Episode # 42
Math, Science, & Problem-Based Learning with Josh Amstutz & Brad Ciminowasielewski
October 26, 2023
About This Episode
On this week’s show, Kara & Caryn are joined by math teacher Joshua Amstutz and science teacher Brad Ciminowasielewski as they delve into how they approach problem-based learning in their classrooms with technology.
Joshua Amstutz – Has taught for 13 years, 12 of which have been for the Winton Woods City School District (WWHS). He is the current coordinator of the Academy of Global Studies at Winton Woods High School, the Math Department Head at Winton Woods High School, a certified New Tech Network trained teacher, and a New Tech Network trainer for project based learning at Winton Woods High School. Josh graduated from Capital University with a degree in Integrated Mathematics and from the University of Cincinnati with a MAT graduate degree from the Department of Mathematics. In addition to his many roles at WWHS, Josh is part of the 2019-2020 Impact U cohort on improvement science through Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Strive Partnership. He is a Fulbright Alum from the 2019-2020 cohort of the Fulbright for Global Classrooms program. He was also selected as the 2022 AFS-USA Global Educator of the Year and is a current state finalist in Ohio for the 2023 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). In addition, he has worked closely with the curriculum director and his school’s physics teacher to implement multiple co-taught math and science courses as well as College Credit Plus (CCP) math courses in his school district.
Brad teaches Physics and 9th grade Global Seminar. He is the Science Department Facilitator and has taught at Winton Woods for the Past 10 years. He graduated from Indiana University in 2010 with a B.S. in Physics and the University of Cincinnati in 2013 with a Masters in Education specializing in curriculum and instruction. When he isn’t teaching and inspiring the next generation you can find him playing sports, cooking, building things, playing games and spending time with family and friends!
[00:00:15] Kara: All right. Joining us today are Josh and Brad, who are two teachers from Winton Woods. So, hey guys. Hey, how are you? Good. I’m going to start by just having you tell us how you ended up in education. So if Josh, if you want to kick it off, I’ll let you go first. And then Brad, you can share your adventure as well.
[00:00:39] Josh: Sounds great. I am a classic come from family of educators kind of person. My dad was a teacher. My mom was still a service profession. She was a nurse but my grandparents were all teachers. And so I just kind of grew up around it. I knew going into college that I wanted to either be an architect or I wanted to be an educator and very quickly found that I loved helping people.
[00:00:58] I love teaching [00:01:00] people. It was fun for me. It made me excited signed up to be a part of our tutoring agency at our college and never looked back. Honestly, I, I was one of the few who went into college thinking, hey, I want to be a math teacher. And I exited college still saying, I am excited to be a math teacher.
[00:01:15] And I’m now in my 13th year of education, 12th year at Wynton Woods High School.
[00:01:20] Kara: Nice. Yeah. Which congratulations as well for, you know, you went in with a, with an idea and it all paid off.
[00:01:29] Josh: Yeah. It doesn’t happen very often
[00:01:31] Kara: Yeah, it really doesn’t. It really doesn’t. So, hey, okay, Brad.
[00:01:37] Brad: So my journey is a lot different than Josh’s.
[00:01:40] What what happened is, is I got a physics degree from Indiana University. And the University of Cincinnati hired me to do some stuff with them. And as I was working there I got into contact with some program leaders and the Dean of the college, and they asked me to go into the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program which is a program that helps math [00:02:00] and science teachers go into high need schools.
[00:02:02] And so I went through the year long master’s program and got my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and became a science teacher. I swore up and down I was only going to do it for five years because that was my requirement to get it paid for. And then I’ve been, I’ve been at Wynwoods for 11 years now and I can’t stop.
[00:02:18] It’s so much fun. I love it. So it’s a great blessing to be able to switch over from science, you know, research to this experience, which is teaching.
[00:02:28] Kara: That’s awesome. Yeah. Both different journeys, but I’m glad to hear you’re both still loving it. Absolutely. Every day. Yeah. So I guess I’ll ask, does PBL play into your love?
[00:02:43] Absolutely. Still being like energized about it. So how did you guys Go ahead, get into project-based learning.
[00:02:52] Josh: So I I grew up always knowing to myself that I wanted to do P B L without knowing what P B L was. I, I just remember being in math [00:03:00] in high school and then in college and in teaching all the people or helping people, I was like, shoot, there has be a better way.
[00:03:05] I mean, I always use real life experiences do explain things and it, it just naturally. Kind of lended itself well to mathematics for me. I also happen to have a dad who was a language teacher, and he took students on trips all around the world. And so I grew up thinking to myself, man, not only do I want to connect my math to projects, so it’s meaningful, it’s fun, it’s exciting, I want to go on trips too.
[00:03:28] Like math people can travel the world as well. And so I always have this global focus of being able to incorporate those items into What I do in the math classroom and it wouldn’t woods, we have something called the Academy of Global Studies, which is a program that teaches all the normal subjects, but with a global lens via project based learning.
[00:03:51] And so, ever since I started it, I have been in love with teaching. There is not 1 day that goes by where I don’t love what I do. And the great thing [00:04:00] about it is, I know that I’m never going to be the teacher that is just complacent. It says, all right, well, I planned everything. Let’s just roll with the punches.
[00:04:07] Every year is new. Every year is different. Every year is progressive. And I love that challenge both for myself as a teacher, but also for our students, because kids 10 years ago are not going to be taught, nor should they be taught the same way as kids today. And that’s exciting that we are able to connect all those things together.
[00:04:26] Brad: Absolutely. To add onto that. We started a combined class physics and precalculus. We do a double bell class where, where the kids learn both subjects in the double bell context. And we started that about eight years ago and we’ve been changing it every single year. And this year we actually blew it all up completely and just completely restart this just because to try to make it better, to improve it, to get more globally focused projects to try to make it more interesting for the kids.
[00:04:52] So absolutely project based learning has been amazing for us.
[00:04:55] Kara: That’s awesome. So can you explain just a little bit more about like that global focus? [00:05:00] What does that look like?
[00:05:02] Brad: So, A lot of our projects focus on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There’s 17 goals they put out. We try to pick one or more of those to focus on during the project.
[00:05:13] Josh: So a prime example is a project we do on shoes. So each project we have also centers around the type of engineering just to expose our students to different career paths they may have not realized existed before.
[00:05:24] So, when we focus on material science, engineering, our students have to design shoes. But they design shoes for an underprivileged population of people around the world who don’t have access to appropriate footwear. So they research what those areas around the world are. They connect it to quality education and improvement of work, which are two of the sustainable development goals.
[00:05:44] And then they design a shoe with locally sourced resources and then use our 3D printing software to go ahead and print their model out. And then explain to the class in a shark tank presentation, Hey, we have, here’s why it should be made. Here’s why this is where the organization [00:06:00] souls for souls, which we unofficially, we have never asked them to partner, but we use them as like a guideline for the project for who’s actually listening to the pitches you know, why our shoes should be made for that population.
[00:06:11] So it allows them to investigate those globally, really intense global issues and concepts. We understand the mathematical concepts of exponential equations and then the physics concepts of friction.
[00:06:23] Kara: That sounds amazing. Yeah, because yeah, well, and I, I hear this all the time from my nieces who are in high school with when it comes to math, especially is when am I ever going to use this?
[00:06:39] Why do I need to know this?
[00:06:40] Brad: That’s the reason that we combined our subjects together. I saw that there was a need that some of my physics students were struggling with the mathematical calculations on the back end of the class.
[00:06:50] And he was noticing that it was harder and harder to find more and more real world applications of his math. And so when we combined it now, now that they get all the real world applications from [00:07:00] physics, and then they can use that to help their math skills and get better. To showcase what is really happening in the world.
[00:07:06] So it really lends itself well to project based learning just because there is a natural connection.
[00:07:11] Josh: It also requires two individuals to be masters of their content. You know, that’s why we work so well together and why we feel that the majority of students should be taught in a math science setting.
[00:07:20] If you have the right teachers who are open to each other to be able to be vulnerable, to be able to be It’s to share ideas and to, you know, figure out things together and not think that one is better than the other. I mean, it, it takes a lot to do project based learning in a co taught classroom like ours.
[00:07:36] Kara: Yeah. That’s awesome. It sounds like such a cool concept and I’m also curious how, like how long. Does a project last or, you know, are you doing multiple projects within a year or what does that look like?
[00:07:53] Brad: So we’re, we’re wall to wall PBL. So you start week one with a project and at the very end of the year, you have completed [00:08:00] X number of projects throughout the year.
[00:08:02] They can last anywhere from a week. For as a short project up to five to six weeks for our longest project where we have ’em build catapults and they actually have to do like a lot of, oh my gosh, calculations and, and physical building of the equipment that they’re using. But it, it really honestly varies based on the students what their needs are, what their choices are, and then kind of how we can get them through understanding and mastering all the content as well as.
[00:08:25] Achieving their goal and growing in all the other areas we try to focus on, such as communication, collaboration and those kind of things.
[00:08:32] Josh: And the key, I think, too, is that project based learning is still taught in a unit by unit basis. So it’s no different than a traditional classroom setting with respect to the standards.
[00:08:42] I mean, in my Unit 1, I would teach the same standards as I would in Unit 1 in a standalone pre calculus class. But because we combined it together, the project drives the content. So it’s not, here’s the content, apply it. It’s here’s this thing we need to build or here’s this thing we need to aim or shoot in the context of the catapult [00:09:00] project.
[00:09:00] How can I teach you mathematics to be able to do that? How can I teach you modeling skills to be able to to tell mathematically what’s happening? So that you can aim and shoot the most effectively as possible instead of just eyeballing so it’s a really cool twist But I mean the most common misconception is that we do a lot of fluff work quote unquote but truly it’s The content standards that drive the project.
[00:09:21] And we have pinpointed project ideas and culminations that we think help to expose those standards. So that no one ever says, why are we using this?
[00:09:29] Brad: And in addition to that, we always finish with a unit test. So a lot of people also have a misconception that project based learning, you don’t give them tests.
[00:09:36] No, we still give them tests. I get college level tests from physics professors and I cut them up and, you know, change the order and stuff. And I make them a college level test at the end of each unit. They master it. They rock and roll. Same thing with him in this math.
[00:09:48] Josh: Well, in addition, I’m also an adjunct professor through Cincinnati State and teach our college credit CCP courses here on campus.
[00:09:56] And so I always gear our students in Pre Calculus [00:10:00] Aligned Physics, PCAP, the combined class we have, to those standards. So it is truly taking the world of math and science and turning it upside down because we just feel it can be done differently and better.
[00:10:11] Brad: They’re always growing and getting better. And that’s the most important thing to us is that they have fun and get better.
[00:10:29] Kara: So I’ve heard you talk about like research and, you know. Exploring things and developing content. You mentioned 3D printing, so I’m just gonna ask how technology plays into your PBL.
[00:10:42] Josh: Yeah, I mean, I think that technology is the biggest underrated piece in education that the teachers are really missing out on. With respects to what they could use technology for to better education. So a lot of teachers look at technology and they think, well, I use Desmos. I use graphing calculator, like from a math standpoint, [00:11:00] I use graphic calculators.
[00:11:01] I haven’t researched things online, which was just something that anybody can do, but that that’s not instructional technology, you know, instructional technology is meant to enhance the instruction so that we can redefine. What learning looks like in the classroom. So either it’s using spheros to be able to understand coding and be able to have those spheros, you know, create pathways that we help to explain mathematically, or it could possibly be using some type of new presentation technique or tool like thing link to be able to connect multiple different images together.
[00:11:33] And, you know, what would traditionally be a trifold presentation. It’s now this amazing virtual interactive presentation where you can click on it. And it’s almost like you go to. When you’re one of the museums where you have these interactive displays, like that’s what we’re teaching our kids to do is be able to use the new technology to help redefine what education looks like so that when they get to school or college after high school, or when they get to their vocation, they can use those technology skills to [00:12:00] better people around them and whatever area of work that they’re in.
[00:12:03] And again, it’s the, the. The most misunderstood, I think, piece in education and the piece that normally goes off to the wayside is technology, but really, it should be at the forefront because it’s what helps us do our job better.
[00:12:14] Brad: And we’ve been trying to leverage cell phones. A lot of people have problems with cell phones in their classroom for whatever reason we.
[00:12:21] Try to use the cell phones to help them enhance their learning. So there’s different tools that they could download, like the Google journals and those kinds of things, Google science journals so that they can record data on their phones. They can use their phones in the lesson themselves, and we’re teaching them how to be digital citizens so that they know when it’s appropriate to use their phone and when it’s not.
[00:12:39] So we use it as kind of a teaching technique and a tool in our classroom right now, actually they’re, they’re filming TikTok dances in class. So they’re making their own TikTok dance and they’re doing it in class with math and sciences, you know, a base. So, I mean, some people shy away from that kind of technology and we kind of embrace it and say, Hey, this is appropriate [00:13:00] in these settings and this is when you use it and this is when you don’t.
[00:13:02] Kara: That’s great. That’s great. Okay. So what advice do you have to any sort of educator, maybe high school or elementary that wants to start using PBL or. integrating the technology piece in a more meaningful way. Like what, what advice would you give?
[00:13:24] Brad: So I think that first you got to start small, start with something, just deal with one unit, one project and build from there.
[00:13:32] If you try to take on too much at one time, it kind of gets overwhelming to a lot of people. So just start small, start with one project and then it’s, it’s okay if it fails, like part of doing project based learning is learning what works and what doesn’t work for you and for your students. So you can constantly change and adapt and improve on that one project, and you can build it into two, then you can build it into three, then you can build it, and you’re, you’re constantly changing and improving what you’re doing as you’re building the other projects.
[00:13:57] The other thing that I would really highly recommend [00:14:00] is always begin with the end in mind and start with what you want the kids to finish, like what product it is, what, what the culmination looks like for those students, and then kind of plan, how would you get there if you were doing them? How would you get there to achieve the goal that you want them to achieve?
[00:14:16] And breaking the project up into pieces or benchmarks based on what you would actually do. And I think that really helps with the planning part. A lot of people do get overwhelmed when they start, but if you, if you begin with the end in mind and you do chunk it, how you would chunk it to yourself as you go through the.
[00:14:33] A project like this. It really helps to kind of put it in perspective for the students and also makes it a better experience for you when you’re going through the project.
[00:14:41] Josh: And I’ll add to that that you really need to play to your own passion. I mean, a lot of educators get into education. In their content area, because they’re really excited about that content, be it whatever grade level.
[00:14:53] And so oftentimes teachers say to me, well, where do I start? I don’t even know how to begin. And I would [00:15:00] say, well, look back at yourself and reflect on. Honestly, what your summer has been like, what did you get excited about when you were preparing for the school year? What things do you tell your friends and your family because you have this awesome content knowledge that they look at you and they say, Oh, that’s so nerdy.
[00:15:15] That’s actually your project idea. Like that, that’s what you’re trying to share with your kids, that passion, that excitement for some real world concept. That you somehow connected to your content standards in your mind. So I would say start with those ideas and always feel free to ask for help and ask questions.
[00:15:32] I will say right now, my name is Josh Amstutz. This is Bradley Semino Wasilewski. We are welcome for you to come contact us. We would love to help you, but also there are a ton of other people in our wonderful state who can help you on PBL. And a lot of times it’s about getting more minds together to talk about it so that you can fine tune your ideas.
[00:15:52] Try to figure out what this looks like in your classroom. And that’s honestly the best way to start. If you’ve never had exposure or experience in PBL.
[00:15:59] Brad: [00:16:00] Yeah, half the time we’ll be driving around somewhere and like, we’ll be talking on the phone and I’ll be like, Oh my God, I just saw this thing. We should do a project over it.
[00:16:05] And he’s like, let’s go do it. And then we just like, or I’ll call him and be like, Hey man, I just, I just was at the park. There was this really cool tool with all these water spigots and all these things for the kids to play with. I’m like, we should do a project over that. And he’s like, I’m in, let’s go.
[00:16:18] Josh: Well, even people with kids, like, I mean, we both have small children at home, multiple small children at home. And so, you know, it could be even a movie that you’re watching with your kids. There’s a movie called over the moon that my kids really love. And there’s something called the maglev train on there.
[00:16:32] And then I called him up. I was like, dude, I think we can make that. I think we did. And then we did. I love that. Whatever makes you excited. We’ll make your kids excited because they’ll see that passion. Absolutely. Right.
[00:16:45] Kara: You guys are rock stars. Thank you. Thank you. All right. Well, thank you guys so much for talking to us. This was a fantastic conversation and you made me excited about PBL, even though I don’t have my own classroom. So thank you. [00:17:00]
[00:17:00] Brad: You guys are more than welcome to come visit anytime.