Symposium Materials

More than 213 mathematics and science teachers as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching convened in Washington, DC to foster a discussion about active learning with policymakers and researchers (see attendees). The objective for the day was to foster a discussion about how to take lessons learned from exemplary classrooms into common knowledge. We include here a brief summary of each session and presentation materials.

Welcome and Opening Remarks

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director, EHR, NSF, welcomed the group and stressed the importance of research and theory about learning and knowledge development to help improve instruction.

Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science, White House OSTP stressed the importance of finding ways to make STEM instruction accessible for all students. Handelsman noted that “70% of our students are not white and male – they are ethnic minorities, racial minorities, or women. Those are the students who are most left out of our STEM classrooms. We need to be reaching that other 70% inside and outside of the classroom. Active learning is one of the ways to reach a broader group – women and some ethnic minorities respond better than the average student to active learning.”

Handelsman said that interest in active learning culminated in STEM for All, which has three components: active learning, access to advanced courses for middle and high school students, and images of STEM that encourage a broad swath of students to engage and envision themselves as STEM professionals. Handelsman also noted that October 25 is Active Learning Day and that OSTP is asking for partnerships to reach the broad community of educators at all levels, kindergarten – graduate, to encourage uptake of active learning strategies.

Keynote Speaker: Bill Penuel

Slides: What is active learning, and how can we organize for it in our schools and communities? (PDF)

Bill Penuel of University of Colorado, Boulder, opened his talk with a question: What is equitable active learning, and how can we organize for it in our schools and communities? He noted that we need to blend the wisdom of teachers with research-based evidence to address inequality in education. Some of the big ideas he shared include: anchor learning in meaningful problems; connect learning to student interests, experiences, and communities; use student questions to drive instruction; support them in building on others’ ideas; expand the idea of smartness; have students assist with teaching; expand accessible, visible pathways into STEM at the level of the community.

Penuel noted that learning progressions or trajectories are an important component of the learning sciences – if students work on the same concepts over and over, they can solve new and unusual problems. Additionally, “[e]motions are important cues for how and when we can strategically apply knowledge. Learning is such a social learning affair; even when we’re working on our own, we’re deeply influenced by norms, cultural practices, and social cues from the environment. We are oriented to learn from one another.” The session concluded with teachers working in small groups to generate principles of active learning, including time for student reflection, and a teacher-made non-threatening environment.

Featured Panel

Next, the day turned to a featured panel, including Barnett Berry, Founder/CEO, Center for Teaching Quality; Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Executive Director and Co-Founder, 100kin10; and Sharon Lynch, Professor, The George Washington University.

The panel noted that we need to leverage technology and connectivity to bring teachers and their best practices together. Berry said that “[i]f we don’t revolutionize PD and turn it over to teachers, then we’re never going to get where we say we want to be with active learning for kids.” Talia noted that “we often make innovations and solve problems alone and in silence. Let’s learn from amazing innovations happening every day, break down the silos, create opportunities from learning across organizations and teachers, so we don’t recreate the wheel. Let’s build off of one another’s successes…” The group agreed that schools need to give teachers time and tools to adapt their curricula to active learning, and that we need to figure out the essence of what’s working in particular contexts, rather than blindly adopting innovations verbatim, because contexts change from one classroom to the next, to say nothing of contexts across the country. 100Kin10 is looking for teachers to join their council of teacher leaders.

Special Speaker: Megan Smith

Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, provided brief remarks during lunch, noting that if we want to combat the challenge of stereotypes regarding STEM, we should focus on instilling confidence in students to pursue STEM. The White House is encouraging kids to be more involved and feel more confident in STEM through Makerspaces, coding camps, and encouraging the shared usage of data. Smith noted that we need to work together to advance the STEM fields – it’s not something that one teacher at a school can pursue alone.


Next, participants organized into seven break out groups designed to connect recent research about active based learning and real-world. After brief presentations from lead researchers, participants engaged in hands-on, active learning, and then discussed the challenges and lessons learned associated with these active learning strategies. During these breakouts, select teachers discussed their use of active learning strategies in their classrooms.

Collaborating with Pen-Based Computers with Digital Ink & Digital Writing Pads
Leader: Eric Hamilton
Description | Slides (PDF) | PowerPoint (with embedded videos)

Making Mathematical Arguments Together
Leader: Jennifer Knudsen
Description | Slides (PDF)

Supporting Student Understanding of Microscopic Interactions that Govern Biological & Chemical Processes
Leader: Joseph Krajcik
Description | Slides (PDF)

NGSS with All Students, Including English Learners
Leader: Okhee Lee
Description | Slides (PDF)

Mathematical Modeling & Engineering Problem Scoping: Integration to Engage Learners in Meaningful Problem Solving
Leader: Tamara Moore
Description | Slides (PDF)

Exploring Circuits through Constructing eCards
Leader: Nichole Pinkard
Description | Slides (PDF)

Active learning methods? Let me count the ways!
Leader: David Webb
Description | Slides (PDF)


After the breakouts, participants provided brief report outs that summarized the activities and discussions in their respective groups, and Jim Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director, EHR, NSF closed the event encouraging teachers to continue to implement active learning in their classes.