George Lucas Educational Foundation

Rigorous Project-Based Learning Transforms AP Courses

Through a project called Knowledge in Action, researchers at the University of Washington have been exploring whether project-based learning can help high school students with diverse learning styles understand content more deeply in advanced placement courses.
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Rigorous Project-Based Learning Transforms AP Courses (Transcript)

Student: I run the Washington Post.

Student: I ran for President.

Student: I lobby Congress.

Amber: We had one student in my former district who dropped out of high school and came to AP Government every day till the end of the year. And he called himself the worst drop-out in the history of drop-outs, because he still showed up. I don't know why he came. But I do! I do know why. Because there was a role for him. And he played a part in the classroom learning experience. For him to drop out of high school, but still to come to that class, that was the moment in that first year that changed the way I thought about the course.

Walter: What we're working on in the Knowledge in Action project is a way of making advanced high school course work accessible to more and more children, and worth it, by making it a deep, rich curriculum that they can take with them into the future.

Student: Do we want to say before or against the Alabama law?

Student: Our interest group would be before this, before the Alabama, because all it is is collecting data.

Student: It's hard to collect data when people are not forthcoming. It makes it really hard to get accurate data.

Walter: The way we attempt to achieve deep conceptual learning is primarily through a particular kind of rigorous project-based learning. It's not uncommon in an AP course to have a project or two. We're trying to drive the course through projects, which is to say, through experiential learning.

Student: Two-thousand students stopped going to school. Alabama school systems are going to fall apart, because there's not going to be government funding.

Student: Two-thousand students in a state that probably has what? Ten to thirteen million, somewhere in there?

Student: How many of those thirteen million go to school?

Adrienne: Well, AP Gov is a class that has traditionally been taught in one semester. So in one semester they fly through all the institutions of government, as well as how they're linked together, and how they're linked to the people. And it has traditionally been a very lecture-oriented course, because it's a lot of content to get through, and not a whole lot of time. The idea came of, "Well, could we make an entire course in government that really is about how we put kids in the middle of these situations, and not how we just tell kids about these situations."

Student: These people that are here illegally, if they're here illegally, if we make it possible for them to get a Green Card, they'll then in turn be paying taxes. They'll be benefiting our society instead of hurting it.

Lise: I came onboard after the AP US Government and Politics course was in place. And the team wanted to add a second course, AP Environmental Science.

Student: So the one percent, where's one percent?

Student: Only four of them are living.

Walter: Everybody understands all of these brilliant hard-working teachers that teach AP know that what they need to deliver is a large proportion of their students passing that test. So the most direct route to doing that is to teach to the test. Well, what we're trying to do is figure out a way to drive more learning into that course. So in our courses, students are very often involved in a simulation. In the case of the AP Gov course, they're taking the role of a Supreme Court Justice, or somebody running a campaign, or running for office.

Asher: It's not communistic. What he wants to do is reinforce--

Anna: Sharing the wealth among the people who didn't earn it?

Asher: He wants to reinforce the already existing programs, such as Social Security. All we're doing is strengthening the social safety net, so that we can have free trade that's also fair trade.

Mariama: Sometimes you lose the sense of you're in a role, you're not actually really that person. But sometimes you become that person without even realizing it.

Amber: So it's different than any kind of class where you would just have a lecture, do a worksheet or an activity, maybe make a poster at the end, and take a test. This is structured completely differently. So that from the very beginning students have a role that they play, and a need to know.

Jerry: All these activities are a way for kids to get personally invested in the project, often with the goal of winning, or coming out ahead. Especially kids who are not already the ones really well-suited for traditional AP format classes.

Lise: One of the key design principles in the course is this idea of looping.

Amber: We ask students constantly to go back and think about, "What did it mean when you were this, or when you played this role? And what does it mean now in this situation?" So we try to get them to make connections, by never leaving behind the unit that we taught in the past.

Caitlyn: A typical class is just a lot of note-taking, and a lot of reading from chapters, and then reiterating it back to the teacher. But here you get to apply it in your life, and then apply it throughout the year. And not just on one test or one essay. That's what makes this class different.

Adrienne: All right, nice job, Nice job.

Lisé: I think the biggest challenge with the curriculum is scaling it to a range of school environments. Making it work for urban students in poverty-impacted schools, and also making it work for more affluent students. So we've tried to select problems in each of the units in the course that can be adapted to different environments. For example, the project about looking at one family's impact on the environment. That's relevant regardless of the environment you're in.

Student: You're going to measure the amount of recycled material. That's one thing we can measure.

Student: But how would you do this if you live in apartment? We all live in an apartment.

Student: Don't you guys have like a recycling-- like a box, like next to the garbage?

Amber: We started the curriculum In the Bellevue School District. And the Bellevue School District is a suburban school district located right outside the City of Seattle. Bellevue has quite a range of affluence, but you're looking technically at a wealthier suburban community. In 2011, we brought the curriculum to Des Moines, Iowa. And the Des Moines Public Schools has a free and reduced lunch average about 65 percent district-wide. So the majority of our students are in the lower socio-economic class. When bringing the Knowledge In Action project to a poverty-impacted school district, you're likely to find challenges, including student preparedness for AP course work, reading skills and reading level, and teacher readiness. And so we've needed to make some changes in order to provide opportunities for them to have success. We don't just want equity of access, you know, entry into the course. We want equity of outcomes. We want our kids in poverty-impacted schools to be just as successful as kids in other areas.

Sherry: Richshunda started out as one of those students that, "I don't like to read. I don't want to read. And I've never picked up a book, and I don't want to. And so she went into a reading strategies course last year." Richshunda is like the poster child of a student that didn't like reading, and now loves to read, and is now reading advanced placement college material books.

Richshunda: In that class, like everybody's working, everybody's talking, everybody's doing groups, everybody's just active. Like you don't even want to leave the class when you have to.

Jerry: This project approach gives you a chance to engage the students who might otherwise sort of sit and hide and keep a low profile and not do well. Their performance is more clear to see, and their success shows more clearly.

Michael: The problem-based curriculum that they're using in the AP Government class is definitely working. When you walk in, the students are speaking, not the teacher. And so you know that they are learning the material, because it's coming out of their mouth.

Lisé: It's really exciting to see students that may not have traditionally taken an AP course, or succeeded in an AP course, actually connect with the material in a way that makes them successful in the AP test, of course, but more importantly impacts their lives and the decisions that they begin to make as adults and even as young adults. I think that's really exciting to feel like you've empowered students in a way that's going to stay with them for years to come. I think that's probably the best part of being involved in something like this.

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  • Producer / Director: Gabriel Miller
  • Camera: Gabriel Miller
  • Audio: Stephen Bechtold, Tony Raymond, Austin Merrell
  • Editor: Brad Strain
  • Assistant Editor: Austin Merrell
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producer: Zachary Fink

The Knowledge in Action project has redesigned the curriculum for two courses -- AP U.S. Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science -- at high schools in both Bellevue, Washington, and Des Moines, Iowa, to compare the value of these classes with traditionally taught courses. Learn more about the project.

More information about our research efforts at The George Lucas Educational Foundation research page.

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Zainab's picture
K-12 teacher from UAE, Dubai

Amazing !!

I love everything you posted.

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