Labor Day weekend means a much- anticipated opportunity to take a breath. Already, the school year is five weeks old. For many of us, we’re in the second cycle of projects, which means that we have experienced what I think is the hardest aspect of PBL: the changeover. On the one hand, there’s the large quantity of culminating work from the just- ended project, which must be assessed fully; on the other, there’s all of the preparation for the next project. The result is stressful and can be overwhelming.
Over the years we’ve tried everything in terms of approaches to a project launch. Some of them are well- planned and carefully executed. Others are (sometimes for sheer purpose of survival) a bit more on- the- fly. This year, we’ve had a couple of project launches prepared on a short time line that I thought worked well and reduced the burden of many hours of preparation to get a project off the ground. Here are some examples.
Sometimes the easiest AND most appropriate way to get students thinking about a problem, situation or task is just to tell a story. Research has verified the importance of storytelling as a cognitive tool, so why not use this timeless approach to engage students into a new learning scenario?
In order for us to better learn about the perspectives that our students brought to our Environmental Studies/ English 9 course, we wanted students to write their “Personal Nature Narrative”. Lacking for any better ideas, we read the classic Dr. Seuss book The Lorax and followed it up with a debrief. There are different types of people represented in this book, and those differences represent us. After making sure that everyone understood why we read the story, we got into the logistics of their task.
In using this approach, students had something from which to refer in terms of a possible solution to telling their own story: a great fable about humans and their interaction with nature. The Lorax also happens to be the book that I read my six- year old more than any other; so the story not only helped they connect with the topic, it helped them connect with me at the start of the new year.
2) Community event as a project launch
One of the cornerstones of our school culture is our school garden. We love using it as a learning tool for problem solving in math, science, engineering, environmental studies, and community involvement in general. Last year, we were a part of a “Community Garden Showcase” put on by our local Purdue Extension Office. It was a good event, with students there to talk about their biology research projects in garden ecology. To make a short story even shorter, we knew we wanted to do it again.
We scheduled it for August of this year without really knowing what the details of the event would
|We made delicious Bruschetta from the garden tomatoes and basil.|
With several students on hand at the Community Garden Showcase, interacting with Master Gardeners and neighbors, they saw the power and potential of a garden to create community; they didn’t have to wait until the end of the project to see this for their selves. It really gave them something to work towards as we planted a new fall crop. There will be a similar event at the end of the project where they showcase the food we grow and cook from it, and the research we do about making our garden a bigger part of the fabric of our community.
3) Jump in with an existing academic program
Is there any good reason why you can’t or shouldn’t use an existing frame work for a contest or academic competition to provide that authentic drive? This year one of my classes is building Scrambler cars, a classic Science Olympiad event, to learn and apply Newton’s Laws of Motion. The event has a rigorous set of rules and constraints, meaning I don’t have to create them! This ialso makes it conducive to a partnership with local engineers, as they are constantly meeting tight parameters and deadlines. Given that all of the contest details are already established, my job shifts to scaffolding the science content and helping them figure out the best ways to build this car. Ultimately I’d love for some of these students to get involved with the program, but whether they do or don’t, we’ll have our own Scrambler car competition judged by engineers, and they will have learned the content I need them to learn.
4) Turn a lab into an entry event
The Emerald Ash Borer has been identified in our county within the last year, having spread south from Michigan over the last two decades and infecting practically every Ash tree they encounter. It just so happens that we have Ash trees within a short walk of our building. So, a tree identification activity in my AP Biology class ended up (not by chance) at a White Ash. After the identification was complete, there was a (planned) teachable moment. We use this moment to compare notes about the Emerald Ash Borer’s history and economic impact, and for students to receive their challenge (to document Ash tree locations in our town, mathematically model their spread, and determine possible courses of action for the city.) Through this project we’ll learn community interactions, population dynamics, and evolution.
Not every hastily- planned entry event will be successful, and those who are die- hard planners might not ever take the advice I offer. But sometimes even a meticulously planned entry event can fall flat, either for lack of student “WOW” factor or, simply too much detail. The other thing to know is that there can always be a do- over. If students don’t get or respond to the entry event you present, there’s always tomorrow. They need to understand the task and its importance, so do that “Take Two” if you need to (in which case you KNOW it’s going to be on the fly! Embrace it!)