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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project-Based Learning

Student-driven class activities, enhanced by technology, launch kindergartners on a journey of lifelong learning. Read the article.
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Narrator: Creating the school to serve nearly 500 three- to five-year-olds might seem like the recipe for disaster. Some days are chaotic here. Like when the Auburn University Pep Squad shows up. Or when a tornado touches down nearby.

Principal: Boys and girls, please move into your weather locations at this time. We will come around and check on everyone.

Narrator: But on a typical day, the students and staff at Alabama's Auburn Early Education Center are busily engaged in learning adventures, like sailing a cardboard cruise ship to Africa.

Teacher: Okay, Jordan and Dillon are going to pass your life vests out to you.

Narrator: Or flying a plastic plane to Brazil.

Teacher: You go ahead and give all your boarding pass.

Narrator: For them the lifelong learning exploration can't begin too soon.

Teacher: Bon voyage!

Narrator: Just about everything that goes on here involves long-term projects that students undertake as a class.

Sandy: Do you know where that is, what it's called?

Student: South America, Brazil.

Sandy: It is Brazil. And this is the place that you are you are studying about.

Student: That is a big place!

Sandy: It is a big, big place.

Narrator: The theme for each project evolves out of the natural curiosity of the kids.

Teacher: Here is some information about the camel, and it says, "The animal..."

Narrator: Once the students decide on a theme, teachers guide them to resources and books and on the Internet, to help focus their efforts.

Lilli: Let's say that the theme is Brazil. And they begin to study Brazil by going the Internet, they look up information. Then they decide if we want to go there. And the teachers pose to them, "Well, how can we get there?"

Student: And if they didn't have the map, they couldn't get there.

Sandy: They couldn't get there!

Lilli: Then they may decide, "Well, we're going by plane, we need to construct some type of model of plane. And the teachers get the Internet resources, the book resources. They take them on the field trip.

Sandy: Where did you get the information to know that?

Sandy: Well, we went to the Auburn Airport to see all the instruments. There was instruments inside planes to make it work.

Student: These make us how fast we're going, how slow. And these...

Lilli: The kids are very highly motivated to be involved, because they're doing it for a reason. It's not just an arbitrary "cutesy" activity that has no real meaning or value for them. So that's why teaching using thematic curriculum keeps the kids very engaged in the activities.

Teacher: You have to have your passport to get on the plane.

Student: This is your Captain speaking. We're flying to Brazil, and we don't expect a lot of turbulence.

Lilli: All of it involves developing the plan, carrying it through, writing about it, and cooperation, problem solving, critical thinking, are all pieces to getting that project complete.

Stayce: Remind everybody what we decided that we needed at our funeral.

Narrator: With a bit of skillful coaching, everyday events, like the death of the class pet praying mantis can trigger engaging projects.

Stacye: Can you share with them what you decided needed to go on the tombstone?

Student: Bugs' name.

Stacye: Bugs' name.

Narrator: After her students decided to give the deceased a funeral, teacher, Stacy Jones, found a way to fold all of their required curriculum into the project. Among other things, they practiced writing and drawing by designing invitations for the ceremony.

Stacye: I got in science. I got in social studies. I got in math, I got in writing. I got in everything all through an authentic purpose for learning. They were interested. And once you have been interested, they can't get enough information. They love school, because they're interested, because it's authentic.

Student: I went to the dentist for them to take pictures of my teeth. And I got...

Narrator: Since most kindergartners favorite subject is themselves, personal stories are at the center of the literacy curriculum mere.

Student: I forgot that I had a virus. And when I went home, I threw up on myself. Are there any questions?

Narrator: Each day, three students get a chance to tell their story, and answer questions about it.

Stayce: At the beginning of the year, every story is one sentence. "I went to the beach." "I went shopping." "I went to the mall." And as the children are asking these questions, they realize, "I need to be sure to say these details, because it's a pretty important part."

Student: I fell, and then I hit my head on my table. It was a round table, and it was a coffee one.

Stayce: Journal is great. Academically, they're writing, they're reading every day. But more importantly, they're going to be talking to people the rest of their life. So that's my big push for it is learning how to socialize and communicate with other people.

Stayce: All right, which story are you going to vote on? Are you going to vote on the teeth? Are you going to vote on the sick?

Narrator: The students consider each story and vote on which one to write about and illustrate that day.

Stayce: Hey, guys, I'm looking for those periods that go at the end of sentences.

Stayce: Now I hear another sound in "hi-s." "Hi-s."

Student: "C?"

Stayce: Mm hm.

Narrator: Early student writing rarely conforms to conventional spelling rules. But principal Lilli Land sees value in allowing creative alternatives.

Lilli: A five-year-old child should not be expected to spell every word conventionally correct. Many 35-year-olds may not spell every word conventionally correct, but use "spell check" when they're on the computer. But with a young child, you want to turn them onto the writing. "Man, I can write this! You know, I can be an author!"

Student: I'm having a good time.

Lilli: So you get those juices going, you get the kids interested. They write, and then the way that they write gives the teacher very useful information about where they are in their development in the stages of reading.

Coach: I would probably say you're exactly right. Most of the time we're going to see that "s," it's going to be an "s."

Stayce: Right.

Coach: And we're still looking at September so let's look at where he is now.

Stayce: All right.

Narrator: In addition to a dedicated reading coach, the Center has installed "Smart Boards" in every classroom to enhance their literacy effort.

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "b."

Sandy: "b." All right. Here's what I want you to do. I want you to pull this "b" on top of that "d." Pull it down. Now, are they the same? No.

Sandy: Before you could show it to them. But the fact that they can bring it over and put it on top of each other, and because they can manipulate it, makes it so much easier for them to learn, and it's so much fun for them to do. And they're actually in charge of it. they have the power. And therefore, it's more pertinent to them, I think.

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "n."

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "e."

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "n."

Sandy: Look how smart you are. You're so smart, I can't even take it! All right, what comes after...

Teacher: How do you like going on the big white boards, and going on the Internet?

Jared: You can just learn!

Lilli: Technology has really just taken us to another level.

Teacher: It says, "All the plants or plant life of a place."

Lilli: When kids have questions about things that they are learning, then it's just with a click of the mouse, and they're there. And not only can they just get information, but they can see all kinds of pictures. They can see video clips. So it just opens the door to their world of learning.

Sandy: Look! It's not anaconda. It's an otter! Why do you think the otter's coming up there?

Student: ’Cause he eats anacondas!

Sandy: He's probably saying, "Look! I have dinner. I'm going to eat me some anacondas," isn't he?

Sandy: These kids have a very authentic, real purpose for learning.

Teacher: Now, Jordan's going to stamp your passport.

Lilli: We're trying to teach them to be lifelong learners. What are resources? When you want to find something out, what do you do? You don't go to an adult, and just have them feed you all the information you know. You have to learn to be a problem solver. And you have to be resourceful. And we have to keep them excited about the process of learning.

Student: Don't go yet! Because there's lots of airplanes and birds covering the sky.

Student: Okay. I'm hanging up.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Patrick Gregory
  • Dale Gray
  • Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Ken Ellis


  • Michael Pritchard

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Still Photographs Courtesy of

  • Auburn Early Education Center

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for sharing this inspiring video of Auburn Early Education Center.

Steve Silvern's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

AEEC is the public kindergarten in Auburn. It is for all learners. Half the kids there are on free or reduced lunch! Don't think that because these kids respond so great is because the kids are unique. The great response is because the teachers, and staff all treat the children as authentic learners in authentic learning situations.

Many people assume that they can't do what AEEC does, that there is something different there. The only difference is that the principal, teachers, and staff all have a commitment to genuine learning experiences. Every school has the exact same opportunities. They simply have to commit to the children and believe in their learning possibilities.

Jeff Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


The Early Education Center in Auburn is not a gifted program. Every kindergarten child in the entire city school system goes to this school. They have the lowest level child in the system to the highest level. They have ESOL students, special needs students, and they are a Title I school. This curriculum has something to offer every student regardless of their experiences, finances, or academic level. Assuming this is Daniel Dickson from GCPS, please feel free to come and see me and I will elaborate.

Jeff Smith

Gayle Allen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This video was very helpful for me as a 23 year veteran teaching Kindergarten. I have attended a program called InSTEP that introduced me to PBL, but I'd like to know more. How were you able to fund the needed technology, like white interactive boards for the class? How long did the "cruise" take to reseach and get it in? We have Content Standards and Objectives(CSO's) that we have to cover. Have you been able to cover all needed material using PBL or do you use some traditional approaches?

Michelle Ledbetter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My daughter Caitlin is in the Blue Pod at AEEC, and her pod took the Cruise ship to Africa. I'm fuzzy on the exact time period, but I want to say that it took the kids about two months to organize and create the cruise ship. Each of the six classes in the Blue Pod made a different section of the ship. Caitlin's class made the lifeboats and life-vests. During that same time period (in fact, all year) they were learning about African animals and culture. Caitlin's class currently has lifesize replicas of a female African elephant (the kids decided a male African elephant would be too big to fit inside the classroom), lion, chimpanzee, meerkat, and African grey parrot. They've also got a spitting cobra, camel, bull hippopotamus, and crocodile on displays outside of the classroom. The kids come up with their own ideas on how to create the replicas... and sometimes their ideas don't work. This is just part of the learning process, and the kids will have to go back and ask themselves, "Ok, why didn't that work, and what can we do this time to make it work better?" I can't express how amazing this school is, and how much my daughter has learned since she started in August. AEEC is amazing.

Molly Maloney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am incredibly impressed with the AEEC program - the children do seem to be engaged with each other and with the learning process. KUDOS!

However I noticed something as I watched: in the "Airport" classroom, it looked like the pilots and air traffic controllers were all boys! Considering that those are the best paid and most powerful positions in the airline industry AND they remain vastly male, I have to wonder about the message that sent - however subtle it might have been - to the girls in the classroom. Even if the roles were self-selected by the kids, there remains an ethical duty by educators to promote gender equity. Since the project dealt with the airline industry, I sincerely hope this was addressed at an age appropriate level. After all, the values kids hold as adults are formed in early childhood.

Allyson Martin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the reading coach at Auburn Early Education Center and I can assure you that we at AEEC do everything in our power to empower girls and boys as we strive to lead them to see that the "sky is the limit" for their learning and their future. In this particular video segment, you only saw boys working in the roles of pilots and air traffic controllers. This is only one segment and one piece of footage dealing with the project based learning that our students are engaged in everyday. In another simulated airline experience you would be just as likely to find girls filling these roles as boys. We are always mindful of the gender bias, as well as other biases and prejudices, that exist in the world in which we live. We truly believe that children are our future and that they offer the hope of making our world a better place. Therefore our ultimate goal is to help them become productive members of society and agents for positive change.
Child choice is an essential component in fostering academic skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. It is also crucial to the social and moral development of the child in the movement towards autonomy. At AEEC project work is guided and driven by the interests and choice of the child. Thus, the roles that children participated in during this particular project were not assigned to them, but were chosen by them.
We also realize that our world looks at the worth,value,and importance of a job based upon the power and money associated with that job. While the job of pilot may be powerful and monetarily lucrative, the mechanic whose job it is to ensure the plane is "flight worthy" surely has a job of at least equal importance and value. Thus we strive to teach our children that every job is important and necessary in achieving the ultimate goal of a safe flight for the passengers who have entrusted their lives to the airline. As teachers we experience the "job bias" that exists in the world as a daily reality. However, I don't think anyone would argue the ultimate value and worth that a job in education holds for our society - even though it is not a position of power or great wealth.

Linda Feucht's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love to work at a school who believes in project based learning. How do you go about finding these schools? Are there any in Colorado?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Dave Pettit's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am nearly done with my online Master's degree in Educational Technology at Grand Canyon University. We have covered PBLs extensively in several classes.

I have learned that the teacher needs to know their curriculum backwards and forwards. Then when a class of students say they want to fly to the moon, parts of the curriculum are incorporated into the job of figuring out how to fly to the moon. If you need to cover primary colors, you have the students look for the colors as a part of their researching. If they need to learn about animals, you have them decide which animals to take on the trip.

The teacher, knowing the curriculum, can guide the students to pre-selected Webpages that have the information they need. Then the products of the PBL activities become tools to learning. You can have a PBL with a writing activity that re-enforces letter shapes and sentence punctuation. You can have another PBL with science and math in which the students measure on the floor or butcher paper how tall an animal is and compare that to how tall they are--how many Marys tall is a giraffe? They then use an outline of Mary on butcher paper as a ruler for a giraffe. (Please excuse me if this is too tough a concept for Kindergarteners; I taught mostly 4th graders.)

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