Forget Finland, Europe Wants To Be like Alaska

Stewart McDonald, 2016 Superintendent of the Year

With Every Student Succeeds Act now in place, Alaska is looking for its vision for education.  Some of Alaska schools are already becoming the standard of excellence on the world stage. An Alaska high school won in the international university level competition in the NASA World Wind Europa Challenge both in 2015 and again in 2016.  This is more than a success story, it is an example how Alaska schools demonstrate excellence on the world stage.

In 2015, Kodiak Island Borough School District joined Ketchikan School District, Craig City Schools, and Copper River School District and together partnered with Trillium Learning, LLC.  Students began work on a variety of real-world project-based learning teams working a various problems with professional industry partners.  NASA Ames Research Center and other scientists, engineers and project managers worked directly with high school students using industry standards for project management and rapid prototyping methods.  A team of Kodiak students worked on coding, electronic and software integration to gather and analyze Global Spatial Information under the mentorship of NASA scientists and Trillium Learning, LLC.  The result was almost unbelievable.

NASA Ames Research Center was impressed enough to recommend that these students enter the 2015 NASA World Wind Europa Challenge in Italy.  These students submitted their work at only category of competition available for them—the university level.  They had to meet the same standards of their graduate level competitors.  They were accepted.  This unto itself was a major win.  But to go on and take first place was nearly unthinkable—and they did.

After the 2015 victory, the university level competitors requested that a high school level division be created for high school teams.  NASA agreed.  When a new group of Kodiak students submitted their project at the newly created high school level, a shocking surprise occurred.  The European high schools petitioned to have the Alaska high school team compete at the university level again.  It was widely discussed that the Alaska school was too advanced.

Our team was not a university team, but submitted at the university level a second year in a row.  Again, they were accepted.  This alone could have been enough.  To repeat the win at this level was beyond hope, but that is what they did—win again.

So why?  How did it happen? Various European high schools are seeking the answer.

Alaska students who have been using standards-based instruction have an advantage in that they know how to use rubrics to guide their work quality.  Using rapid prototyping project management methods as the curriculum instead of the traditional public school instructional approach made all the difference.  They key is in the fully engaged relevant work between student and industry professional, which allowed for students to discover how to develop ownership and relevance in a project.  They learned how to apply strategies to unfamiliar situations and problems.  They learned to apply academic skills in a productive critical voice.  These students learned the difference between cooperation and collaboration.

Alaska is in a statewide financial crisis; we cannot cut our way out of it and do right by our children.  We can innovate our way through these challenges. This type of learning is available right here in Alaska schools.  NASA has now created a competition called City Smart, which challenges teams to design solutions for sustainable communities, from power grids to food supplies.  I challenge Alaska schools to join with us to bring a City Smart project to every village, town and city. We can build better schools, students, and communities.  Our Trillium Learning partner begins the team building process with these words, “To be competitive, we must be collaborative”.   Even in our financial crisis, we have the ability to collaborate and partner with each other to make Alaska schools the world standard of education excellence.

Stewart McDonald is serving his ninth year as superintendent of schools for the KIBSD.  He is in his twenty-fifth year serving Alaska’s students in many educational roles from special education teacher, grants, and assessment to senior administration.  He serves as the superintendent representative on the State Council on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, Alaska Association Executive Board representing Mid-Sized Districts, ASA Legislative Committee, and ASA State Assessment Committee, Advisory Board Member for the Southeast Regional Resource Center, and Alaska’s 2017 Superintendent of the Year.