Veteran science teacher Michael Baer has always tried to connect what his students are learning in the classroom to the real world. But even 35 years in education didn't fully prepare him for the powerful learning that would unfold when he agreed to help his students figure out how they could get clean drinking water to the people of Haiti.
Their project would eventually swell to engage the entire K-12 school district and community of 5,000 people in Berne, Indiana. It would test students' and teachers' capacity to be innovative problem-solvers and take them face-to-face with the worst poverty in the Western Hemisphere. And it all started, as all projects should, with a compelling question.
Anyone who wonders whether project-based learning can deliver rigorous, meaningful learning should pay attention to the lessons that emerged from a remarkable project called Dots in Blue Water.
Simple Question, Profound Consequences
On an otherwise ordinary day in late 2009, Baer was explaining to a class of sophomores at South Adams High how poor environmental decisions had contributed to humanitarian catastrophes in Haiti. By coincidence, a friend of Baer's happens to be headmaster at a small rural that sits in the flood plain outside of Port-au-Prince. Over the years, trees were stripped from this landscape and sold for quick profits. Without vegetation, topsoil eroded. When three hurricanes hit the Caribbean island in quick succession, raging floodwaters rolled right up to the schoolhouse doors. An email from the headmaster described how students scrambled onto the roof to try to survive without food or clean drinking water. Many perished.
"I'm telling my students, this is why you don't strip off the vegetation," Baer recalls. "This is why you take care of your environment. It's why we study Earth science. These are innocent children now paying the consequences for someone else's poor judgment in land management."
That's when a student raised her hand and said, "We do all these science labs to learn stuff. Why can't we do a lab and help these people figure out how to purify their water?"
For Baer, that question marks a profound before-and-after point in his lengthy teaching career. "This was one of those redefining moments," he says. "I knew that answering her question could redefine who we are as teachers, as students, as a school. I said to her, let's make that happen."
A Project Takes Shape
With approval from his administration, Baer adjusted his lesson plans so that students could spend every Friday on their new project. In classic PBL style, students organized themselves into teams according to their interests and got to work.
One team focused on research. "We knew there would be a lot of questions," Baer says. "For example, what's causing the water to be unsafe to drink? When we started, none of us knew much about Haiti's environment." The research team explored whatever questions the larger group raised.
Another team appealed to students "who were more hands-on tinkerers," Baer says. "They were our development group." Their charge: strategize and experiment with best methods to purify water. A retired Indiana engineer who had patented a water purification device gave them a prototype to work with. They began taking it apart, testing the electrolysis device with different salts and voltages, and making adjustments to improve the efficiency. Along the way, students learned that innovation can mean improving on someone else's ideas rather than inventing from scratch. "I told them, this may not be our invention, but it will certainly have our fingerprints all over it," Baer says.
Meanwhile, another team worked on marketing and promotional materials. A key moment for the marketing team unfolded when a student found an essay by nature writer Annie Dillard. In it, Dillard described her then-seven-year-old daughter's response to hearing about a deadly tsunami. The child suggested that the lives lost to drowning would look like "dots in blue water." That poignant phrase grabbed the attention of Baer's students and became the project brand.
Yet another team took on the task of community investing. "We didn't want to call it fundraising," the teacher explains. "That sounds like, if you give us money, we'll go away. We wanted people to know they were investing, not only in the work in Haiti, but truly investing in what is locally going on in our classrooms."
Each Friday, students would push together their classroom desks "so it looked like the boardroom table in Donald Trump's 'The Apprentice,'" Baer says. Teams would take turns presenting results from their week's investigations. New questions were referred to the research team who did their best to find answers by the following Friday.
As the project moved from research to real-life application, interest grew. Initially, participants were about 30 students from two sections of an integrated chemistry and physics class. Then when the 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, the need for clean drinking water became even more acute and more students got interested in the project. Baer asked his superintendent about turning Dots in Blue Water into a schoolwide effort during the 2010-11 school year. "His eyes lit up," the teacher recalled, and the project scope changed again.
Changing Lives in Haiti and Indiana
Throughout the 2010-11 school year, every student in South Adams Schools became part of this authentic learning experience. Kindergartners learned about the importance of clean hands and hygiene. Music students studied Caribbean rhythms. In art classes, students learned about the folk artists of the region. "The entire school community wrapped its arms around Dots in Blue Water. Every teacher found a way to tie in a curriculum focus on water purification or Haiti," Baer says. High school students were often in the role of teaching younger students -- or adult community groups -- about water purification or conservation issues.
Culminating activities are important to cement learning in PBL, and the project again exceeded expectations at this stage. In June, eight students selected through a competitive application process set off for Haiti, accompanied by eight teachers. Their trip was funded by $43,000 raised in the local community. The contingent brought along five purification devices. Thanks to improvements by the team of tinkerers, a single device is now capable of purifying 55 gallons of water per minute, powered by a 12-volt battery. An engineering consultant who accompanied the South Adams contingent was so impressed by one student's schematics that he asked to borrow the plans for future installations.
During a life-changing week in Haiti, students installed the devices and taught Haitians how to maintain equipment so that villagers would have a sustainable source of clean water. One system brought clean water to the same school that had suffered losses during earlier flooding. Another was installed in a nearby village, about the same size as Berne, Indiana.
While students were trying to decide where to install their last devices, news broke about a cholera outbreak in a mountain village of about 1,000. Some 300 people were already ill. "We realized cholera could wipe out the whole village," Baer says. Quickly, the team decided to send its last device there. Five teachers made the arduous trek while South Adams students stayed behind for safety reasons. Once the three-tank system was in place, the village experienced no new outbreaks of cholera.
Back in Indiana, South Adams students and teachers celebrated their accomplishments, and then dove right into launching the next round of Dots in Blue Water projects.
Baer doesn't have to look far to see the impact of this project. Four of the students who traveled to Haiti were graduating seniors. One is the same student who first asked about how they might help the people of Haiti. She's now off to college, studying to be a nurse in the developing world. Another senior, who documented the trip by making a video diary, is preparing for a career as a foreign correspondent. "Our lives were changed forever by this," she says. Baer also has seven teacher colleagues who saw firsthand how students can make a real difference in their world.
"Everybody has taken a step higher," he says. "Our entire school community has a new attitude. We're not going to stand idly by and let somebody else fix the problems of the world."
See photos from the South Adams High trip to Haiti at Michael Baer's class website.
Learn more about the project at the Dots in Blue Water Facebook page.