George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Fertile Ground: Lesson Ideas from an Educationally Growing State

Teachers in Pennsylvania’s tech-integration corps share their favorite projects.

December 3, 2008
Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese
Connecting Tools: Every student in Rebecca Rolinson’s English class at Fremont Area High School has a laptop for use in class projects.

Around Pennsylvania, high school teachers accustomed to doing things the old-fashioned way are dropping their chalk and embracing new technology. The transition -- rockier for some than others -- is part of a $200 million state initiative called Classrooms for the Future (CFF). The ultimate goal is to equip every high school in the state with laptops, interactive whiteboards, video cameras, and more, and to have students use those tools in hands-on project learning that challenges their creativity and critical thinking.

Here, teachers and CFF coaches from across the state share some of the most successful lessons they have tried in the two years since the initiative began:

English: Stop-Motion Video's the Thing Wherein We'll Catch the Hamlet Themes

Springfield Township High School, Oreland

To analyze Hamlet, seniors in Andrew Marcinek's class created videos exploring themes in the play, such as melancholy, illness and decay, and love. Using original photos or drawings and Microsoft's Windows Movie Maker software, each group created a simple stop-motion video of the sort exemplified on the Web site Common Craft.

To edit their voice-overs, they used the free audio-editing software Audacity. A group exploring the theme of revenge, for instance, created a video that retraced the roots of Hamlet's anger, then criticized the protagonist's misguided attempts at revenge and the play's warped social lessons, all in a jovial yet analytical fashion.

In preparation, students created storyboards and collaboratively wrote and edited scripts using shared Google documents and the class wiki. To conclude the project, the class held its own "mini-Oscars," bestowing awards in such categories as Best Use of Shakespearean Language and Best Video Editing.

According to Marcinek, some students overreached and tried to make what he calls a "Hollywood production," complete with unnecessarily flashy effects. But overall, the project helped students grasp some of the play's key ideas and understand Shakespeare's use of literary devices.

"It was a way of getting students to stop thinking, 'We're in class. We're dissecting Shakespeare, blah blah blah,' and to start interpreting Shakespeare," Marcinek explains. "Having their voices be a part of it really engaged them." In the end, the students wanted to put the videos on YouTube and Facebook and show their friends. (Download a PDF of a project outline and grading criteria.)

Science: Endangered-Animal Podcasts Inspire the Unlikeliest Students

Springfield Township High School

In a biology class with many students who have low motivation and special needs, teacher Hugh Zwilling had previously assigned a one-page report on endangered animals. This time, the students used Audacity to create two-minute podcasts on basic facts about their chosen animal and strategies for saving it. They styled their podcasts as a serial radio show, called Wildlife Be Safe, complete with theme music. Then they uploaded the shows to the social-networking site imeem for all the world to hear.

The students did the same research Zwilling had wanted for the written assignment, but they added scripting and sound editing -- and excitement. CFF coach Ken Rodoff, who cotaught the project, reports that these often-truant teens came to class every day of the project. They helped one another, willingly made revisions, and wanted more time to rehearse. Working on something original and creative had a positive effect on the teens. Says Rodoff, "The students weren't even aware that they were evincing these academic traits. They were demonstrating perseverance. They were willing to fight through when the network was glitchy, and they wanted it to work."

English: Wherefore Art Thou, My Classmates? In Texas.

Central York High School, York

Students in Tara Goodrich's English class teamed up with peers at Los Fresnos High School, in Los Fresnos, Texas, to deepen their understanding of Romeo and Juliet and the origins of violence in society. Their version of the old two-tin-cans-connected-by-a-string phone is Moodle, free software for creating online learning communities.

Using this tool, the Texan and Pennsylvanian teens held discussions and shared the public-service announcements they created to discourage particular types of aggression, such as dating violence, school violence, and gang violence. Students gave feedback to one another for improving their videos, which they made using such software as Windows Movie Maker and Apple iMovie. To conclude the unit, the geographically distant classes planned to hold a videoconference to "meet" one another and name the best PSA from each school.

Goodrich found that her students' writing improved in the online discussions because they worried about how their Texan peers would evaluate them. This concern, she adds, led to a discussion about how one is perceived "when all a person has to show for herself is her writing skills." (It's the kind of thing every English teacher wishes her students cared about.) As for the PSAs, well, there's nothing like a little competition to motivate youth. "They storyboarded, discussed, researched, edited, reedited, argued, resolved, and produced," says Goodrich. "They were in awe of each other's final products." (Download a PDF of a project outline and grading rubrics.)

Social Studies: Open Dialogue, from Bahrain to Your Classroom

Central York High School

While looking for Web sites highlighting current issues in the Middle East in spring 2007, social studies teacher Gregory Wimmer stumbled on Mideast Youth, a site dedicated to promoting tolerance and dialogue among youth in the region. He took what he calls a leap of faith and emailed the director, Esra'a Al Shafei, a college student in Bahrain, about collaborating. The following school year, they used the free online service Skype to hold a real-time teleconference with Wimmer's students, Al Shafei, and an Egyptian studying in America. The aim was to discuss and break down misconceptions Americans and Middle Easterners hold about one another.

Wimmer's students wrote questions about Middle East stereotypes and organized them into topics using the collaborative text-editing software SubEthaEdit. Several students blogged about the conversation live on Wikispaces and, during a second teleconference, on CoveritLive. Students later used these summaries to debrief and reflect on the exchange. As they continued studying the region, the teens had more lively conversations about current events with Middle Eastern youth via Al Shafei's Web site. To assess their work, Wimmer assigned a final written reflection.

"I think the teleconference allowed my students to put a voice to the content," Wimmer says. "So often, it's difficult to make a connection with the information. This activity allowed the students to interact and learn on a global level."

Social Studies: Extra! Extra! Read All About the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Wilkinsburg High School, Wilkinsburg

Instead of just taking a test on the turn of the twentieth century, Dominic Woods's social studies students created their own newspapers on the critical events and issues of that time. Working individually and using Microsoft Publisher, they reported on topics such as immigration, the Great White Fleet, and the U.S. government's Open Door policy toward China. The students even slanted some of the stories in the manner of the yellow journalism of the time. The newspapers contained obituaries and interviews with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Woods, who calls himself an old-school teacher who, he says, is "all for the drill and skill," liked that the project provided both a way to challenge students' comprehension and an alternative method of assessment. "This gave students who are creative and who think in different patterns an opportunity to shine and show what they're able to do," Woods says. (He still gave a traditional test covering about half the material.) He graded the projects based on their completeness, historical accuracy, writing quality, and creativity. (Download a PDF of a project outline, a grading rubric, and lesson objectives.)

Keeping this new and multifaceted project on track was "frustrating as all heck," notes Woods. Different students work at different paces. But, he adds, "it empowered them to the point where they're the teacher. They took charge of their own education."

Science: How to Visit the Operating Room Without Injuring Yourself

Freedom Area High School, Freedom

Anatomy and physiology students at this school got an uncut (no pun intended), real-time view of knee-replacement surgery via videoconference. The payoff was more than just the spectacle; teacher Brandi Burger used it as an opportunity for career exploration.

Before the conference, Burger's students prepared by building a model knee made of wood and rubber bands, and they researched the education requirements, salary, and demand for various medical professions, such as operating-room nurse, anesthesiologist, and X-ray technician, as well as the related job of medical-sales representative. The ninety-minute viewing, provided by COSI (the Center of Science and Industry), a nonprofit organization that supports science education, began at the beginning, with doctors preparing -- and the patient getting onto -- the operating table.

"Nothing was edited out," Burger says. "It was everything, from sawing the bones in the knee to stitching it up at the end, so they saw the surgery exactly as it was happening." Periodically, COSI staff gave students at Freedom and another participating school a chance to ask the surgeons questions. (Yes, apparently doctors can perform surgery and talk to teenagers at the same time.) The cost of the connection and instructional materials for seventy students was $330.

An online discussion followed the conference, but even beyond that, Burger says, her students talked about the surgery for weeks. Real-life medicine, they realized, is less bloody and more intricate than the dramatized television versions on ER and House.

English: Their Own Personal Tuesdays with Morrie

Freedom Area High School

Students in Rebecca Rolinson's English classes made Mitch Albom's book Tuesdays with Morrie personal by creating videos. After studying the relationship between the author and his elderly friend, Morrie, the teens paired up to visit local nursing homes and spent an hour an a half getting to know a resident. Afterward, students used Moodle to write blogs about their visit. Rolinson recalls, "A lot of them were very surprised that they had a good time."

Prior to a second visit, the pairs researched cultural and historical events from their nursing-home resident's lifetime to use in a conversation. They then videotaped up to ten minutes of their discussion. Back at school, the students storyboarded and scripted video tributes to their assigned elders. They combined music, narration, and their interview footage using Sony's Vegas software to produce videos of about three minutes each, then burned them onto DVDs and went back to the nursing homes to show the residents. (Download a PDF of a project overview, including interview questions, grading rubrics, and more.)

Coordinating the nursing-home visits was tough, says Rolinson, but it was well worth the effort so that her students could forge a relationship with a person of a different generation. Some students told her they would never forget the experience. The elderly movie stars, as you might imagine, "were tickled," says Rolinson. "They loved it."

Math and English: Assessing Clean Energy by Video Camera

Bedford High School, Bedford

Wind and coal are two primary energy sources tapped near Bedford. To compare the merits and problems of using these two resources, students began by writing a research paper, critiqued and graded by English teachers. Then, for the math component, they went to a local windmill site and videotaped the spinning blades. Using trigonometry and employing clinometers (devices for measuring angle or elevation) they rigged themselves, the teens calculated the height of the windmills and the length of each blade. They also conducted videotaped interviews of the landowner who leases the property to the windmill company.

Back in the classroom, they used their windmill footage to determine the time it took for a blade to spin all the way around, then used this footage to calculate the blade's angular speed. Combining all of their research, the students used iMovie to create two videos -- one explanatory, demonstrating how they made their calculations of height and speed, and one persuasive, arguing for or against the use of wind power. Some students did extra research on the environmental effects of coal mining.

"They actually explained things in the videos in a way that taught all of us," says CFF coach John Diehl. "Instead of sitting in class, they're out in the field creating their own learning. That's something they're going to take with them."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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