Learning Community ‘inspirEd’. Check it out, we’d love to welcome you into the inspirEd Community

Thanks go out to
Our featured guests:

  • Katie Felten – CEO and Brand Strategist, Strategy House
  • Marissa Jablonski – Executive Director, Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin

Supporting organizations:

  • MSOE for use of their space at WE Energies STEM Center
  • Northwestern Mutual for sponsoring the NM classroom at MSOE STEM Center

Our next Collab Lab

Join a diverse group of Milwaukee community members who share a concern about the rising number of Milwaukee youth struggling with mental health challenges preventing them from successfully participating in their education.

Collab Lab 54: Student Led Collaboration to Address Youth Mental Health

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.

Collab Lab 50: Recap & Notes

We hit a milestone with last Thursday’s Collab Lab — our 50th session since we started in the summer of 2016!  Thanks to all the attendees who were there to celebrate with us in person.

The focus for the evening was Community Engaged Science for K12 students (AKA community engaged research or citizen science) — what do we hope students might gain, what assets we can bring to bear to support the work, and what we can do in the short term to move towards those goals.

We started the conversation by asking participants what community engaged science means to them.

Beyond goals such as “the chance to see what professionals are working on and how they approach their research”, beyond “opportunities to engage in or contribute to research efforts that extend beyond the classroom”, and even beyond “:giving students a chance to connect with scientists in industry, higher education or government agencies”, was the idea that the community is engaged in deciding the issues to focus community research and science on

That set us up nicely to talk about our goals for students.

Goals for students

Participants had a broad range of goals for student involvement with community engaged science.  From those several common themes emerged:

  • We want students to see that they can make contributions, that science is something they can participate in, and that scientific understanding can empower them to be more effective citizens who can take on issues in their community and become stewards of the environment,
  • We want students to see that they can be lifelong learners, that there are broad opportunities to apply scientific knowledge and skills, and that they can make connections with working scientists in the community who might serve as role models or mentors.
  • We want this work to bring diverse voices, perspectives, and ways of knowing into conversations within science and and the focus areas for that work.
  • Finally, we want students to experience the joy that can come from scientific investigation, discovery, and understanding.

The question then becomes: “where are the scientists, the voices and perspectives, that we as educators may include in student inquiry projects?”

Assets we know

We took advantage of the broad mix of folks in the room to inventory the assets available to Milwaukee students and teachers. It turns out, there are a lot of resources and programs to explore ideas and connect with partners who can support community engaged science.

Just consider this (not curated) list:

  • Business/Professionals
  • Higher-ed, nonprofits
  • Badger State Science & Engineering Fair
  • natural world
    • school yard
    • rivers, trails, & parks
  • community partners
    • multi-visit
    • relationship follow-up
  • curriculum (training and capacity needed)
    • Project Lead The Way
  • school Leadership teams, teachers, admin & district staff
  • teacher experts
  • extracurricular & interest groups
  • local science projects (water inquiry project) SIFTR
  • Other schools’ older & younger students
  • media/news
  • local science experts
    • academia
    • local government
    • nonprofits
  • Parks
  • museums
  • nature centers
  • field experiences
  • Green Schools Consortium
  • Funding
    • United way
    • Donors choose
    • ESSER Funds
    • NSF
    • MMSD (funds for green schools projects)
    • Wisconsin DNR
    • WSST
    • NRF
  • Partners/Physical Resources

How do we move forward?

Just knowing (or just now learning about) assets that are available, is nice but not very useful. We wrapped up the conversation by asking “What can we do in the next 30 days to get closer to your vision for community engaged science for K-12 students?” All of our discussion identified some version of “Continue the conversation with the folks I met here” as a key next step. This could be to: learn more about what another school or teacher(s) is doing, availability of programming or expertise offered by community partners, or for those partners, ways to better understand the needs and goals of educators.


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

Jessica Knackert – Volunteer Coordinator, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Peter Lenaker – Physical Scientist, USGS
Christopher Simenz – Practicum Coordinator, Clinical Professor, Marquette University
Bernardo Traversari – Director of Science Outreach, Edgewood College
Adriana Vázquez – Director of Education & Public Programs, Milwaukee Public Museum

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

Be part of the Conversation

If you like the topics we select every month and would like to be part of the conversation, we invite you to join us next time for Collab Lab 51 (RSVP). We’ll explore how we can let students drive issues that are the focus of their work (essential component of inquiry based learning, student voice, project based learning). Come share your experience if you are practicing student inquiry with your students, or join the conversation by asking your questions to expand your thinking about how your peers do this and why they believe in this approach. 

Join us by RSVPing here

Collab Lab 49: Recap & Notes

Community Engaged Learning starts with a conversation

Our vision of Community Engaged Learning, an evolution of Project Based Learning for K-12, recognizes a role for both near-peer mentors and industry mentors. This essential role supports and coaches students over the course of the projects they take on. We believe that there’s a big difference between simply having folks show up at a school, and inviting them to play an effective role in the process for students and teachers. It is so important in our view that we decided to kick off our 7th season of Collab Labs at MSOE’s STEM Center last Thursday with a discussion focused on the roles of mentorswhat successful mentoring looks like, and what it takes to get there.

Participants included K-12 educators, professionals engaged in mentoring, or working with organizations that provide or support mentors, or engage with schools in other ways. We were also glad to welcome additional community members in a joint effort with Foureva Media’s to use the Collab Lab as their Foureva Movement’s October meetup. By chance or circumstance, the group included several mentor/mentee pairs, who were able to provide additional meaning for the discussion.

Personal experience

We began the evening with a discussion of participants’ own experiences with, or as a mentor, and what they took away from that involvement. We’re not surprised anymore that our ‘kitchen table format’ consistently enables attendees to ‘go deep’ within 15 minutes of sitting down with complete strangers. Our participants observed:

  • There’s a gatekeeping role in terms of who has access to support students
  • Systemic racism impacts who has access to mentors, who mentors are willing to serve, and expectations about how those relationships should occur
  • The role of the teacher is different than that of mentors, and an outside mentors can often motivate students in ways a teacher cannot
  • The continuity of mentor/mentee relationships can anchor students who might otherwise have disconnected relationships with family
  • Mentors can provide the confidence students need to push through challenges
  • Time is a limited resource, so we need to look for relationships that can offer the maximum impact within those constraints
  • Stats show: People who’ve had mentors are more likely to take leadership roles
  • Definitions of mentoring vary, but what is key is the mentor/mentee relationship
  • A young person needs to trust a mentor as a friend
  • Mentors need to be able to listen
  • Mentors can empower students by giving them a voice
  • Mentors need to be open to “accepting the call” from a student
  • Barriers between the community and school get in the way of mentorship opportunities

Goals for Mentors and Students

With this as context, we asked participants to capture what they see as the goals behind building mentor/mentee relationships with students. We ask this not just from the perspective of what we want for students, but what we hope mentors gain from the experience.

For students, we hope for:


  • I want students to see how to be there for yourself
  • I want students to feel heard, empowered
  • I want students to see “professional interaction, and learn to function as a group to build each other up, solve problems, and change the world
  • I want students to feel like they are not alone, that they are supported and wanted
  • I want students to feel loved and that people care about them
  • I want students to have access to supports they may not have at home


  • I want students to feel freedom of exploration
  • I want students to see its ok to be a little different
  • I want them to experience their own ideas in real life
  • I want students to feel included
  • I want students to feel comfortable
  •  I want students to feel that they matter and they can create a future beyond where they may be now


  • I want students to experience different opportunities that spark their curiosity
  • I want students to see other role models, learn STEM and life skills
  • Diversity in thought
  • I want students to experience life outside of central Milwaukee
  • I want students to experience representation for all/diversity


  • I want students to experience a different viewpoint
  • I want students to see someone close in age
  • I want students to see other avenues to be successful
  • I want students to see personality


  • I want students to see what’s possible, that they can do anything
  • I want students to see the opportunities available to them to be successful
  • I want students to feel excited, encouraged, heard
  • I want students to experience success
  • Bring something different out of them
  • I want students to experience opportunities for curiosity
  • I want students to see a path forward without telling them explicitly– questions and guidance
  • I want students to be curious, to experience opportunities that challenge, and push themselves to think critically and learn new perspectives
  • I want students to experience what they can be outside of what they typically experience

Real Life

  • I want students to see people/adults with similar backgrounds and experiences doing what they’ve dreamed (or just thought) of doing
  • I want students to experience every day living
  • I want students and mentors to see the humanness/the light in each other
  • I want students to experience real life/hands on personal growth/learning
  • I want students to learn social responsibility and critical thinking
  • I want mentors to feel an emotional rush/connection

For mentors, we hope for:


  • I want mentors to feel they are making a difference
  • I want mentors to feel a connection
  • I want mentors to experience the joy of young people, to see their success and personal growth, to learn from students
  • I want mentors to feel that their time invested in you makes a difference
  • I want mentors to view mentorship as part of their legacy
  • I want mentors to feel capable, confident, energized, that they grow through the experience
  • I want mentors to experience the confidence that they have helped build.
  • I want mentors to see transformation in a mentee, to experience the feeling of impacting some else’s life, to feel like they made a difference
  • I want mentors to see the civic and social potential of their professional lives
  • I want mentors to see that they are part of how to change the community in a positive way
  • I want mentors to experience their impact, to feel empowered, to see how excited students are


  • I want mentors to overcome the perception of the characteristics of a mentor
  • I want mentors to understand the purpose of mentoring
  • I want mentors to understand that mentorship is for all
  • I want mentors to understand what these relationships do for society
  • I want mentors to be in students lives as a way to show them things they may not always see
  • I want mentors to ask questions
  • I want mentors to see the advantages/disadvantages young people bring with them
  • I want mentors to see the path that a student didn’t see, to look beyond behavior and learn from each other
  • I want mentors to see difference as a positive
  • I want mentors to experience the day of student, and how they function with the peer pressure of today’s students


  • I want mentors to understand the greatness of kids
  • I want mentors to see how awesome our kids are, what students can do, and that students are people, not stereotypes
  • I want mentors to see that it is not always about instruction, but helping students see a path forward
  • I want mentors to share their own experiences
  • I want mentors to see that students can do better, they can be taught, they do listen, they do want more
  • I want mentors to broaden their own understanding
  • I want mentors to continue their own learning about other cultures/experiences
  • I want mentors to build empathy for what children are going through today
  • I want mentors to increase their global competency and cultural awareness

Visions for mentoring

From this broad set of goals for students and mentors we asked each discussion group to pick a couple of key goals and create a vision for what a successful mentoring relationship looks like.  Here’s what they came up with:

Table 1

Key goals: To have the experience be authentic for both sides

We know we’re on the right track when we see: Vulnerability, empathy, discourse, engagement

For that we need: A safe environment and clarity on expectations and outcomes

We’ve seen this done well within: Higher Ed programs, Big Brothers/Big SistersWehr Nature CenterOwen’s Place

Table 2

Key goals: Relationship building, showing up, asking questions, relatable

We know we’re on the right track when we see: Balanced interaction, students start conversations

For that we need: Delivery expectations, time to build relationships, trust, and understand diverse ideas

We’ve seen this done well within: Milwaukee Robotics Academy

Table 3

Key goals: Ensuring proper support for mentors; Mentors as a learning support for students

We know we’re on the right track when we see: Mentors are confident with their group and able to interact well; Students are able to use what they learn to drive their success

For that we need: Pathways to connect mentors with schools or a plant to make connections through workshops or conferences; There must be someone in the school who is dedicated to networking– parent coordinator or Assistant Principal; Connect to higher-ed or just one company

Table 4

Key goals: Get to know the students, feeling of safety, shared goals from mentor/mentee

We know we’re on the right track when we see: Everyone feels heard/valued “I see you”; building trust, especially at the beginning

For that we need: Mentors understand boundaries (do’s and don’ts); knowledge; training; a willingness to let go of control; authentically want to be a mentor

Table 5

Key goals: Connections

We know we’re on the right track when we see: Through communications, networking, commitment

For that we need: To build trust, connect mentors & mentees, have a common goal, commitment, networking

We’ve seen this done well within: Glenn Hills Middle School/other public schools; Engineers without Borders; Habitat for Humanity; Peace Corps.

What’s next?

After reading the insightful contributions from the Collab Lab participants above, you might ask yourself: So where does this go from here?

Join us Thursday, October 27th from 4:30 to 5:30 on Zoom for a follow up conversation.  We want to talk through what you heard, what you’d like to act on, and explore how we can lay the groundwork to do so. RSVP


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

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

Be part of the Conversation

If you like the topics we select every month and would like to be part of the conversation, we invite you to join us next time for Collab Lab 50 (RSVP) when we explore how we can incorporate the notion of Community Engaged Science into the student learning experience.


2023-24 Collab Labs

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