Using ESSER Funds Effectively for PBL and STEM: Advice From the Experts

Utilizing ESSER Funding to Implement PBL + STEM Initiatives edLeader Panel recording screenshot

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During the edLeader Panel, “Utilizing ESSER Funding to Implement PBL + STEM Initiatives,” a panel of educational peers engaged in a lively discussion about how to best invest funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) in high-impact project-based learning (PBL) and STEM initiatives across the nation.

Featuring Kevin Walters, Supervisor of Grants, Contracts, and School Support for the Michigan Department of Education, Mark Whelton, Superintendent from the Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District in Michigan, and Marilyn Powell-Barnes, Director of Curriculum and Instruction from Lincoln Elementary School District 156 in Illinois, the expert panel provided three levels of perspective on how to effectively invest these funds to promote career readiness in schools.

At the start of the pandemic, schools in Michigan spent approximately 53% of their Phase I and II of ESSER funding on the continuity of services and keeping students afloat throughout the transition to online learning. During the next phase of funding, money was invested in edtech products, which totaled $200 million in Michigan alone.

Now, in Phase III of the funding rollout, the priorities have shifted and approximately 55% of funding (or $1.4 billion dollars) is being spent on correcting learning loss. But how should that money be allocated to most effectively address learning loss in local districts? What areas show the greatest impact for students?

The U.S. Department of Education has many recommendations on how to spend the funding, but among the most important is to ensure that districts provide access to high-quality, engaging curricula and extracurricular opportunities that include advanced career and technical courses.

Taking the lead from the federal DoE, the Michigan Department of Education developed its own roadmap for districts within the state to implement ESSER funding. Found here, the ED COVID-19 Handbook provides a detailed path for how to distribute funding in order to comply with federal regulations and to ensure that all students are participating in career-readiness programs in an equitable manner.

In the handbook, there are specific guidelines for districts to enact STEM and PBL initiatives. It clarifies that it is important for schools to provide both teacher-training programs to ensure high-quality interventions and incentive programs to provide opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration.

These are crucial elements to include at all levels of instruction and create an environment where PBL and STEM curricula can thrive, and therefore create an environment where students are being well prepared for the future job market. Walters provided a detailed review of the most important guidelines from the handbook for other district leaders to use as a roadmap.

From the Bridgeport-Spaulding District, Whelton walked through how an economically disadvantaged community can implement high-impact programs in a low-income setting. Understanding the community and what their priorities are were key to their success.

Once they understood the landscape, the district looked to invest the ESSER funds in three core buckets: health and safety, infrastructure, and academics. With some of the highest poverty, violence, and debt rates in the state, the district knew that this funding was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these issues.

After they took stock of their current resources, representatives from the district connected with local businesses to ask them what skills they wanted future workers to have. Problem solving, curiosity, and proactiveness all rose to the top, further emphasizing the need for STEM and PBL-based curricula to be implemented across all academic levels.

Implementing and investing deeply in programs like SmartLabs allowed all subject areas to update their pedagogy and improve engagement for students and relationships with local businesses. This investment helped switch students to a problem-solving mentality, which has so far led to an overall improvement in student outcomes and the community’s perception of the local public education system.

Powell-Barnes provided a specific roadmap for how a small, low-income school district could address issues such as limited space, staff shortages, and limited parental engagement in an elementary context using tools like SmartLabs and other STEM/PBL resources. Their ESSER Funding objectives were to expose children to STEM curricula during the day, facilitate a STEM program that worked within financial and space limitations, and build a STEM lab that could be up and running when students came back at the beginning of the 2022 school year.

Much like Bridgeport-Spaulding, the leadership at Lincoln knew this funding was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in high-impact initiatives, and that in order to truly make a difference for students, programs needed to be sustainable for both teachers and students in the long term. The goal was to integrate STEM into all subject areas and increase students’ collaboration, communication, and problem-solving abilities by providing opportunities like makerspaces, open access to a STEM lab, technology for the library and all classrooms, and investing in training programs.

To ensure effectiveness and program quality, they implemented an ESSER plan, staff and student surveys of STEM time, allocated time to go to professional development workshops, and consulted with other districts on best practices for grant implementation. For Lincoln, this is just the beginning—they plan to continue to invest in hiring STEM educators, new spaces for the 21st century, and community outreach to ensure long-term sustainability.

Overall, it’s clear that STEM and PBL initiatives are important game-changers for schools and students across the country. Using ESSER funds to bring 21st century curricula, tools, and training to classrooms across the country is important in order to improve skills like problem solving, collaboration, and peer-to-peer learning.

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, “Utilizing ESSER Funding to Implement PBL + STEM Initiatives,” sponsored by SmartLab Learning.

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STEM Learning: Full STEAM Ahead is a free professional learning community that provides educators, curriculum leaders, and industry members with a place to collaborate on bringing more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into the classroom.


Created by educators, SmartLab Learning develops comprehensive K–12 project-based learning, STEM-focused solutions. Whether whole classroom SmartLab HQ environments or our SmartLab Rover that brings in-depth learning into individual classrooms, our research-based solutions keep your learners engaged in hands-on, minds-on activities that reinforce science, technology, engineering, and math concepts.



Blog post by Laura Smulian, based on this edLeader Panel