George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mott Hall School: STEM Projects Encourage Students to Excel

A commitment to projects and widespread use of laptop computers has spelled success for middle school students at this New York City math, science, and technology academy. Read the article.
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Mott Hall School: STEM Projects Encourage Students to Excel (Transcript)

Student: There's kids and there's a dog. It is sunny, there is no fog. There is a shadow--

Narrator: These fifth graders are presenting poems they wrote to a company the digital photographs they took.

Student: I'm gonna go online because I'm researching my topic, which is how to say "kite" in different languages.

Narrator: In this fifth grade class, students are researching and designing kites.

Going down all right.

Wow, that's--

That's a drop.

Narrator: And these sixth graders are conducting experiments to determine the heat of fusion for various objects.

If it is melting at ninety-three point five--

Narrator: These challenging projects are part of a typical day at Mott Hall, a fourth through eighth grade science, math and technology magnet school in the heart of New York's Harlem district.

Mirian: Traditionally, minority students have not been encouraged or inspired to go into the professional fields of mathematics, science or technology. So we feel that our mission here at Mott Hall is really to provide a very strong academic foundation for these students to go onto higher learning.

Student: Matter exists in different phases. Three of these are solid, liquid and gas. The other two are Bose-Einstein condensate and plasma, but these two are not common on this planet.

Narrator: In nineteen ninety-five, the school participated in a pilot program that eventually provided laptop computers to every teacher and student.

Mirian: And when we put the laptops and the technology directly into the hands of teachers and students, we started to move from a more traditional instructional model to a project based and constructivist model, and we really embrace this as a school community, because we feel that what is important for our students is for them to be directors and managers of their own learning.

What kind of poem would you make out of that one?

A silly one.

Mirian: We really wanted to have children collaborate with each other, have children engaged in multidisciplinary types of projects that were longer, that were more complex.

What's the temperature of the water?

The water, measure the temperature.

Mirian: We feel this is more authentic, we feel this is more challenging work for our students, and we have seen that it had yielded very positive results for our students.

Student: Using the graph paper on the compouter, I've created a scale for my kite.

Sandra: At this point in math, we're studying ratio and proportion and they're difficult concepts, especially for a ten year old.

Narrator: For teachers like Sandra Skea, who teaches math, science and social studies, the most successful projects cover the whole curriculum and involve new technologies.

Sandra: For this project, the laptops proved to be especially useful in creating the scale drawings, in doing the research, and be able to make revisions, in order that they could set up ratio and proportion and see instantly what the effects were. We have the wireless, so it was easy for us to go online, get additional information. It's going to make the whole idea of creating our website easy, because we've got most of the work already done and it's just formatting it and shooting it up to the net.

Narrator: Skea believes projects bring out the best in her students. She was particularly impressed with the progress of one of her students who wrote a story about Ben Franklin's kite.

Student: He was going to make me get shocked by the lightning. "No," I screamed, without saying a word. He took me outside and flew me in the air. I flew rapidly through the sky, hoping not to get struck. Then Ben screamed, "Make me proud!"

Sandra: Once he became involved with projects, his interest in school really grew, and all his potential just evolved, it just exploded. And now he consistently does is work and has consistently done well, and he's no longer afraid to use his imagination, to take risks, to try new things and I credit a lot of that to the projects that he's been able to get involved with.

Narrator: At Mott Hall, the learning does not stop when classes end. After school offerings include tai chi and chess.

Jerald: Chess does a lot for young people and I think the most important thing, it makes them responsible for their decisions. Every move has a consequence, and you can see from the first year of chess, kids being a lot more aware of the moves they do.

Narrator: Practice like this has helped make Mott Hall national chess champioins. It also dovetails neatly with the school's educational philosophy.

Jerald: I'm not even really interested always in the right answer. If they come up with the right answer, that's great, but I'm interested in the investigation. Again, that interior dialog, "Well, what were you thinking about?"

Did you have some growth or no?

Mm, yeah, it was decreasing.

Narrator: The school has also formed partnerships with nearby institutions like City College of New York, where these eighth graders are working on their class science project, and advancing vital research on single celled organisms.

Megan: When they first came, of course, this was all completely new to them, so they didn't know about foraminifera, not that I'd expect them to. They didn't know about dinoflagellates, not that I would expect them to. They were interested though in corollary ecosystems. They decided on their own that they wanted to do the light variation, so I helped them, you know, set up a sort of experimental protocol. And then once I showed them how to actually use the instruments, it was amazing. They just were able to do all the counts, totally unsupervised, and when they showed me their board, I was really impressed, because they had found all sorts of pictures and they put all the graphs together. Their data tables, they had everything lined up, you know, absolutely perfectly.

Do you think it's time that we transferred them again?




Susan: They'll talk to you about these species of microorganisms just as if they were the scientists in the labs, and that's exactly what we want, for them to feel not necessarily they're gonna become scientists, but if that's what they want to do, they can do it.

This one, right?

And that one.


Student: I think it's a privilege to be here, and I found it to be really fun, and it expanded my horizons, like now I can see that I have more choices for a job.

Megan: My experience with this program has been that project based learning is absolutely essential, because through the projects, the students became more interested. They took their own initiative. Had this been from a book or an article, I don’t believe that would've happened.

Press collect.

Marc: It's not just project learning. It's really problem solving, it's decision making, it's the opportunity to present your ideas, to evaluate your ideas. There are rooms that you can walk into and it looks like chaos, you know. It's rooms full of kids, moving in all directions, sharing work, but it's very productive. It's productive noise, it's noise of ideas being shared.

Sixty-six point five.

Marc: Of products being produced.

Let me see that.

Marc: There's an excitement in that type of classroom. Anyone who enters the room is learning.

Whoa, from the seesaw, I think it went up and down.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Roberta Furger
  • Leigh Iacobucci


  • Karen Sutherland


  • William Turnley
  • Gabriel Miller


  • Susan Blake


  • Morgan Ho

Editor's Note: Since this video was produced in 2001, Miriam Acosta-Sing, Susan Herzog, and Marc Briller have retired from the Mott Hall School. Cynthia Arndt has been principal for several years, and the school continues to employ a one-to-one laptop program.

Comments (2) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Linda Emm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This video is a powerful example of what kids can do when challenged to go beyond paper and pencil bubble sheets to demonstrate their knowledge.
Thank you.

Monica Burns's picture
Monica Burns
Author & Speaker, ADE , Founder of

As a NYC educator, I can appreciate the power of technology in a neighborhood school! I love using iPads with my students - check out my blog about using iPads in the classroom:

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