Perhaps the biggest benefit from participating in Disney’s Planet Challenge, Neubacher said, is that all students feel like they are contributing to the success of the class project.
Earning the grand prize in Disney’s Planet Challenge will give children in one classroom memories for a lifetime with a trip to a Disney resort, but ultimately all participating students emerge as winners, says a California teacher whose fifth-grade class has entered the competition 14 times and won it four times.
“The prize is a very cool thing, but the real benefits come just from working on the project,” said David Neubacher, who teaches in Sonoma, Calif. “There’s something about it that gets the kids really hooked on learning.”
Over the years, Neubacher’s students have undertaken a wide variety of projects, including helping to restore a national forest after a fire, learning about the importance of wolves in the ecosystem, planting trees to help with creek restoration and researching the cause of deformities in the local frog population.
“The kids find it very rewarding to contribute to the community,” he said. “They feel like they’re making a difference.”
On the frog project, for instance, the students discovered that chemical runoff from lawn fertilizers may have been contributing to the birth deformities. “We went into the community and educated people about the problem and asked them to be careful about using these chemicals,” Neubacher said. “People paid attention and it seemed to curb the deformities almost immediately, which made the students feel great.”
“A kid who doesn’t normally shine in class, who might not respond well to textbooks and tests, really has the chance to participate on an equal footing with all the other kids,” he explained. “There’s a need for all sorts of expertise: writers, researchers, artists, kids who like to work with their hands. It takes all of them working together to pull this off, and in the end everyone feels like they’ve become an expert in the subject.”
For teachers, the secret to a successful experience with Disney’s Planet Challenge is to be more of a coach than a leader, according to a teacher whose class has participated in the program six times, once as the grand prize winner.
"I see myself as a guide," said Bob Comlossy, who teaches in Lake Tahoe, Calif. "At the start, when the class is selecting a project, I put a lot of ideas out there and then try to guide them to something that fifth graders can do. The fact that I let the kids make the ultimate decision means they consider it their project."
In 2006, the year his class won the competition, Comlossy began the process by bringing in speakers from several local environmental groups and agencies. One of the speakers discussed the need to restore the bat population in a local meadow to control insects, and the students latched onto that idea, ultimately building eight bat houses in the meadow.
"The kids found a website with plans for different kinds of bat houses, and they did research to determine which types would be best for the species of bats that were needed in the meadow,” he recalled. "They got their parents to pitch in to help get building materials, and one of the dads was a contractor who did all the cutting. But the kids did all the assembly."
Because the students were directing their own discovery and learning, they became highly knowledgeable about bats, Comlossy said. "The kids that year still know more about bats and their place in the ecosystem than I do, because I was busy just coaching, organizing and moving them ahead. They were busy with the details."
For Comlossy, the ultimate value of Disney’s Planet Challenge is the sense of empowerment that students get from it. "You see kids moving back and forth seamlessly from independent work to teamwork," he explained. "They completely take ownership of their project."