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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

From Worms to Wall Street: Projects Prompt Active, Authentic Learning

You can't tear students at Newsome Park Elementary School away from their schoolwork when it involves in-depth investigations with real-world applications. Read the article.
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All: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go eat worms. Long thin slimy ones, short fat juicy ones, itsy bitsy fuzzy wuzzy worms.

Narrator: These first graders at Newsome Park Elementary dig worms, and they've designed an entire project around them with the help of their teacher, Cathy Huemer.

Oh, there's one.

Cathy: You wanna pick it up, Cameron?

When they wanted to do animals, they had idea. "Let's do snakes, let's do you know, horses, let's do dogs, you know." And so I keep raising question to them, "Well, why? What is it that you wanna know?" Well, they wanna know about, "Well, where do these animals live?" So I said to them, "Are we really gonna be able to go look for snakes, you know? That might not be possible. Can you think of something else that might be similar?" And someone just said, "Let's do worms." Said, "Okay, we what do we know about worms? What do we need to find out about worms?" Phase one, which leads us into phase two, which is the field work, the actual work that they're doing, whether it's field trips, lab work, experiments.

Student: We did a experiment on dead worms. We smelled 'em and they didn't smell good. And we had to pick 'em up and feel the vein.

Narrator: Worms are just one of the subjects students explore in depth at Newsome Park, a K through five science magnet school in Newport News, Virginia, that has embraced the concept of project based learning.

See the different types of fish that're here?

Narrator: Each class picks a topic to study for the semester. They then plan a research phase which includes field trips to gather information.

Student: Transportation, four facts.

Narrator: At the conclusion of the project, they share their findings in oral presentations, digital slideshows, and display boards which are viewed and critiqued by their parents and their peers.

Peter: Project based learning was really the delivery model that we felt would allow kids to learn, and really learn about what they wanna learn about. I mean, so many years, we've been pumping kids full of stuff that we think is appropriate, and really, in many instances, maybe that was successful, but it's much more successful and exhilarating when kids have the input that we allow them to have here at Newsome Park.

How do you spell "minerals?"

Narrator: Students here have chosen to study everything from space flight to homelessness. This first grade class decided to explore cystic fibrosis, a disease affecting one of their classmates.

One of our students has CF and we're trying to learn about CF to see what it is, how it works. Mucus starts getting into the person's lungs and pancreas. And we hope to find out that there's a cure for CF.

Narrator: Students use programs like PowerPoint and a series of thinking maps to turn good project concepts into exemplary work products.

Peter: The students of today are really more in tune with everything that they have coming in at them visually, so using the technology to represent their learning has actually increased the quality of their work.

Narrator: Even with the latest technology tools, project based learning can be challenging for teachers.

Patty: -- for us, and so we came up with some questions for Miss Harbuck and she's coming in today to tell us more, isn't she?


Oh good, okay.

Patty: It's easier to teach out of a textbook, where this day it tells me to do this, and this day it tells me to do that. So in a way, you've gotta be willing to work a little harder too to do it this way. Even though it looks like the kids are doing all the hard work, there's a lotta planning that goes on behind it to make sure that the work is there for them.

Do we have anybody in this classroom with asthma?

All: Yes.

Patty: Yes, we do. And--

Narrator: Since several of Miss Vreeland's students have asthma, they're studying pets, focusing on pets that don't make asthma worse. As part of every research project, students seek out experts, like a guest speaker from the local hospital..

Teacher: Your lungs are made up of different kinds of tissue.

Patty: They know that they don't have all the answers, and it's okay. They also know that Miss V doesn’t have all the answers, and it doesn't bother her a bit. And so we sit back and we go, "Okay, well who can we call, who can we ask?"

Thank you, thank you.

Narrator: At lunchtime, students get to test their social skills and basic math, selling everything from Walkathon pledges to marigolds.

Student: We have marigolds, we have two of these left, and mixed flowers. Those just all type of flowers, like this flower, this whole patch, it'll probably be like that when they grow.

Narrator: The plant business grew out of a class investigation into the stock market.

Robert: We talked about what the stock market was. We actually invested in fancy stocks. We were thinking about investing in some penny stocks and seeing how much money we could make on the stock exchange. However, that became repetitive and truthfully, somewhat boring.

What you wanna buy?

Narrator: Instead, the class decided to create their own business. They bought seeds, grew the plants and made sales brochures, funding the entire operation through the sale of flower power stock.

Robert: We ended up going around, we sold ten cent shares of our stock in our company and we actually raised over seventy-five dollars.

Narrator: But the success of the fourth grade plant projects sowed the seeds of another lesson in real life learning. It led to the mounting of a hostile takeover attempt by Miss Shields' fifth graders.

Student: Miss Shields' classes, the fifth grade, is planning to take and buy all the stock and leave them for like five percent of their stock and take over their business. So we'll be in total control of their business.

Narrator: The process of learning project based lessons has had a positive impact on everything from test scores to classroom behavior.

Peter: Our test scores have improved, mainly I think because of the fact that we've connected the learning to real world problems, and the integration of technology has helped the students to actually product quality products. So that's the reward, and to me, it's been probably the most rewarding way of teaching and learning that I've experienced in my thirty years.

It's a red wiggler.

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 Producers:

  • Diane Curtis
  • Leigh Iacobucci

Camera Crew:

  • Alfred Shapiro
  • Jeff McGall


  • Karen Sutherland


  • Susan Blake


  • Morgan Ho

Editor's Note: Since we filmed this story, Victor Martinez has become principal of Newsome Park Elementary. The school's projects are now "expeditions", after the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (ELOB) model.

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