Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Learning from Experts - Five Ways to Connect Your Students with Outside Experts

Marine biology, ALS research, endangered animals, and autism in children...these are just a few of the many topics my students have been researching and studying for their Genius Hour projects. Needless to say, I am not an expert on any of the topics.  However, because of technology, I am able to find ways to connect my students with amazing experts and mentors from many different places. 

As I've written before, I no longer take the lead in my classroom, but instead allow my students to navigate their own learning.  I am, however, their guide and must find ways to help them make connections while they are learning.  In doing so, we sometimes have to be very creative.

Outside experts are a huge part of Genius Hour. My students are required to have an outside expert for their projects.  This expert cannot be mom, dad, aunt, or best friend's mom.  It has to be someone that they do not know and could be considered an "expert" on the topic that he/she is studying.

Finding these experts can be difficult and I will say that it is a lot of work.  However, as I watch my students ask the questions that THEY want to know and experience their project topic in a way that is meaningful, it is definitely worth the time and effort that goes into finding the experts.

Some of the experts that we have talked to so far include:

Sea World Skyped with my student that is studying dolphins.  They actually Skyped from Dolphin Cove so we were able to see the dolphins and experience what it must be like to be a dolphin trainer.

Sea World Skyped with my student that is studying endangered animals.  During the session, they brought out an endangered seal and we were able to watch as the trainer and seal interacted.

ALS Association Texas Chapter Skyped with my student that is finding ways to raise awareness for ALS.  She spoke with the Director of Care Services who provided us with so much information.  We learned so much and my student was able to ask several questions that were on her mind.

Paws 4 Autism Skyped with my student that is learning about how dogs help children with autism. She answered lots of questions and shared personal stories about how autism has affected her and her family.

Holly Tucker came to the school and visited with my student that is creating a website about music.

Texas State Technical College allowed us to visit and tour their Culinary Arts Department.  My student was then able to sit down with a chef and get the answers that she needed to carry out her project.

These are just a few of the many ways that my students have been able to connect with people that they consider experts on their topics of choice.  In doing so, they have learned more than I could have ever taught them in the classroom.  They are able to experience their project and ask the questions that they want to ask.

Below are my suggestions if you are considering incorporating outside experts into your students' learning.  I am still learning and making mistakes but I do know that this aspect of our learning is worth pursuing.

1.  Look local.  Consider contacting your local colleges for experts.  There are professors, athletes, and students that are more than willing to share their knowledge and information with young minds.

2.  Use social media.  We contact most of our experts on Twitter.  While we don't always receive a response and don't always get to contact our first choice, it is a great way to find and contact experts quickly and easily.

3.  Just ask.  There have been many times that I have thought, "We can contact them, but I don't think this organization or person will have the time to work with us."  I have been so surprised at the willingness of experts to speak with my students.  They love to share their knowledge and enjoy knowing that students are interested in learning from them.  Don't be afraid to ask others to share and serve as experts for your student projects.  Worse case scenario is that they say no and you keep looking.

4.  Look for opportunities.  I always keep my student projects in the back of my mind.  Even when I am out and about,  I watch for opportunities to connect my students with experts.  I ask around and share my student projects with anyone that will listen and I'm not afraid to ask to for suggestions.  Many of the experts we have contacted have been suggested by other teachers, friends, or parents that know about our projects and are willing to help.  As my friend, Don Wettrick says, "Opportunities are everywhere!"

5.  Take chances.  Stick your neck out for your students.  Allow them to see your willingness to help them find experts and connect with them.  Share your desire to make these connections with your administration and ask for their support.  While they may not understand this type of learning right away, it will not take long for them them to see the value and meaning in connecting your students with outside experts.

Connecting with outside experts takes your students' learning outside the four walls of the classroom. Collaborating makes the learning so much more real and meaningful.  It opens doors of opportunity and provides students a way to invest in their own learning.

For more information about experts in the classroom, please consider reading the following:

Experts in the Classroom  - Scholastic

Bringing the Outside In: Experts in Your Classroom - Ginger Lewman

Pure Genius: Building A Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level


  1. Andi, I love the idea of genius and hour and students going research directly with outsiders. I remember well a project that I did in 3rd grade in which we each became experts in odd topics. Mine was coal. When you list resources, you didn't mention businesses. Us business types also know a few things and you might think about local corporations that might be good resources to your students.

    I run an edtech company so I tend to be a little more tuned-in to how to work in the schools. We participate in lots of local career days and for the #hourofcode, we deployed staff into lots of schools. We even did a 2 minute video for elementary students on career opportunities in high tech.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! Businesses are a great resource for outside experts. We definitely contact lots of businesses for help as well.

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