Authentic Learning in CTE: An Exercise Physiology Project Launch Combines Content, Data, and Real Athletes

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I have become a bit of a jack of all trades in the last four years, including becoming a career and technical education (CTE) teacher and now department chair. One of my goals this year was to increase my teachers’ capacity for innovative instruction and project-based learning (PBL). While some of my teachers need more traditional support for classroom management and instructional planning, I have several who are wading deep into the PBL waters. One such teacher is one of our health occupations teachers, Mr. S. Mr. S is teaching the third level class of the Healthcare Pathway named Exercise Physiology. The class can end in students achieving national certification as a personal trainer recognized anywhere and certifying them to work in any gym. The work is technical and heavy in vocabulary, jargon, and math, which can be off-putting for students no matter how engaged they are with going into the healthcare field. So Mr. S and I started planning a project that would authenticate the processes and jargon they were learning through application with very real clients–some of the school’s student athletes.

This past week, Mr. S launched his project, which pairs a small group of his students with a student athlete. In this case, a wrestler. Mr. S partnered with the wrestling head coach to choose athletes in his care to be part of the pilot study. The purpose of the project is push Mr. S’s students to apply their understanding of physical assessments they’ve been learning to assessing the physical movements and traits of their paired wrestler. Ultimately, the point is to determine the best assessments to use and then how to best analyze and interpret the data to share with the wrestler and his coach, which is precisely the kind of work these students would be doing in the field.

Now this project did not come together over night. About midway through the fall semester, I convinced Mr. S to give a real PBL a try and started working closely with him on the design phase. Mr. S was willing, but nervous–for that matter he is still nervous, but he has begun to embrace making his classroom more and more student-centered. As I have spoken to before on the blog, PBL instruction is about balance, and it is not a panacea. A good project is well-planned and is supported by a plethora of resources, including, at times, lecture and certainly remediation. To Mr. S’s credit, he took his time to plan and design the project both with me, the wrestling coach, and on his own. When I observed his project launch, while not fancy with a big entry event, I witnessed a well-planned and thoughtful project presented to his students. He had rubrics, routines, formative assessments, calendars, and expectations clearly laid out and an answer for nearly every student question. I was floored considering this was Mr. S’s first true foray into PBL.

Moving forward, I will be supporting his students progress in the project in hopes we can expand it to a partnership with a local college and our community. I will share periodic updates on the blog, and I will share the design of the project (with Mr. S’s permission of course), so other educators following along might be able to use parts of the design in their own PBL pursuits.

One part of the design I will share right away is Mr. S’s focus on assessing through reflection. The core of his students’ grades will come from a reflective journal and discussions they have. He is limiting the grade emphasis on the product. Hopefully, every team does a great job for their wrestler, but some certainly may not and that is just as important to capture as great success is. No matter what a student produces, every student can reflect on their action or inaction, which makes for powerful self-assessment. That said, Mr. S will formatively track their use of employability skills (greeting their clients, maintaining a professional demeanor) and their development of the their physical assessments and their justification for using them.

The adventure has begun! Stay tuned for updates over the next several weeks.

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