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Schools embrace project-based learning 2.0

Technology pushes PBL into fifth gear in K12
New Tech High students, with teacher facilitators Christie and Tom Wolf, second and third from left, examine vines in the Copia demonstration gardens in a viticulture project.
New Tech High students, with teacher facilitators Christie and Tom Wolf, second and third from left, examine vines in the Copia demonstration gardens in a viticulture project.

A bank in Albuquerque, N.M., had a limited budget to make one of its branches more environmentally sustainable, so students at the local ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) Leadership High School rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They searched websites for green design options, consulted with an engineer, and used spreadsheets to compare potential costs and energy savings.

With their newfound knowledge, the students used SketchUp software to create their designs, which included 3-D renderings of floors made from recycled materials and a roof that would capture rainwater. In presenting their final plan, the students gave bank officials a digital tour of the new building, showing off various design options.

This effort could serve as a model of project-based learning (PBL), which focuses instruction on real-world challenges and requires collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. But what makes this particular project more remarkable is the students’ expert use of the SketchUp modeling tool to present and revise the finished product.

“It was a way to prototype ideas and make them visible to share with the client,” says Suzie Boss, author and educational consultant. “The students were working in the way that architects do.”

The message, Boss says, is that PBL becomes all the more powerful when students enhance their work with appropriate software programs or web-based tools. In fact, a growing number of educators are heralding the arrival of an era of technology-enhanced PBL.

Using educational software and online tools to promote learning is nothing new in most schools. Many teachers remember the days of steering students to educational internet sites and having them present reports in PowerPoint. Now, says Boss, teachers and students can choose from an ever-expanding cornucopia of digital tools that enable a new level of collaboration, analysis, and presentations.

Google Docs, which allows multiple users to work together on a single document, has become a staple in many schools, while Skype has emerged as a path to communicate visually with other classrooms and experts worldwide.

But students are making productive use of less familiar web-based tools. With Animoto, for instance, they can create slides and video. Padlet serves as a “graffiti” wall that lets users share ideas, videos, and links. Delicious provides a communal repository of website links, and with Geometer, a class can render sophisticated mathematical drawings.

Publishing in Philadelphia

The availability of tools likes these opens the door for students to “take on real challenges,” says Marcie Hull, the technology coordinator for the Science Leadership Academy, a Philadelphia high school focusing on STEM.

In one project, a group of students worked with a special telescope and met with the chief astronomer and planetarium director at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, one of the leading science museums in the country. Their mission over almost four years, from freshmen to seniors, was to locate and photograph anomalies on the Sun’s surface.

Students took hundreds of photographs, downloaded them to laptops, and used photo editing software to knit the photos together to create one large picture of the Sun. The students posted the composite photo and their report on the frequency of solar flares on the Science Leadership Academy’s website. The report also was acknowledged in the Franklin Institute’s newsletter. One of the students, accompanied by the institute’s planetarium director, also presented the report at a national conference.

“The students became publishers. Their audience was wider than the teacher, and they came out feeling very accomplished,” Hull says.

Beyond science, the academy’s digital video course culminated in a film festival. Students wrote the scripts, handled the cameras, and edited their videos with Apple Final Cut, a software application used by video professionals. The subjects of the videos ranged from the lasting impact of the Columbine massacre to a profile of the school’s artist in residence.

The videos were posted on the school’s website, says Principal Chris Lehmann. “It’s important to publish, online or through a blog,” he says, noting that the finished products can serve as models for those seeking to do similar work.

Rise of New Tech schools

The movement toward technology-enhanced PBL has made quantum leaps thanks to the resources and expertise of the New Tech Network, a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 that works with more than 130 schools nationwide.

The group provides intensive professional development for teachers, including summer workshops and monthly onsite visits that emphasize making the most of educational technology in PBL.

New Tech also provides its own online learning management system, Echo, which includes tools such as Google Apps for Education, a project management program, and an online grade book with rubrics for assessing student outcomes. And schools that are part of the network can consult each other or even collaborate on classroom projects through tools such as Skype.

“The big thing about New Tech is that they provide consultants and coaches,” says Peg Maddocks, the executive director of NapaLearns, which promotes PBL and raises funds for five districts around California’s Napa Valley.

The organization finances the $400,000 annual fee for New Tech Network’s services at two high schools, four middle schools, and—beginning this year—four elementary schools. The Napa Valley district hires its own full-time PBL/technology coaches for the high schools and part-time coaches in the middle and elementary New Tech schools.

Napa Valley USD Superintendent Patrick Sweeney says that by the 2016-2017 school year, all of the district’s 30 schools will adhere to the New Tech model.

On the pedagogical front, NapaLearns finds experts from various fields to work on student projects. For example, a soil engineer recently assisted a high school environmental studies project to assess a plot of nearby land for growing wine grapes—the Napa Valley’s signature industry. The goal was to determine the most suitable grape to grow there.

Besides conferring with the engineer, the class scoured the web for historical climate information and the characteristics of various grapes. They used soil probes plugged directly into their laptops to analyze their samples. Students used slides and videos to describe the grapes most suitable for that soil and climate.

Succeeding at the elementary level

Even Napa Valley elementary students are distinguishing themselves technologically, as evidenced by a recent project on the systems of the human body.

The students used Skype to talk to their teacher’s brother, a North Carolina physician who gave them several sets of symptoms and asked them to diagnose the related diseases. The students had a month to conduct web research and determine the organs that the diseases affect. They created online tables of symptoms and made PowerPoint presentations about their medical observations.

“Local people from the community also volunteered to impersonate the ill patients and gradually revealed more about their ailments,” which led to more online research and additional Skype sessions with the doctor over the ensuing weeks, Maddocks says.

In a PBL project at the Denton Avenue School in the Herricks Union Free School District in New Hyde Park, N.Y., Lisa Parisi’s fifth-grade class created a “claymation” movie by molding and manipulating characters made of clay. They used the animation tool Frames along with Windows Movie Maker and VoiceThread to add narration to their stories.

Problem-based learning

Warrior Tech Academy, which opened this year as a school-within-a-school at Magna Vista High School in the Henry County Public Schools in Virginia, follows the New Tech model and uses PBL and technology extensively. The academy also has developed an additional program called “problem based learning,” which asks students to solve real-world math problems.

This past fall, for instance, students in the Out of the Box Geometry class developed designs for a miniature golf course on the Magna Vista campus while researching geometry-based solutions to score holes-in-one, Warrior Tech Director Lindsay Favero says.

The students made digital drawings of variously shaped holes with Geometer’s Sketchpad to better understand contours. They then recreated the holes on a school patio and hit golf balls to test different angles.

Using the law of reflection, angle measurements, and geometric construction, each group created a new digital sketch that showed the path that a ball would take to make a hole-in-one when banked off of one or more walls of a hole. Part of the assignment was that a hole-in-one be possible on every hole.

Groups presented their designs to a panel and the winners were chosen based on creativity, accuracy, knowledge of geometry, and presentation skills. The winning teams will work with the Magna Vista High School landscaping team on the final design of the course.

This project, which had fewer requirements than the school’s PBL units, involved only math, and took just two weeks. In contrast, more involved projects that include interdisciplinary content can run as long as six weeks, Favero says.

“New Tech is really a whole new way to approach high school,” says Henry County Superintendent Jared Cotton, “and we have set the stage that this is going to become our new way of doing business.

“The teachers are on fire. They feel like this is what they signed on for when they became teachers.”

The combination of using real-life problem solving, collaboration, and technological tools will help prepare Warrior Tech’s students for careers locally. “In our area we have job growth in advanced manufacturing, information technology, health care, and energy,” Cotton says.

Students for the real world

Educators blending PBL with technology agree that one of the greatest values of the merger is how it empowers students. “The kids are more familiar than the teachers with the tools,” says Maddocks, of NapaLearns. “One of the most wonderful developments is that teachers can no longer keep up with the kids and the kids have to lead.”

Students can then take more of a lead in mentoring and coaching each other, says Susie Boss. And that can extend to the elementary level. Denton Avenue’s Parisi instructs her students not to limit themselves when it comes to being creative. “If they can imagine it, they can do it,” she says.

It also gives students a sense of accomplishment in that many of the finished projects—whether it’s redesigning bank buildings, publishing high-powered photographs of the Sun, or redesigning a miniature golf course—are useful in the real world. “High school should be real life,” says Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy. “We should dare students to do work that matters.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer.

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