George Lucas Educational Foundation

Kindergartners Explore Through Project Learning

The Auburn Early Education Center immerses young children in self-directed projects.
Ken Ellis
Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia
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VIDEO: Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project Learning

Running Time: 9 min.

"Don't go yet, because there's lots of airplanes and birds covering the sky!" warns a wary air-traffic controller from his cardboard perch above a mockup of a plane loaded with his classmates. But it's only a minor delay for students of the Yellow Pod, a small segment of the 460 kindergartners who attend the Auburn Early Education Center, in Auburn, Alabama. Soon, they will be virtually winging their way to Brazil on a fantasy flight aboard their handcrafted plane, culminating two and a half months of preparation for the role-playing exercise as part of a yearlong study of South America.

At this award-winning kindergarten learning center, shared with a special education preschool, the students decide what projects they want to tackle, and teachers guide them to resources, on the Internet and in books, that help them create something from what they learn. Whether they're building an airplane or a cruise ship, or conducting a funeral for the class praying mantis, AEEC students are learning more than basic facts and skills. They are acquiring a taste for the process of lifelong learning.

"These kids have a very authentic, real purpose for learning," says AEEC principal Lilli Land. "When you want to find something out, what do you do? You go to the computer, you get on the Internet, you get a book. You don't go to an adult and just have them feed you all the information. You have to learn to be a problem solver; you have to learn to be resourceful. So we teach them to be lifelong learners, and you have to keep them excited about the process of learning."

Although the project-based curriculum generates much of the enthusiasm for learning here, a recent infusion of technology -- putting interactive whiteboards in every classroom -- has raised the bar for students and teachers. Touching a giant screen, teacher Sandy Armstrong calls up a wall-size map of South America and points to Brazil. "That is a big place!" shouts a boy kneeling in front of her. And when she starts a video clip of an imposing anaconda, he says, "I'll bet he's gonna slide and slither and try to bite him."

"When they put it in our classroom and I saw everything that it could do just playing with it, and my kids were so excited, I could see what a difference it made in a matter of weeks," says Armstrong. "Even the teachers that have been teaching for twenty-five years that are afraid to jump into technology, they have jumped in with both feet. It's rejuvenated their ideas and their motivation."

As part of the school's literacy focus, a dedicated technology coach gives one-on-one instruction to students, who can manipulate giant letters on the interactive whiteboard. "They have a lot of problems when it comes to m and w," says Armstrong. "When they can flip the m over and it becomes a w, they get it. They'll say, 'Oh, it's standing on its head!' 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."

As standardized-test pressure bears down on even the youngest learners and their teachers, Lilli Land challenges other principals to adopt AEEC's project-based-curriculum approach.

"We're teaching all the required content area, but we're doing it in a way that's more innovative, creative, that's off the path of what most people choose," Land says. "But there are many people who think, 'Well, we have to have the workbooks; our kids have to do drill and practice.' That's just scratching the surface, and it's also turning kids off to learning. And so you have to really be confident and trust in what you know is appropriate and good for young children, and believe that if you're actually involving the children every day in activities that are going to make progress in the academic areas, they're going to be fine on assessment."

Ken Ellis is executive producer of Edutopia video.

Comments (40) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Paulo Nunes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, Rebecca!

From my point of view, a smartboard is a whiteboard. But it has navigational facilities... So? Many people use it with powerpoint and similars, in the statical traditional way. The smartboard itself is not the secret, the secret is in what you create for it... The smartboard is really usefull when you have REALLY interactive materials to use with it. Then you have 2 ways: find those materials, or make them yourself. And for that you need to be confortable with some specific software.

See you!

becca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Really an awesome school. Everyone cares about the kids and encourages them to learn. If you have special needs children, they have a wonderful program called H.A.P.I.E. Teachers are the best.

Florida DMV's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I would dearly love to see more K-5 examples of PBL in action. It seems like its really big at the middle and high school level, and somewhat forgotten at the elementary level where it has a lot of potential.

nick1 - 9055's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think its a good way of learning and a great idea i m ust say.Good work!

Learning Centre

nick1 - 9055's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Its a good way of learning.

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Shanny Varela's picture

I work in a bilingual school in Chile, and we try as often as we can to do projects, but at the same time we have to comply with Standardized tests in 4th, 8th 10th and 12th grades, which are completely memory and drilling based. Besides, we have to deal with parents who give too much value to them, so much so that they take the kids out of school if we are not up to the "standards". We, as teachers know that these tests are useless and not predictive of the child's future performance, but we are a fairly new, self-supported school, so we have to prepare the kids for those tests, which is really time-consuming, so it's quite frustrating. How can we cope with this?

Kerry Talbert's picture

I stumbled upon this article and was delighted and surprised to see that the students had hand-crafted a plane. I attended Auburn Early Education Center in around 1993, I believe, and I still have very fond memories of Mrs. Mitchell's class in the Pink Pod, I believe it was. We, too, crafted a huge green paper airplane with chairs inside for us to take flight. We made passports and even luggage. We also studied Mexico and tropical rain forests. We turned out classroom into a rain forest with green vines that we made draped from the ceiling and walls and frogs we colored posted on the wall. One of my fondest memories was writing in our journals every day and sharing what we wrote with the class. Sometimes, we were even allowed to share our journals with other classes in different pods. I experienced such great encouragement and am so glad that I was given such a love for learning, an analytical thought-process, and an overall positive learning experience at such a young age.
I graduated from high school from Camden County High School in 2006 in Kingsland, GA, and from my undergrad in May of 2010 at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, GA, with a BA in Psychology. I am currently pursuing my MA at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management.

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