A Passion for Projects: Students Have a Voice -- and a Choice

When students are given the freedom to choose their projects, the quality of work -- and student pride -- soars.

When students are given the freedom to choose their projects, the quality of work -- and student pride -- soars.
passion for projects
Credit: Max Seabaugh

It was the early 1990s, and a Washington state education reform committee was investigating what learning looks like when students are allowed to choose the subjects of long-term, cross-disciplinary projects.

Traveling to a few high schools that had adopted "project-based" and "performance-based" learning, committee member Bobbie May remembers her pleasure at seeing how enthusiastic the students were as they presented their projects to peers, teachers, and visitors.

"When students talk about their own work, they get so excited," says May, who is currently president of the Washington State Board of Education. She was struck, too, by the amount of effort the young people -- even those with a tendency to slack off -- put into their projects because they were able to choose a subject about which they were passionate, were allowed to take learning wherever they pleased, and knew they were going to present their work publicly to local experts and community members.

Impressed by what they saw, the committee recommended that the state require students to complete a culminating project that demonstrates growth in key academic areas as a graduation requirement. "We specifically stayed away from a senior project and called it a culminating project because we're hopeful it will show progress over time," says May.

In 2001, the state Board of Education accepted the committee's recommendation and voted to put the requirement into effect in 2004 with the incoming freshman class that graduates in 2008. The board also totally revamped teacher certification programs so that teachers would be prepared for a performance-based system. May credits the Legislature's patience ("They didn't expect miracles in two or three years!") with allowing for an orderly process and providing sufficient time to win support and build a strong foundation of teacher knowledge.

A Good Fit

The culminating project proposal fit nicely with four educational goals outlined by the Washington Legislature in the 1990s: mastery of reading, writing, and communication; knowing and applying the core concepts of math, the social, physical, and life sciences, civics and history, geography, the arts, and health and fitness; thinking analytically and creatively and integrating experience and knowledge to form reasoned judgments and to solve problems; and understanding the importance of work.

The "how" of implementing culminating project requirements is left up to local districts. Lake Washington is among a handful of school districts that already have a culminating graduation requirement in place. Technology is an integral element of every project.

"Technology should be a natural component of everything [students] do," says Heather Sinclair, district director of secondary curriculum and staff development for Lake Washington. "It should be a natural tool they use on a day-to-day basis. It shouldn't be something that is scary or contrived. It should be authentic and realistic."

PowerPoint ® is becoming routine. Students also make videos using digital cameras and movie editing software. They burn their own CDs. They use the Internet to converse with their mentors and conduct research. One student created a steam engine out of Plexiglas; another used computer-aided design (CAD) software to design a sailboat.

Because students choose their own projects, the nature of their study is as varied as the teenagers themselves. Projects can range from working with real scientists on the Human Genome Project and sharing their experience through video or written reports to writing and producing a play or building a "battlebot" robot and explaining how it was built and how it works. One Lake Washington student who suffers from dyslexia conducted research on the disease and then used this information to work with younger boys with dyslexia.

But endorsing projects alone is not enough, some educators warn. Despite her belief that "the most powerful way to learn something is to use it," educational consultant and former Washington high school teacher Eeva Reeder says she would "have a hard time arguing in favor of [a project graduation requirement] unless it's done right."

Reeder, who has created project assessment rubrics for several districts, knows firsthand the difficulty of creating projects and assessments of those projects that challenge students and measure important skills. She had her geometry students design a Year 2050 school that was judged by local architects.

There's a big difference, Reeder says, between rebuilding a car for the first time and rebuilding it for the tenth. She says teachers and students need to be clear on a long list of assessment criteria -- from extending the student's knowledge to demonstrating analytical, logical, and creative thinking to effective background research and evidence of initiative. It also means starting substantive project-based learning in the early grades.

But done right, Reeder says, the culminating project "has the potential to be the single most powerful change agent in the school."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

This article originally published on 11/5/2003

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