George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Marty Kerzetski: Project-Based Learning

December 3, 2001

Marty Kerzetski, a fifth-grade teacher at Lackawanna Trail Elementary Center in Pennsylvania, describes how Space Day Design Challenges introduce her students to real-life science problems that astronauts face.

1. As part of their science grade, your students solve problems -- design challenges -- posed by officials at Space Day. What are those design challenges?

There were three design challenges. The first one was, "In space, there is no 911." And there were several emergency situations that the kids had to pick. They had to pick two, such as loss of air pressure, loss of temperature, fire on board the space station. And they had to come up with an emergency plan to deal with that. So they researched how a flow chart works so they could flowchart their procedures. And they also researched how does fire act in space, how does gravity affect -- or lack of gravity affect -- various situations.

The second space design challenge was Cosmic Cuisine. They had to come up with a recipe that met nutritional requirements for the astronauts for one full day. They had to make it fun, something the astronauts would want to eat. And the third one was Stretch and Fetch, where they had to design an arm -- a retractable arm that would extend and retract.

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2. What are some values of this type of project-based learning?

With the project, they direct their own learning. I set it up for them. I give them guidelines and then I kind of set them loose, but they do what they do best. Like I said, some kids will work on the drawing of the project, on creating the project, whereas other kids might work on the writing. But they work together, they share their ideas. They do the research together so everyone is involved. And then they switch their spots, and it just seems like they work to their strengths, and it gives them an opportunity to show where their strengths are.

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3. What were the steps in the project process for this Space Day design challenge?

We had a little bit of teacher direction in the beginning, where we used the Webcast, the Web projector. ... We walked through the project together. We walked through the sites that they would be using. We walked through ePALS -- on how to use a discussion board -- and then we put together folders for them so that they each had, each group had its own folder with all its material in it. And then they could keep all their research in it.

They really got used to coming in. Everyday we would start the class with just a general, "Are there any questions? Are there any problems with what people are working on? Do you have any Epal questions? Does anybody have anything interesting to tell us -- an expert got back to you or another class really had something interesting to tell you?" So we'd start with a general little class meeting, and then they would go into their own groups and they would spend the whole class period working wherever they felt they needed to put the time in for their project.

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4. What is ePALS?

ePALS was a big part of the project. It's a community discussion board, it's a national discussion board that the kids can go to, post a question on any aspect of the challenges. They can ask about, how does fire act in space, does anyone have a good Web site for a certain topic, is anybody having trouble building what they're building? Anything that they can ask the other kids, they just post the question. And then other students from around the country will answer -- hopefully, answer their questions.

And also, every week ... ePALS had an expert visitor -- somebody from NASA, an astronaut, or an expert in the field of the design challenges. And that was nice because the experts would come and respond to the children themselves ... and they were very encouraging. They said, "Great question", "Keep up the good work." And that really motivated the kids.

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5. Was there anything that you particularly liked about this project?

One of the great things about the project was that the challenges they were working on -- one of them actually happened. One of the challenges was to design an arm that would extend and retract 100 centimeters so that when an astronaut was on EVA -- a space walk -- if they lost a tool ... the kids were designing an arm that would go reach for the tool and bring it back. On the International Space Station this year, I think it was astronaut Jim Voss lost a tool that got away from him and he couldn't retrieve it. So they had to move the space station up to get away from the orbiting tool and that was an exact situation that the kids were working to design their arm, so that they saw firsthand that what they're designing has a spot on the space station.

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6. You rave about project-based learning. Why do you think it isn’t used more by teachers?

I think a lot of people don't use projects because it's more work setting it up. The setting it up takes a lot of work. You need to get them on the right track. You have to have all their information. You have to spell it out clearly for them, what you're expecting. I think sometimes it's easier to read from the book, give a worksheet, and move along that way. But if you take the time to set it up in advance and the kids know what to expect. ... I love the project-based learning because the kids really are doing something that's hands on to them. And they really respond well to that.

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