K-12 curriculum: Using hands-on learning to prepare for 21st century careers

Published on: 
3 Mar 2020
Kristen Keim

In May 2020, a projected 3.3 million U.S. students will graduate high school. That number is only supposed to grow in the coming years. As educators, it’s our job to help these young people enter the next phases of their lives feeling prepared, whether they go on to pursue another degree or join the workforce right away.

Strategic Energy Innovations (SEI), the newest addition to the Learning Lab Partner network, addresses that responsibility through their hands-on, real-world curriculum. Based in California, SEI is a nonprofit that builds leaders to drive climate solutions. For over 20 years, SEI has created sustainable communities through its flagship programs (Energize Schools, Energize Colleges, School of Environmental Leadership and Climate Corps) by integrating climate education, training and career development.

SEI joined the Learning Lab Partner Network in 2019, and its Solar USB Charger lessons are available now as part of the Learning Lab subscription. The program contains seven lessons for grades 9–12, in which students create their own solar USB charger.

Emily Usaha, project coordinator for SEI, shares her thoughts about using hands-on learning to prepare students for 21st century careers:

Why are lessons rooted in hands-on, real-world experiences so valuable in developing 21st century career skills?

Hands-on learning allows every student in the classroom to actively engage in subject matter to solve a problem, physically create and put concepts into action. It gives students the opportunity to experiment, to fail and to apply knowledge. The hands-on learning opportunities that SEI supports schools in implementing are aligned with growing career sectors, such as solar and energy management. These fields need engaged and prepared students to enter their workforce in the coming years. By implementing hands-on, real-world learning units, students are empowered to discover and master these concepts and career skills.

For example, the SEI Solar USB Charger project guides students through the process of building a solar USB charger. Students gain an in-depth understanding of solar science and basic electrical circuitry. In addition to solar science, this curriculum provides relevant background information on energy sources, the carbon cycle, the greenhouse gas effect and climate science. These topics are used as the basis for explaining how a solar device charger benefits the environment.

Solar USB Charger project in Learning Lab

How does the SEI curriculum connect students to their learning?

Our project-based learning curriculum is framed around global and local environmental challenges to deepen student engagement and apply learning to real-world experiences. Through our courses, certificates and curriculum units, students build awareness and skills for energy and sustainability careers and are empowered to take action on their campuses and in their community.

If you could suggest only one lesson to teachers, which would it be?

We definitely love the Solar USB Charger lesson, because it can be implemented across so many different disciplines—and seeing students light up when that lightning bolt pops up on their phone never gets old! In Lesson 4.2, Building a Solar USB Charger, students learn the basics of electrical wiring and circuitry, as well as how to solder safely, and are able to witness firsthand the small-scale application of solar power. We’ve even seen students take the build further and design and 3D print their own housing unit for their chargers. This is a great hands-on lesson to engage students with energy concepts and explore solar power in action!

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