Last spring my third graders selected and solved a problem for our school. To improve safety and raise the aesthetic appeal of the exterior of our school, students collaborated with our principal, the school district maintenance and grounds departments, and a local nursery. In the end, they made the bussing area safer by adding numbers to the bus lines, and they overhauled the landscaping and irrigation systems at the front of our school.
I have done project-based learning with students before, but this was the most robust and authentic version I have attempted to date. It was the final thesis project for my Masters coursework at Whitworth, and it ended up being the best lesson I taught in 2018.
Last winter, I asked third graders to make a list of all the problems they could find around the school. It turned out, identifying a problem was more difficult than I expected.
Their lists were long, but… they did not include many true problems.
I realized I needed to back up. I reminded the students that engineers love the process of problem finding, because it allows them to dream of undiscovered solutions. We reflected on the engineering design process, and the commonalities amongst the various types of engineering we have studied. We talked about the challenge of jumping too quickly to a solution and the benefits of creative procrastination.
Eventually, working together, the students recognized the true problems among their brainstormed list and combed through other ideas until they identified the problems within.
Ready with their now plentiful problems, we started to talk about project management. Some problems could be easily and immediately solved by themselves or others, like adding new wood chips to the playground. Others were only relevant to a small group of students, like a leaky sink in room four. I challenged them to select a problem that was right in scope. Their choice should impact everyone in our school and should be completed within spring semester.
They focused on a few top ideas and pitched them to our principal and the head of school district maintenance. Feedback from those parties helped students make their final decisions. In the end, they resolved to fix these two problems:
- Students get mixed up when waiting for buses at the end of the day
- The outside of our school is very ugly because the irrigation is broken and the plants are dead or overgrown.
Next, students conducted in-depth, first person research to understand the details more fully before planning solutions. They invited maintenance staff and the owner of a local nursery to advise them about landscaping and irrigation. They worked through an irrigation design challenge in class to create prototypes of an irrigation system and then interviewed school and district transportation support staff to determine an appropriate design plan. They took a field trip to the nursery to see an irrigation system in action, study their design bid, and make final plant selections.
They had their two-part plan. First, students would paint numbers on the bus lines to help all students in the school find their routes. Once the ground thawed, they would repair the irrigation and replace the landscaping in front of the school.
Finally, they were ready to carry out their project. We settled on a day at the end of March to paint the bus lines. It turned out to be snowy and windy, but the students figured out how to get the job done anyway!
On planting day, each student planted at least two plants. They dug holes, installed irrigation, and laid ground cover. They worked as a team for the entire day to ensure that they followed the design plan and everything was planted!
At the end, I gathered student reflections. They did some reflective writing, we had conversations about their experiences, and they wrote a letter to next year’s class (I am definitely doing this again!). The reflections students shared made the value of their learning clear:
- Helping improve my school is like an adventure where you can have a great time with friends.
- The most surprising thing about our project was that we did not have to get down on our knees and beg to get permission!
- I can’t believe we really did it!
- When you work with your friends you can do really hard things.
- Working together can make us achieve our goals.
- This is a great project! It helps us be more responsible, and it’s really fun, too!
Some people call this problem-based learning, or project-based learning, or place-based learning. I don’t like to get too hung up in those details.
For my students, and for me, too–it was real learning. They applied the engineering design process to a true problem that mattered to them, that they could solve now. Along the way, they learned a mountain of mathematical, speaking, listening, writing and research skills straight out of the Common Core State Standards.
I learned that sometimes the best way to lead students to the learning goals I have for them is to let them take the lead in the problems they want to solve.
If you are interested in developing a similar project, these are few of my favorite resources:
Engineering is Elementary – (engineering is one way to give students background knowledge in design thinking and provides a great structure to any project like this) – https://www.eie.org/
The Global Monster Project – (my first attempt at PBL, a great way to dip your toe in!) https://www.smithclass.org/proj/Monsters/
What makes a problem real? https://gifted.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/961/2015/09/mmmjsr02.pdf
Buck Institute for Project Based Learning: http://www.bie.org/
The Student Product Assessment Form: https://gifted.uconn.edu/schoolwide-enrichment-model/spaftext/