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Jr. High Completes Project Based Lesson

By Schaffer, Renee

November 20, 2015

Ness City Junior High students engage in project-based learning

By Renee Schaffer

Students at Ness City Junior High arrived at school Tuesday, November 3 with little preparation for the challenges they would face over the course of the next two days. As they filtered into the gym, their eyes widened at the sight of mats that covered half of the gym floor, tables filled with a collection of seemingly random objects and gigantic fans. The seventh and eighth graders cautiously whispered to one another, “What are we doing today?” while teachers exchanged covert glances and offered little information for the curious students.  Twenty minutes after the first bell--and the debut of several teachers’ acting careers, including 7-12 Principal Tom Flax--students’ curiosity was further piqued. A teacher-written and teacher-performed skit established a unique challenge for the 40 students of Ness City Junior High: the students would spend the next two days creating land vehicles, propelled only by wind.  This style of learning is known as “project-based learning,” or PBL. In schools across the country, educators are adopting PBL opportunities for their classrooms in search of ways to connect learning to real-life experiences or provide more engaging learning opportunities. PBL lessons require students to master skills across a variety of subject areas, ranging from science and English to math and art.  Students started small, with Matchbox cars, hot glue guns, thin wooden rods, string, Wal-Mart bags and scissors. They were assigned to groups of five and challenged to make a working model of a wind-wagon in one hour, with the stipulation that vehicles would be measured for speed and distance. A feverish hum filled the gym as 40 students began working together to rise to the challenge.  “I was pretty excited for the students to get started on the project,” said Dawn Flax, NCHS social studies and ESL instructor. “The skit made [the students] giggle and got them fired up.”  Shop instructor Brent Kerr added, “My first reaction? Chaos. Once that calmed down, though, I was impressed by how quickly and efficiently the students set to work. They were all engaged from the very beginning.”  After testing their Matchbox wind-wagons, students returned to the drawing table to make adjustments to design. Eighth graders Skyler Woods and Sebastian Araiza-Bejarano took a few moments to explain a unique design-element other groups hadn’t previously considered: “We have this sail on the back . . . but we’re also creating sails on each side,” Woods explained. “That way, if the car turns or wind is coming from a different direction, the vehicle will keep moving,” Araiza-Bejarano chimed in.  As the first day progressed, students moved on from the initial, smaller wind-wagon designs to larger, more challenging wind-wagons that didn’t have wheels or axles. The removal of this seemingly simple feature proved frustrating for many. Groups built, tested, discarded, revised and retested wheel and axle setups one after another. Their trial and error experiments, coupled with prior knowledge of everything from cars to combines and review of other groups’ methods, resulted in the discovery of ways to prevent wheels from wobbling or wagons from making unwanted route changes.  NCHS math instructor Bruce Buethe noted “[This project] was a great way to engage students with different skills and interests.” He added that project-based learning experiences such as this one require teachers to ask students about the choices they are making. Asking students to explain their thinking drives higher-order thinking, a goal all teachers work toward in the classroom.  When asked what went well for this inaugural event, Flax indicated that “having the mini-project first was a great way to get the students’ brains in motion without scaring them.” With a laugh, she added that teachers learned just as much--if not more--than students this first time around. “Patience. [You need] lots of patience. And we learned to stand back and let the kids figure it out.”  And “figure it out” they did. Students quickly learned on day two of the project that teacher expectations were high. Many discovered a rubric for presentations that they hadn’t studied--or even acknowledged--the day before. Students learned they would be presenting their projects and research on wind-wagons to high school and elementary students. This presentation aspect was a vital component of the project, teachers determined beforehand. In order to challenge students on a variety of skills, it was necessary to ask them to do more than just build.  “Research and presentation of findings are significant components of higher education and life in the workplace. Students will need to develop the ability to search the internet--among other sources--for reliable, accurate information and process their findings. We must try to prepare our students for many occupations that don’t even exist yet, and teaching a Project-Based Learning model can help to prepare them to problem solve and work together.” said Principal Tom Flax.  Ultimately, teachers at NCHS believe that projects such as this one will positively impact the way USD 303 schools function, including teaching and learning methods. Buethe sees PBL experiences as opportunities to more effectively prepare students for employers. “Employers constantly rank soft skills higher than academic skills,” Buethe commented. “Kids need [PBL] more than ever. This is a means to build these soft skills while building upon academic skills at the same time.”  Similarly, Dawn Flax predicts that PBL methods will change the way NCHS instructors teach and students learn. “I see this as an opportunity for teachers to move away from traditional methods. The students will become more involved in their learning, and not just wait for teachers to lead them to the ‘right’ answers. Sometimes there is more than one answer, and we want our kids to learn that.”  Kerr added that he thinks this method of learning is invaluable. “It moves learning from situations where students sit and receive information, memorize, and regurgitate facts on tests. Projects such as this one will produce students that are capable of thinking critically, working with diverse individuals, and solving complex problems.”

Of course, you can’t argue with philosophies like that.

Jr. High Completes Project Based Lesson

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