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An organic approach to education

PBL, SEL, and whole-child education can be found in a single solution

Published February 1, 2019

Everything is going organic, and for good reason. Organic food is free of impurities and additives and is linked to better health. Organic fibers and materials are the basis for natural clothing and goods that are produced with little negative effect on the environment. And organic relationships are built upon natural encounters that occur over a period of time.

So, why aren’t we promoting organic education? . . . Maybe we are, but we simply haven’t labeled it as such. Instead, we call it “project-based learning,” “social and emotional learning,” and “teaching the whole child.” All of these sound approaches to improved education have come to full light over the past decade and are organic at their core, embodying the essence and benefits of real-world, relational, experiential learning.

Now for the big question – how can all three of these organic approaches to bettering education be rolled into a single solution? Is that even possible?

We at Pitsco Education believe, based on nearly half a century of experience, that hands-on STEM products, activities, curriculum, and solutions serve as the perfect conduit for delivery of an organic educational experience steeped in project-based and social and emotional learning that furthers development of the whole child.

To get the full explanation of Pitsco’s efforts to create the most effective K-12 STEM classrooms that prepare students for an unpredictable future, read our white paper, “Knowledge for now, skills for later,” by Pitsco Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Stephan Turnipseed (Info.pitsco.com/ knowledge-for-now-skills-for-later). If you’re pressed for time and want only the gist of this organic panacea for education, read on.


All educational products available through Pitsco – those developed in-house by our team of educators and developers and those created by others – are STEM related and hands on and fit within at least one of our four product portfolios (STEM/STEAM/STREAM, robotics, systems, and coding). All of these products, activities, curriculum, and solutions (PACS) were developed with success for all students foremost in mind, hence our mission of leading education that positively affects learners.

What do Pitsco’s offerings have to do with the three approaches that shape an organic education? Everything – because they are tools for developing survival skills in the Fourth Industrial Revolution when advancements in artificial intelligence and automation are dictating rapid and constant changes in our world. We know firsthand that an education rooted in integrated STEM instruction and project-based learning that considers students’ social, emotional, and physical needs will yield well-rounded citizens prepared for college and/or careers.


Definition: “Project-based learning is an instructional methodology that encourages students to learn and apply knowledge and skills through an engaging experience” (Definedstem.com).

Classroom context: Teachers’ greatest challenge each day is to engage students and ignite excitement about learning. This requires lessons and activities that students find relevant, meaningful, and purposeful. When students work in teams to address a challenge or issue that can yield a helpful solution or product, they buy in, they share, they collaborate, they problem-solve. Project-based learning, when rooted in real-world challenges that inherently and subtly incorporate aspects of science, math, and other subjects, has a far-reaching positive effect on learning because it engages students.

Examples: Team-based robotics competitions, STEM Units, STREAM Missions, Expeditions, and hands-on projects such as structures, rocketry, CO2 dragsters, and solar cars are classified as project-based learning. These Pitsco programs and products are used by millions of students each year. The new STREAM Missions program has helped elementary students achieve significant gains in standardized science, math, and even reading tests. Likewise, recent studies by the Friday Institute of North Carolina State University show how students experience qualitative and quantitative gains through the Expeditions program at the middle level. Such results prove that engagement in experiential, project-based learning has potential to help all students develop 21st-century skills that are transferable to all aspects and stages of life.


Definition: “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (Casel.org).

Classroom context: Everyday interactions between people help them cultivate social and emotional skills, but in a world where virtual interaction via apps, video games, and social media have diminished personal interaction and communication, classrooms are where students most grow in SEL. As a relatively new focal point in education, SEL adoption and integration is slowly occurring. Programs designed to intentionally address SEL needs are being implemented, but why not take an organic approach and help students develop their essential academic and personal skills through hands-on STEM activities and programs?

Examples: Based on the SEL definition stated earlier, an ideal classroom experience would be collaborative so that students could work together and learn how to manage emotions, practice empathy, and build positive relationships. Angela Witt, a first-grade teacher at Harmony Science Academy – Cedar Park in Austin, TX, says Pitsco’s STEM Units for Grades K-2 naturally achieve these aims and cultivate even more skills. “Kids coming from different backgrounds see the world differently,” Witt says. “When those different cultures and backgrounds and life experiences come together, it creates such a wonderful harmony, and it’s really teaching the kids not only how to problem-solve, but they’re learning social skills. And they’re learning not only independence but that it’s OK to rely on other people to help you.”

The STEM Units lead into STREAM Missions where students work in Crews of four in which every participant has defined responsibilities and roles. After that, the middle-level Expeditions take SEL practice to a new level with the incorporation of Microburst Learning’s EmployABILITY Soft Skills Program in which conflict resolution, communication, collaboration, initiative, and productivity, among other skills, are demonstrated, discussed, and practiced.


Definition: “Research, practice, and common sense confirm that a whole child approach to education will develop and prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow by addressing students’ comprehensive needs through the shared responsibility of students, families, schools, and communities” (Ascd.org/whole-child.aspx).

Classroom context: The responsibility of educating a child often lies in large part with the education system in general and teachers specifically. The reality, though, is that the task of educating the whole child is the duty of family, friends, government officials, community members, and educators. Because of the amount of time students spend in school starting as young as three and going until at least age 18, the classroom is where a significant impact can be made.

According to ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative, “A whole child approach, which ensures that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, sets the standard for comprehensive, sustainable school improvement and provides for long-term student success.” While ensuring students are healthy and safe is an overarching aim for administrators and school boards, classroom teachers bear the responsibility for ensuring that students are engaged, supported, and challenged.

STEM learning addresses these three tenets. Students are actively engaged in learning that reflects real-world experiences, they are supported when they experience their preferred mode of personalized learning, and they are challenged academically to ensure they acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to become a contributor to their local community and the broader society.

Examples: Personalized learning – meeting students wherever they are academically and building up from there – is a commitment to equitable education. Students classified as English language learners (ELL) sometimes struggle in a traditional classroom setting where lectures and book work deliver most of the content. ELL students working with partners and teams in a Pitsco systems lab enjoy a much higher degree of success because of the multimodal, hands-on content where they experience learning.

Likewise, students in struggling socioeconomic areas where resources are fewer and disciplinary referrals are greater suffer because their opportunities are limited. Jeff Torrence, a principal at Honeysuckle Middle School in Dothan, AL, which was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, said their Pitsco STEM lab engaged and challenged students, causing them to recognize the importance of their other classes. “When you walk in that STEM lab and you see those students in there working hands on, and you walk into some of our regular, normal classrooms, I mean, the scale is very unbalanced. It’s night and day,” Torrence said. “It’s night and day because that Pitsco STEM lab gives our students the opportunity to work hands on and to move around and to work with a teammate to accomplish a goal. And I think our kids are excited about that.”

When such excitement is generated through an organic STEM-based education, students are fully engaged, supported, and challenged, and the result is education of the whole child.

“A female student came in to my eighth-grade class complaining about not feeling well. I asked her why she just didn’t stay home. The answer I received almost made me cry and I’ve heard it over and over (with Pitsco labs). My student told me, ‘I wanted to come to this class today – I really like it.’ I’ve shared this story with all my administrators. If this program keeps kids in school, I’m all about it!”

– Jacqueline Thompson, STEM lab teacher, Bertie Middle School, Bertie County, North Carolina

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