George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Crellin Elementary School

Grades PK-5 | Oakland, MD

Real-World Problem Solving: Project-Based Solutions

By using real-world problems as projects for children to solve, Crellin Elementary empowers, engages, and excites students about what they can learn and how they can use that knowledge.
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Real-World Problem Solving: Finding Solutions Through Projects (Transcript)

Karen Gilpin: By showing them that what we're doing in the classroom is affecting their community and helping their community, they see its value, and so they're willing to buy-in, even if the academics get a little hard, they're willing to work a little harder.

Dana McCauley: Any problem isn't really a problem, it's an opportunity. Right? It's an opportunity to learn something. They may not be the hero that rides in and solves the problem completely, but they get a piece of it. They can be part of the solutions.

Jacob: This could be right over there.

Dana McCauley: You know, with our agriculture program, in tying in the chores that they have to do, they live that every day.

Jacob: We're actually building playgrounds for the animals, because we've found that they have been trying to jump over the fence.

Carrie Hordubay: The kids really started to think, "[sigh] They're kind of bored, why are they acting this way? Why do they keep getting out?"

Kevin: They hardly have anything to play with, and sometimes they'll get on the watering containers.

Dana McCauley: The one rain barrel, when it got knocked over, the goats started jumping over it. So like, "Well, huh, they like that. What else could we make?" So that's when we came up with the idea of, "Maybe they need some playground equipment."

Carrie Hordubay: Ladders here, slides here. Let's see what we can design. Kind of tie our engineering piece in and problem solving.

Jacob: We had to draw our own design, and it had to be from everybody's idea.

Kevin: We're trying to build the model like we have it on paper, but like in 3D.

Sarah Deacon: And they're going to build this model, and then they're going to get to see the actual thing built.

Jacob: Professionals will pick the best one to be put inside the barnyard.

Carrie Hordubay: I had them tell me what materials they thought they needed.

Sarah Deacon: So they're already collecting stuff. Do we have popsicle sticks?

Carrie Hordubay: We have popsicle sticks. Glue?

Sarah Deacon: Mm hm. I'm curious to see what they're going to do with the peanut butter. The other thing that we might want to provide them is a model animal, so that they can get this to scale.

This is how we're going to scale our model. If you are making something for the goats or sheep to play on, this should probably fit on it.

Students: [talking excitedly]

Sarah Deacon: When it's something where they know it's gonna be out there in the schoolyard, they're totally engaged with it. Because there's also a sense of pride, like I helped do that. I mean, they're going to have this cool product at the end, but they're-- hopefully will also remember, "We built models, we worked as a team."

Student: Well, I don't think they would need a feeder on there.

Sarah Deacon: "I got to use a saw, I learned how to use a measuring tape. You know, I know what a 90-degree angle looks like because it's over there on that playground for the goats, and I see it every day I'm outside."



You can use some of these.

Karen Gilpin: Well, one of the standards for first grade is that students are aware of the things around them.

It's wiggling to get the skin off.


Karen Gilpin: We have been tagging butterflies for several years. And then in the spring, we didn't see many butterflies around here. So we've talked to park rangers, they have seen that this area was low in milkweed.

Caroline Blizzard: We talked about, you know, what's happening with the milkweed habitat loss, and their milling patterns, the climate shifting, all of that that's playing in. And they really understood it!

You guys are going to help us this year by helping to plant their favorite plant.

Students: Milkweed!

Caroline Blizzard: Milkweed! Why do they need milkweed?

Students: [overlapping answers]

Student: To lay their babies.

Caroline Blizzard: They lay their eggs. Give me five! All right!

Karen Gilpin: We've read both informational text on butterfly migration, fictional text, social studies. We have tracked butterfly migration on a map. All kinds of things. Math, when we put the milkweed here in the ground today.

Caroline Blizzard: All right! You guys tell me which one is three-quarters.

Student: This one.

Caroline Blizzard: All right, so just about like this, all right? And then you're going to lay a seed right on top of that.

Student: Yeah!

Caroline Blizzard: Can you find one? Here, spread them out, there you go.

Caroline Blizzard: They really understand that it's not about just what's happening at Crellin, or even in Garrett County, you know, you can ask them, "Do the tornadoes in Texas right now matter?" And a second-grader will tell you, "Yes, because that's where the Monarchs currently are."

Good job. You need some seeds?

Okay, boys...

I think they're starting to feel like the things they think matter, the things that they do matter. Even when I'm eight. Even when I'm nine.

Sarah Deacon: Because they're so invested in it, and really engaged in the process, it really cements it. It's something that they'll remember.

Carrie Hordubay: Yeah, connections to their outside world only make learning more meaningful and more purposeful, and more lasting.

Karen Gilpin: We're teaching them to be people, important people, who can do anything they want to do.

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Explore School and Community Needs as Real-World Catalysts for Learning

When designing projects and lessons at Crellin Elementary, teachers regularly look at school and community needs with the idea of using those needs as real-world catalysts for learning, instead of inventing problems for the kids to solve. Learning is made more tangible and real this way, and students are also empowered by discovering that they are able to enact change in the world around them. They become more engaged and passionate about learning because they can see the direct results.

How It's Done

Find Local Problems Your Students Can Solve

At Crellin Elementary, community service is a core value to the school. Teachers and staff are always seeking ways for the school to give back to the community, whether by planting a community garden or helping cook meals for a local community center. But rather than just service for service’s sake, Crellin finds local problems that they can solve and ties these projects to learning objectives. By doing so, they make learning relevant and engaging.

Dana McCauley, Crellin's principal, believes that this approach helps kids immediately see the reasons for what they're learning. "I'm not going to ask them to memorize those multiplication tables because I have nothing else to do," she says. "It's because later on, when we're calculating how big that composter needs to be, they'll need to know the area we're going to be using, and they'll to do it quickly. So it's about applying the knowledge."

3 Steps to Engagement

Crellin teachers suggest three main ways of finding real-world problems for students to solve:

1. Keep Your Eyes Open for Problems

Crellin teachers are always looking for real-world problems -- either in the school or the surrounding community -- from which students can learn. When they first began using local problems as fodder for learning, teachers had to do more of the seeking themselves, but now, several years into this practice, McCauley says they no longer have to search as hard.

"We find 'problems' by keeping active and being aware of what is happening in both the Crellin and greater community," she says, adding that they find interesting opportunities by reading newspapers or talking with members of the community. She even notes that, by this point, people will actually bring problems for the school to solve.

Building relationships with community members can really help. McCauley suggests that the best way to get started here is to put out the word that you're looking for issues which the students can help solve. Once you open your doors to the community, it's much easier for people to approach teachers and suggest possible projects. "It's all about relationships," says McCauley. "We know what the needs are out there -- we are in constant contact with parents and different groups in the community."

2. Tie Projects to Learning Objectives

"Everything's a learning opportunity, right?" observes McCauley, a statement that holds true for all Crellin teachers. So once a problem has been identified, teachers begin looking for ways to use that problem or issue as a catalyst for learning: What standards can they tie in? How can they broaden the issue to hit more learning objectives?

McCauley offers the example of cooking, where students use math, reading, following directions, and working with measurement tools. "You're not going to cook just for the sake of cooking," she notes. "That's how you tie in all the things you need to teach, and you make it relevant."

Teachers designing a problem-based unit ask themselves questions like:

  • Why would we do this?
  • What are we doing?
  • What do we hope to get out of it?

This helps them ensure that they're hitting learning objectives and not just throwing out random problems that will only confuse their students.

3. Let Students Help Steer

Sometimes teachers might not be sure where to search for a local problem, or might have multiple real-world problems or issues to choose from. This is when Crellin teachers often turn to their students for input on what they find the most interesting.

"If I ever had to choose which project," says McCauley, "I think I would look at the kids and let them help." She describes a scenario of giving them the option of two projects or problems and then inviting a discussion steered by questions like:

  • Which do you think we can be a part of?
  • Which do you think that you'd want to be a part of?
  • What are the benefits of it?

McCauley notes that the student choice can be part of the learning. "I don't think we always have to be the one to choose," she adds.

This way, not only do students feel a sense of ownership, but the teachers also know in advance that there's some interest in the issue. Even if the teacher decides to take the project in a different direction -- possibly for safety reasons, or feasibility -- at least students have had a chance to voice their opinion. "I think allowing kids to be part of that conversation is important," says McCauley. "That way, they can understand why some decisions are being made."

The Benefits of Real-World Problem-Solving

Once students are able to be actively involved in solving problems that have tangible outcomes, they become more invested in solving other problems. This takes them deeper into the learning that they need for finding those solutions.

"Because you're teaching kids to be critical thinkers, you're teaching them to be reflective, and you're teaching them to be creative," says McCauley. "It doesn't matter what problem you give them after that because they'll be able to figure it out. They'll have the skills they need to think something through logically."

"When you can help kids see the impact they can have to solve a problem in their own little corner of the world," observes McCauley, "it's an opportunity to learn something. It's an opportunity to make something good happen. That gives them that sense of belonging and a sense of being a part of something bigger. . . 'Here's an issue, here's a problem, and I'm going to lend my part to that. Even I, as a ten-year-old, have something to add to that.'"


Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

MarieVazquez's picture
Fifth Grade Teacher from Corona, New York

I am teaching a third grade class that is in need of support. When we did our planting project or when I introduced the minipond to the classroom what delighted me most were he questions and noticings and the responses they gave to one another. The second thing that delighted me was their interest in getting words spelled to express their ideas. When children truly want that spelling because they are happy and engaged in work that is meaningful to them, why not give them what they want. These words would then be posted for the whole class to use. Loved that.

Jewel Blute's picture

Thank you so much for sharing more inspirational tips regarding Real-World Problem Solving on Project-Based Solutions. I am concentrated on career development for students such as I provide Professional resume writing service. When we meet someone for the first time we usually welcome each other. I use this fact to start one of my workshops. After this greeting, I usually ask the question: How many acts of welcoming took place?This is not an easy question to answer. Firstly, because no one paid much attention to it during the actual welcoming, and secondly because I (on purpose) disturb the order (if any emerged). So, to arrive at an answer we have to make clear our purpose before the action, so that is possible to quantify the amount of welcoming that takes place. Then we repeat the experiment. We can avoid repeating the experiment by using mathematics to give the answer, but only under certain conditions. So, during the discussion we first of all find out the necessity of making order. While we are establishing the order, we have to start from defining the object of our considerations what we will consider as a welcome. We also have to define the rules which we think it is reasonable to follow to receive the proper answer e.g. everybody has to welcome each person and does it only once. Only now, after fulfilling all these basic criteria, can we start to solve our problem. Usually when we use 'real world' situations as problems, we do not have clearly defined statements which we should prove.

Nona Craft's picture

I think incorporating as much of real life learning into the curriculum as possible makes the learning relate-able and engaging.

vlevans3's picture

It is so important to apply curriculum to the real world. So often students wonder where or how they will apply something they learned in school, and taking them outside and showing them would be really beneficial and fun!

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