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Schools tackle project-based learning

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Last month the Yellow Springs High School students in graphic arts and English 12 got together to figure out how to help attract more volunteers and donations for The Foodbank, Inc., the primary hunger relief network in the Miami Valley. They talked as a group about the idea of a public advertising campaign and then mapped one out with plans for posters, mailings, T-shirts, buttons and radio announcements. The students broke into teams of writers and artists, and set to work crafting the language and design that most effectively communicated their message. After much critiquing and multiple project drafts, the students presented their products to the foodbank this month to see if any of their work could be put to good use in the real world.

The process has many faces, but the food bank effort is one example of project-based learning, or PBL, which Yellow Springs schools have begun to use as a foundation for the district-wide curriculum. PBL is experiential, it’s student driven and therefore often unpredictable. It can have real world application, and according to senior Paloma Wiggins, a participant in the food bank project, project-based learning motivates her to do better work.

To stimulate discussion in the wider community about the purpose of project-based learning, the district has invited a speaker from the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High school in San Diego to share ideas about building a curriculum based in PBL. Laura McBain, director of external relations for High Tech High, will join school leaders in an evening of dialogue on Monday, May 20, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the multi-purpose room at Antioch University Midwest.

High Tech High was conceived in the late 1990s by a group of civic and business leaders looking for a labor force of diverse young people qualified for the high tech world of work, according to the school’s website. They wanted students who were passionate about learning and possessed the skills needed for both work and citizenship. According to McBain in an interview this week, project-based learning was chosen as a key component of the curriculum for its ability to put students’ ideas first and allow them to generate excitement about their learning process.

The roots of PBL were developed over a century ago by philosophers such as John Dewey, but the methods never infiltrated the traditional public school model of teacher as the content expert telling students exactly how to get to all the “right answers.” But when teachers trade direct instruction for a more fluid role as coach and mentor, students begin to take ownership of their process and as a result become more engaged and excited about learning. According to McBain, if PBL is done right, the adults should end up learning alongside the students.

When YSHS English teacher Elizabeth Lutz and art teacher Elizabeth Simon conceived of a project involving the foodbank, for instance, they had no idea where the students would take it. According to Simon in a recent interview, she and Lutz presented the concept of using their writing and graphic art skills to benefit the nonprofit in some way, but the students themselves created the whole idea for a public ad campaign and proceeded to design it the way they thought would be most effective. The teachers participated in the discussions, offered a historic look at design strategies of professional advertisers, and talked about the use of concepts such as rhetoric, irony and metaphor, as well as design elements of contrast, alignment and proximity. But it was the students who critiqued each other as they revised their work to make it better. And ultimately, it was the foodbank, an entity completely independent of the school, toward which the students may have felt the most accountable. The students also used hunger concepts from the Mathile Institute and partnered with local graphic artists DJ and Justin Galvin for feedback on their work.

Yellow Springs teachers have essentially been practicing project-based learning for decades. Their interdisciplinary, experiential units have included a Humanities House at the high school in the 1990s, a hands-on unit about Egypt at Mills Lawn, a science and art unit on the Rain Forest at McKinney, and more recently projects under the theme of water, hunger and other subjects. But according to Simon, what makes the current drive to root learning in experiential, applied environments different is the commitment to manage group work and partner with an outside element that holds the students accountable — “it’s more high stakes for them, and for me as well,” she said.

The Yellow Springs school board is expected to approve an $85,000 grant from the Yellow Springs Schools Capital and Endowment Fund this year for continued professional development training from High Tech High and the Dayton Regional STEM School. And this past year teachers received some introductory training from the STEM school and have already begun implementing a range of project-based education.

McKinney math and science teacher Jack Hatert, for instance, has couched almost all of this year’s lessons in projects, he said at a recent school board meeting. His students Jorie Sieck and Cameron Haught participated in group projects on ecology in a bottle, water cycle firecrackers, air and ocean currents, and other lessons involving problem solving, presentations, and critiques. Throughout the year, Sieck said during the meeting, she learned how to see the strengths of her group members and divide the work based on “what people can do well,” she said. Though he never saw himself as a leader per se, Haught said he learned how to take on a leadership role when needed and to “demand top quality work” from his teammates.

According to Brian Boyd, who was the founding principal of the Dayton STEM school and is now the hub director in charge of sharing what the school has learned with other districts in the region, transitioning to a project-based model isn’t going to happen overnight. It will be an evolutionary process of trial and error, as well as some amount of risk taking on the part of both teachers and students to allow the version of PBL that Yellow Springs wants to unfold. But Boyd believes in PBL because it establishes a need to know, it develops soft skills like collaboration and communication, and he has seen the work that students can produce when they’re leading the charge.

“I’ve seen students produce really meaningful work that they’re proud of and that demonstrates the content we want them to learn,” he said this week. “They see that they’re capable of doing that work.”

McBain travels to different school districts around the country also sharing what High Tech High has discovered about learning, and she tells the story of a high school student in Iowa who developed an idea for an environmentally sound “green” golf ball. He focused months designing, revising, getting critiqued and revising again, wanting to get the product exactly right. One night while the student was again engrossed in tweaking his golf ball, McBain explained, his father reminded him that he had an economics test the next day. The student replied that he had already figured out he only needed a C to pass, and that he still had time to keep working on the green ball.

This is all part of the intentional process of producing good work, McBain said. If students are engaged they will produce work that has value to the community, whether it’s artwork to beautify the school environment (as at High Tech High) or research that helps communicate cancer prevention (as with a project the STEM school worked on with the Greene County Combined Health District). Ultimately, project-based learning is an effective way of raising youth who care about their communities and have the skills to make them better.

“It’s how we create people who come back and contribute to the community,” McBain said, adding that the effect is not limited to students’ home community. “It’s about contributing to the global work place… by graduating kids who think well, communicate well and have the entrepreneurial skills to maneuver within a rapidly changing job market.”

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