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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Applying Math Skills to a Real-World Problem

Students in Eeva Reeder's geometry class design schools for 2050. More to this story.

Student: The solar panels would kind of be spread out between the west, the east and the south.

Teacher: What's that gonna do to the aesthetics, to the look of your dome, these big panels?

Student: Well, can I show you something on the computer?



Narrator: For the past several years, students in Eeva Reeder's geometry class at Mountlake Terrace High School have faced a severe challenge at the end of the school year.

Just like an open, inviting area.

Eeva: My students are engaged in a five, six week project. It's a culminating project in a regular geometry class. They bring together everything they've learned in the geometry class and they're applying it to solve a real world problem. And the problem that they have to solve is, how do you design a state of the art high school in the year twenty fifty on a particular site, and this is the site for this year.

So you're gonna leave the hills as they are?


What are you gonna use them for?

All: Cross country.

Eeva: Oh, so you're just gonna have a bunch of paths through here?

All: Yes.


Eeva: Students are in teams of three to four and they're in a design competition for a contract to build it.

Student: Thirty-five by thirty-five feet long. The back wall is twenty feet tall.

Student: These are too--

Student: With two ten foot pillars.

Narrator: At the end of the project, each team is required to submit a site plan for their school.

This actual area right here has five buildings that act as--

Narrator: A scale model of at least one room...

That the front row desk will lower down into the ground--

Narrator: A floor plan, and a cost estimate for construction.

Our total cost was eighty six million, four hundred twenty thousand and a hundred and twenty-two dollars.

Narrator: Teams submit a written proposal and give a final oral presentation to a team of architects who volunteer their time to judge the relative merits of the proposals.

Eeva: Football field, a hundred yards, three hundred feet?

Hundred yards, three--

Narrator: Reeder created this rigorous project when she realized that her students weren't able to apply what they were studying in class.

Eeva: It became immediately apparent to me as a teacher that talking to kids didn't cause them to really deeply learn concepts, and they might learn the material, learn it, so that they could spit back formulas and so on, on a paper and pencil test. But they weren't able to apply it in a context that was outside of that unit and outside of that worksheet or book page.

Why not have the whole side, this wall be glass facing the water?

Eeva: It's when they can use what they learn in class to solve a problem that I know that they've learned the material.

We'd have doors leading to the outside classroom, so--

Narrator: While students must draw on their knowledge of everything from math and English, to the aesthetics of design, they also learn an invaluable lesson in teamwork?

Joe: We'll see how many we can fit. We'll see how many we can fit.

I'm thinking because--

Joe: When we finally started on the site model there was constant little squabbling about, "Oh, this should go there."

Student: Just the bottom row itself just holds twelve hundred people, right?

Joe: No, no, no, this entire thing holds twelve hundred people.

Student: Oh, the entire school.

Eeva: They're faced with this really complex problem that has certain constraints and they have to figure out how to begin to make the decisions and move the process forward, and how do you do that decision making within a group? These are the things that are really maybe the most powerful learnings that come from it. The real life, problem solving, communication collaboration skills.

Joe: I did learn how to work with people that didn't think the way I did, thought nonlinear, didn't believe in deadlines sort of thing. They really think out of the box, which is not like me. I'm a completely in the box kinda person. You gotta make sure you work together.

Man: You might be able to just kinda quickly build a little model of it.

Narrator: Seattle architects, Mark Miller and Kirk Wise, have played a key role in the design project for the last eight years, acting as mentors, coaches, and ultimately judges of the students' work.

There's also escalators--

Eeva: A hugely important piece of a really effective project is to have the audience for the student work be someone outside of the classroom. So I go out into the community and I find someone who's willing to look at their work.

Man: Which means that you use the sunlight for daylight.

Eeva: The quality of student work really does go through the ceiling because they care about these architects' opinions.

Man: And so these are great ideas. You're sort of dissolving the concept of a wall, dissolving this idea of indoor, outdoor.

Shaun: It felt so good to do it and to present it to like architects really boosted up the confidence, and I really wanted to put an impact on them, and show 'em all I got.

Girls: Hi, we're max. We'll take you to the max-imum.

Girl: In the beginning, we decided to start with the floor plans and the designs. Our school has one main building with four buildings onto the side of it where it's connecting with walkways. Can you guys imagine what it'd be like just walking into a room and all you see is just three feet of wall with brick, and then the rest windows, eeven on top of you. That's what we have in our model right here.

Student: The classroom is built down twenty feet, so the back wall is into the hill itself. The rest of the walls are made of glass. The two side walls are clear so you can look out and have no disruption with your view. The silver pad is a light projection and the little white square is a three hundred and sixty degree hologram. This hologram is your teacher. This hologram teacher can change for your subject. If you want math, you can get Miss Reeder. If you want physics, you can get Einstein. It's all programmed in.

Student: Education in the year two thousand fifty is very different from the way it was at the beginning of the century. Class sizes are smaller. School budgets are much larger, and most importantly, students are taught differently. Education, it has become project based.

Narrator: Spending six weeks on a single project at the end of the school year is a bold teaching strategy, but for Reeder and her students, the gamble pays off.

Eeva: My colleagues ask me, how do I possibly find time for project based learning when there are so many concepts to cover, so much curriculum to cover and the pressure to get students ready for high stakes tests? And my answer to them is that applied learning, or project based learning, is the most effective way to deliver information and it's the most effective way for students to understand concepts. Once they have learned a skill by having to use it, it's theirs. You don't need to cram for it on the test. It's a way of learning information that works.

Hey, you guys, everybody wants to direct their attention that way.



You will see the Rainier Tower.

Narrator: On the final day of the class architecture project, Eeva Reeder's students went on a field trip to check out some of Seattle's landmark structures.

The center of gravity for that building is a giant concrete base below the building.

Narrator: But the most eagerly anticipated stop on the trip was a visit to the architectural firm of Wise Miller.

Man: Good morning, glad you could make it.

Man: These are sketches that we did for the high school. You can see the light--

Narrator: The students were eager to learn about the work of these two prominent Seattle architects, but they were also anxious to find out what grades they were going to get from them on this, the final day of assessment.

Man: And then they had the library rotating and they made a point of saying that it needed to be larger.

Narrator: The architects' judgment counts for forty percent of a student's final grade for the project. It's just part of the sophisticated rubric that Reeder has refined over the years.

Eeva: I have to come up with ways to assess those products and performances. So I look at the site plan and look at the perspective drawing. I read the proposal and I have a scoring guide developed for each one of those. But I think that the most powerful assessment for this project is that provided by the architects.

Man: And again, you will remember this activity your whole lives and it will make a difference. What you've done is very good and we want to recognize the best of the best.

Narrator: With the moment of truth at hand, students were able to taste the thrill of winning, or the agony of losing a contract.

Man: We have three groups that we wanna recognize, ADP, SK and Max, if you'd come up.

Narrator: This was also a time to celebrate the diverse inspirations and surprising talents that emerge during the course of the project.

Man: You had a level of comfort as you presented your work, and when you know your work, and you know what you're saying, and you believe it, it comes through. And so we wanted your building, because you were doing a good job in your presentation. We're ready for best architecture. Best architecture category goes to Yin Yang. Your architectural solution was just very-- it's almost animate. You used that word--

Eeva: Hearing the architects, they said like, "Now this is a building I'd like to work together with you on." You can't duplicate that experience in a classroom.

Man: But we really like those arms that reached down the hillside, and we could see the classroom learning going indoor and outdoor.

Eeva: It's so powerful for the students because they have someone who can deeply appreciate what it is they've struggled with and gone through, and someone who can just really let them know what a fabulous job they've done.

Man: Are we ready for the final? Best overall project for this year, I have to tell you, that the winner was won by one point. The winner this year goes to SK. Come on up.

Eeva: To hear someone honoring their ideas, that gives me chills.

Man: And their presentation was very strong. Their educational concept was just wonderful.

Eeva: All of the little details of the hassle of arranging field trips and making all this come together, it's just completely worth it.

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

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Sara Armstrong
  • Leigh Iacobucci


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Robert O. Weller
  • Michael Curtiss


  • Susan Blake

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Editor's Note: Educational consultant Eeva Reeder passed away in August of 2010 at the age of 53. We are grateful for her many contributions to the field of project-based learning and to Edutopia, and she is greatly missed. Mountlake Terrace High School discontinued the Schools for the Year 2050 project when Eeva Reeder moved on from the school in 2002, but it remains a great example of a rigorous high school math project.

For student work examples and more information, go to "How to Organize a Design Project for Your Class."

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

DS's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great model for learning. We can incorporate so many of our educational standards, across disciplines, into activities like this. This is an example of real, applicable learning that is concrete. Hurray!

Cathleen V. Sanders's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article very exciting. Having taught high school mathematics for 36 years, I think it is wonderful to know that teachers are using great projects like these. These projects allow students to relate mathemetics to useful and important issues in the world. Unfortunately, math is very often taught as lists of rules, theorems to memorize, and tests to pass. I have always believed that it is essential for students to know that school is a place where students learn how to apply what they are learning.

I hope that my web pages on The Math Forum (http://mathforum.org/~sanders/) will assist teachers, and provide ideas for projects and activities than can enrich students' mathematical experiences.

Aloha from Hawaii,
Cathleen V. Sanders

Sheila Cropley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mrs. Kieselbach,
I'm currently an education major and I has this assignmtn to do on this video, when I saw it I thought of you. I thought it was such a greata concept and thought you might want to take a look since LVA is so projected based learning.Mrs. Cropley

G. Neff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Inspiring. I found the project, the courage of Eeva Reeder, the contribution of the two architects Miller and Weise, and the way the students rose to the challenge inspiring. I would anticipate many future architects and other building professionals coming from these students in future years.

Nada's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love what this teacher has done, learning by doing is one of the most effective types of learning, because it is practical and multidisciplinary. It is also FUN!!! Apart from its academic advantages, it also teaches kids to cooperate, communicate, find solutions, decide which one is best etc. The challenge would be teachers. Many don't know how to get out of the textbook and use techniques like these. , but it can and should be done.

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