George Lucas Educational Foundation

More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!

At Newsome Park Elementary School, assignments in project-based learning are helping students learn more, participate more, and want more.

October 1, 2001

Running Time: 7 min.

Curiosity about a classmate's cystic fibrosis leads to an investigation of genetics. Desire to produce a school yearbook veers into a study of refraction and other properties of light. Discovery that World Wrestling Entertainment is listed on the New York Stock Exchange turns into creation of a business newspaper and an in-depth look at the Great Depression.

At Newsome Park Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia, where projects dominate classroom work, learning takes twists and turns rarely possible in a more traditional, fixed-curriculum setting. Learning by conceiving and completing projects, advocates say, is far superior to the often-dreary textbook-based lessons that stay planted in the mind only until the next test.

At Newsome Park, which has a population of about 40 percent white students and 52 percent black students, and where 58 percent of students are from low-income households, test scores are up for the third year in a row, the state's Standards of Learning (SOLs) are being met, and enthusiastic kids are using what they learn time and again.

"They're engaged. They want to be here," says Principal Peter Bender. During recess and lunch, he routinely overhears students sharing information about their projects and brainstorming about how to make them better. "In thirty years, I don't think I've ever heard kids talk like that," he says.

Students in Billie Hetrick's second-grade class organize their research on a classmate's cystic fibrosis.

Credit: Edutopia

Better, More Enthusiastic Learners

Bender and his staff have worked hard to create a program that meets students' academic, emotional, and creative needs. Their recipe for success includes such practices as morning meetings, looping (in which teachers stay with one class for two years), community service, teacher professional development, and accessible, state-of-the-art technology. But Bender believes that project-based learning, also sometimes referred to as problem-based, experiential, or constructivist learning, goes a long way toward explaining the achievement gains and the children's delight in going deeply into a subject.

Parents report that the "What did you do at school today?" question no longer gets just a grunt or a one-word nonanswer. Instead, dinner-table conversations tend to be nonstop discussions about projects -- from night skies and different modes of transportation to house construction and hostile takeovers. "It gets these kids excited about a subject both inside and outside of school," says Ingo Schiller, a parent of two Newsome Park students. "There's actually a visible hunger to learn."

That hunger, as well as an obvious joy in discovery, is evident throughout the school.

Principal Peter Bender encourages fourth graders selling plants as part of their business, Flower Power.

Credit: Edutopia

Looking Toward Wall Street

In Robert Lirange's fourth-grade class, students count out $40 raised from selling plants from their floral business, Flower Power. When students' interest in the stock market was piqued by the World Wrestling Federation's presence on the New York Stock Exchange, they decided to focus one of their twice-a-year projects on the stock market.

The nine- and ten-year-olds learned how to read stock tables, researched and tracked the progress of companies in which they "invested," and studied the Great Depression, the history of the market, and its effect on the economy. They produced a business section of a newspaper and distributed it throughout the school. When the concepts of net and gross profits were firmly entrenched and when buying and selling became a little "stale," as Lirange puts it, the students decided to create a plant business and sell shares in the business.

Indicative of the interest other classes take in projects throughout the school, a fifth-grade class plotted to quietly buy enough shares to become majority stockholders and take over Flower Power. But Lirange's students stopped selling shares when they got wind of the scheme. "They're doing real-life things, doing it for a purpose," says Lirange. "Kids are just so much more enthusiastic when I have them applying their own knowledge."

For Nancy Mason's kindergartners, project-based learning means field trips with a purpose.

Credit: Edutopia

What Happens at Night

Kindergartners from Nancy Mason's class are lining up for a "field trip with a purpose" to the Virginia Living Museum. The outing is part of the class project, "While You Were Sleeping . . . A Project About Night!" Mason and other adult chaperones are armed with clipboards so they can document the students' findings about nocturnal animals and their habitats.

The "While You Were Sleeping" project has included a trip to a planetarium, listening to such stories as Moonflower and Nightmare in My Closet, investigating why spiders spin their webs at night, and observing phases of the Moon over a three-week period. They also interviewed fourth graders who were doing a project on bats. "I learn more than the kids do," says Mason.

A second grader with cystic fibrosis shows classmates how the Vest helps clear her lungs of mucus.

Credit: Billie Hetrick

Concern for a Classmate

Teacher Billie Hetrick's second graders are compiling information about cystic fibrosis, which they adopted as a project when they became concerned about one of their classmate's frequent trips to the hospital and the school nurse's office. "Why does she have to take medicine so often?" "What is cystic fibrosis, and how is it caused?" "Is there a cure?" they asked. The children studied the disease on the Internet, peppered two representatives from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation with questions, and raised over $1,200 for cystic fibrosis research through a Cystic Fibrosis Math Challenge and a walk-athon.

A visit to their classroom shows children working at computers, filling out "Thinking Maps," a graphical way of developing and sorting ideas before writing an essay or report. "When the students are choosing what they want to learn about and when we give them the opportunity to ask questions, and we take time to answer their questions, their learning is more meaningful to them," says Hetrick.

The mother of the young girl with cystic fibrosis says the project is powerful in other ways. "I think it has given the children a better understanding of what my daughter has to go through on a daily basis," says Charlene Teal Williamson. "They've learned ways in particular how they could help my daughter to stay healthy."

Nurse Michele Harbuck answers questions about asthma from first graders in Patty Vreeland's class.

Credit: Edutopia

Real-World Application

Math, writing, reading, and other subjects are interwoven into classroom projects and applied just as they would be in the real world. Use of spreadsheets, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, computer slide shows, drawing and word-processing programs, and digital cameras and scanners become second nature to the students.

Careful planning ensures that the students meet state academic standards. Lirange's fourth graders, for example, fulfilled twenty-four state standards during the stock market project, including estimating and measuring weight and mass, writing effective narratives and explanations, using evidence to support opinions in oral communication, investigating and understanding the interaction of plants in an ecosystem, and communicating through application software. When he couldn't fit some of the standards, such as studying the Civil War, into the project, he taught them separately.

"We've got to know our curriculum. We've got to know the standards inside and out," says Patty Vreeland, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, who adds that teachers must be willing to work harder to ensure that projects are meaningful learning experiences.

It's much easier, she says, to follow a textbook and know you'll be reading a storybook at 10 A.M. and working at the computer at 11 A.M. and counting at 2 P.M. Project learning, however, requires flexibility and the ability to take a kernel of an idea and set it off in a productive direction. "Even though it looks like the kids are doing all the hard work, there's a lot of planning that goes on behind it to make sure that the work is there for them," Vreeland says.

Newsome Park teachers use a structure for their projects created by Sylvia Chard, a professor at Canada's University of Alberta and coauthor of The Project Approach. Phase 1 involves engaging children in an initial discussion of a topic, allowing them to share any experiences that relate to the topic, and coming up with a list of questions they want to investigate.

During Phase 2, students do field work, meet with experts, gather information from the Internet and other sources, and then compile the information in a variety of forms, from written and picture portfolios to Web pages and computer-generated brochures. Phase 3 concludes with a presentation. At Newsome Park, that means inviting parents, community members, and staff and students from other schools to Project Day. Students not only display their work but also make presentations and answer questions from visitors.

A first grader downloads an Internet picture for Microsoft PowerPoint presentation on wolves.

Credit: Edutopia

Poised Presentations

During a regular school day, students in Cathy Huemer's first-grade class demonstrate the poise and knowledge that wins them accolades from visitors on Project Day. The class is finishing up its project on worms, and a pigtailed girl digs through a bin of sand, soil, leaves, and paper strips to show off one of the wiggly creatures.

"If it's a grown-up, it has a clitellum," she says, gliding smoothly over a word that would give adults pause, and pointing to a thick, pinkish band on the worm. Asked how a worm obtains oxygen, she doesn't miss a beat: "It breathes through its skin."

The students sing the praises of project work. "You can find out more than by just reading about it in a book," one child says. "It's more fun, because you don't just sit there and take notes all day -- in one ear, out the other," says another. "If you find it yourself, it stays in your brain," sums up a third student.

Principal Peter Bender and the teachers concur, adding that discipline problems and absenteeism are reduced, children learn to count on each other for advice and feedback, and they see that their efforts do make a difference -- from contributing to disease research to organizing blood drives to creating antipollution brochures.

Test scores also have risen across the board. For example, between 1997 and 2000, the percentage of fifth graders passing the Virginia Standards of Learning test increased from 35 percent to 65 percent in math, from 52 percent to 79 percent in science, and from 53 percent to 65 percent in English.

African American students also narrowed the gap between their scores and those of white students. A forty-seven-point gap in fifth-grade science scores in 1998 was reduced to twenty-two points the next year, and a forty-eight-point gap in third-grade math scores was reduced to thirty-eight points.

Peer critiques are important elements of projects at Newsome Park.

Credit: Edutopia

A Teacher Makes the Switch

Sue Shields, who teaches fourth and fifth grades, transferred from a more traditional school to Newsome Park when she realized she was reteaching lessons taught in isolation because kids didn't make connections between subjects or ideas. That hasn't happened with projects, including a spring yearbook project in which students investigated the camera -- who invented it and how it works -- as well as conducted numerous surveys and price comparisons that ended up as graphs or spreadsheets.

The need for just the right lighting to take their pictures sparked investigations into refraction, reflection, and other properties of light. "Here, they can see the concepts or broad themes across the curriculum for deeper learning -- for lifelong learning," Shields says.

Bender says projects make it easier for him to evaluate his teachers because "the children's products are so public, their presentations so compelling." What is more difficult is getting teachers to initially see the value of project-based learning because it is so foreign to their own school experiences.

"The old saying that teachers teach the way they were taught is very true," he says. But resistance to projects doesn't last long once teachers see the enthusiasm, excitement, and quality of work. "The children actually sell it," he says. "It's harder to teach this way -- but one hundred times more rewarding."

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

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  • Brain-Based Learning
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