George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Charles R. Drew Charter School

Grades PK-12 | Atlanta, GA

STEAM + Project-Based Learning: Real Solutions From Driving Questions

At Charles R. Drew Charter School, third-grade students use PBL to prepare for the next Snowpocalypse.
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STEAM + Project-Based Learning: Reals Solutions From Driving Questions (Transcript)

Ronnie: Boys and girls, what is inside of this bag? Air. You are going to see convection at its best.

Natasha: Now that we are a STEAM school, using project based learning as our primary instructional strategy, we see our students succeeding at the highest levels. They're interested in what's happening in the world. They're interested in their own learning and how they're going to apply that.

Ronnie: So here at Charles Drew Charter School, we are a STEAM school, with the emphasis on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. Our kids not only get the regular curriculum, but they also have classes like science lab with me, robotics, engineering, art, chorus, band.

Teacher: This is called a?

Children: Flute.

Teacher: Flute.

Sayj: I'm taking dance and orchestra right now.

Joshua: I like technology too.

Adia: I love science, and I like to learn about how things work.

Donya: Well, for us, project based learning and STEAM can't really be separated.

Abigail: Instead of teaching these skills and these disciplines in isolation, we collaborate and work together. Our students are making connections between these disciplines.

Donya: We know that the careers that are going to be available are in STEAM fields. We use project based learning to help our students to be successful in those careers.

Abigail: Project based learning is not just creating a project. It's not teaching theme units. It's solving a problem. The project is a product that students create in order to solve a problem. It's a project that needs to have an audience. It needs to have a lasting impact.

Donya: So across the entire building, teams collaborate to plan project based learning instruction.

So ideally, what we're going to do is look at these essential elements.

We focus on one project based learning unit that integrates all of the subject areas each quarter. The teachers work together to look at their standards, look at what's relevant for our students, what's happening in the world, and design a driving question.

Janale: I like it a lot, because there's one question, one big picture. I like big pictures, but I also like that you can ask little questions within the big question.

Abigail: A big standard in third grade is teaching about heat. We wanted to see if students could figure out a problem within their community that they could solve using heat. We immediately thought of Snowpocalypse. Heat played an important role, whether it was related to the weather, or how Atlantans coped.

Adia: There was just coldness and snow and ice, and so heat plays a really good part to keep us warm.

Abigail: We eventually arrived at the question of, how can we better prepare for Atlanta's changing weather?

Natasha: We went in this direction because we knew that it affected a lot of their families, it affected our school.

Abigail: My students researched the event. I brought in some community members to just share their stories.

Woman: We had so many people stranded. We had students who were on the bus, ten, eleven o'clock at night, and we was trying to contact parents, just to let them know where their child was.

Abigail: They couldn't believe some of the stuff they heard and that to me was this very organic way that they arrived at this problem and this feeling of, "I want to do something about it."

We are going to be thinking of some ways to help Atlantans better prepare for weather like this.

Donya: The teachers may have designed a project that's going to guide the students in a direction, but the students have a big role helping to design products that will solve those problems.

Melissa: My class came up with some type of safety case that would help them if they were stranded. So they will do certain little mini projects along the way, like a solar oven. They'll talk about insulation, they'll test different materials to see what are good conductors of heat and to see how do these everyday materials fit into your kit.

Girl: Wooden spoon, plastic spoon, metal spoon.

Melissa: Does it feel cold, does it feel hot?

Boy: Feel this, feel this.

Melissa: Record your observations. What about the metal spoon, Destiny?

Destiny: The metal spoon got hotter.

Melissa: So that was the hottest?

Destiny: Yes.

Natasha: One of the questions that they said that they needed to know was, well how was heat produced? Mister Thomas came up with the idea to bring the entire third grade out.

Ronnie: Heat energy can be transferred in how many ways?

Children: Three.

Ronnie: Three, conduction, radiation and convection. The heat from the sun will transfer energy to the air inside this bag. Once the molecules in the air inside the bag get warmed up, the solar bag is going to rise into the air.

Children: [excited screaming]

Abigail: Our commitment to STEAM has shaped how we do project based learning here at Drew. Technology, science, engineering, that all factors into what we're looking for the students to be able to do when they're answering this driving question.

Donya: We see our students collaborating naturally to solve problems, not just the ones presented to them by teachers, but the ones that they just face every day.

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At Charles R. Drew Charter School, students are:

  • Interested in what's happening in the world
  • Engaged in their own learning
  • Taking ownership of their education and how they'll apply it later in life
  • Collaborating naturally to solve problems -- both the problems presented by their teachers and the issues they face every day

Charles R. Drew Charter School is a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) school, and project-based learning is their instructional delivery method. By integrating PBL and STEAM, they empower students to take ownership of their education.

How It's Done

Getting Started With Planning 

At Charles R. Drew, grade-level elementary teachers collaborate in planning each PBL unit to come up with one driving question across the grade level. Every grade level does four PBL units over the course of the year, one per nine-week quarter.

Identify Standards and What Your Students Need to Know

When designing projects, Charles R. Drew follows the Buck Institute for Education's "Essential Project Design Elements Checklist" (PDF). The first step is to make sure that the project is aligned with standards and what your students need to know.

Charles R. Drew teachers meet during the summer to start planning their unit. They look at Common Core Standards, the Georgia Performance Standards, how those standards are applicable in the real world, and how that's relevant to their students. They use this base knowledge to create the driving question that will guide student inquiry throughout the project.

"A big standard in third grade is teaching about heat," says Abigail McCann, a Charles R. Drew third-grade teacher. Once they identify heat as a standard, they discuss other standards across the disciplines to see if they can be incorporated with heat.

"We know that heat has to be measured, so we might incorporate mathematics with that," elaborates McCann. "Once we have our standards picked that we'd like to encompass in one project-based learning unit, we need to figure out a real-world application of these skills."

Create the Driving Question

A project is centered around a driving question, which is a relevant problem or question for students to solve. What informed Charles R. Drew's driving question?

  • It ties into standards.
  • It addresses a real-world problem that relates to the students' experiences and community.
  • It inspires students to find a solution that will have a long-lasting impact on their community.

"We wanted to see if students could figure out a problem within their community that they could solve using heat. We immediately thought of the Snowpocalypse," recalls McCann. "It was a very big storm. It paralyzed all of Atlanta."

During the Snowpocalypse, Atlanta’s biggest snowstorm last year, people were stranded at school, on the road, at stores, and at restaurants because of the snow. "We went in this direction because we knew that it affected a lot of their families; it affected our school," says Natasha Jenkins, a Charles R. Drew third-grade teacher.

From this process, they came up with their driving question: “How can we better prepare for Atlanta's changing weather?”

Authenticity: Help Students Connect With Their Audience and Relate to the Problem

"I needed to find a way to present this problem to them so that they could then arrive at this decision that, 'Wow, I really want to do something about it' -- so they would feel a personal stake in this problem," recounts McCann. "I gathered community members who would be able to shed some light on what it was like to be in these situations that we read about."

The third-grade students researched the Snowpocalypse. They read newspaper and online articles about the event. They interviewed community members who experienced it. They created Snowpocalypse narratives, not only summarizing what happened but also capturing the problems Atlantans' faced and how it made them feel. But what really impacted the students and made this project personal to them was bringing in community members who could share their own stories about the big snowstorm.

The students heard from "a faculty member who was stuck in her car with her daughter for 18 hours on the road," says McCann. "A lot of the speakers mentioned that they either helped others through this process, or they could have used some more help, or they wish they could have helped. That word stuck in the minds of my students. And you could tell that they were thinking, 'I wish I could have helped!'"

Make Your Project Authentic

To make their PBL project authentic, Charles R. Drew educators:

  • Connect the driving question to a local event or problem that impacts their students and their community
  • Bring community members into the classroom to share their experiences
  • Have their students create a product that solves a real-world problem and helps their local community

"Having the opportunity to interact with those community stakeholders in that way really inspired my students," observes McCann. "You could see it. They were excited. They were fired up. They couldn't believe some of the stuff they heard. It was wonderful because they could see that there was a problem. That, to me, was this very organic way that they arrived at this problem, and this feeling of, 'I want to do something about it.'"

Sustained Inquiry: Connect Content Standards to the Project

Through sustained inquiry across subjects, Charles R. Drew connects the inquiry process with presenting content about heat.

"It's a way for students to understand the content, learn it, experience it, and then be able to apply it to this new situation," explains McCann. "For example, we might do an experiment about friction, because friction is one of the ways that we can create heat. I might have my students rub their hands together."

Once her students understand friction, she uses a guiding question to connect that understanding to the problem they're trying to solve. For example, she may ask, "Can we use friction when we're thinking about how to better prepare Atlantans for weather like this?" This will lead her students to start problem solving. They may say, "I remember when Ms. O'Dunn spoke to us in our panel about how the homeless were really cold. I'm wondering if we can create mittens that create a lot of friction and better warm their hands?"

Melissa Ford's third-grade students decided to create a safety kit that would help students stranded during the Snowpocalypse. They learned about heat conduction as they tested everyday materials to see which were the best heat conductors to include in their kits. They learned about insulation as they created solar ovens. Ford incorporated mini projects throughout the unit to connect their inquiry process with her presentation of content about heat.

Encourage Student Choice and Voice

"As teachers, we're not completely sure what the end product will look like," admits McCann.

The teachers design the project and create an outline for guiding their students in navigating that project, but it's ultimately the students who come up with solutions to solve the problem and create the product.

From talking with her class, McCann knows that "the product is going to look like something that we can prepare ahead of time and give to people." What will that look like?

It might be a kit that people keep in their cars or at school to use until they can get help. It may be mittens or helpful information given to homeless shelters. It may be a presentation for second-grade students about ways to prepare for the cold. These are some of the ideas that Charles R. Drew third-grade students came up with.

"And part of the beauty of project-based learning," affirms McCann, "is that our students are going to play a very significant role in deciding exactly what that product is going to look like."

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ELJ's picture
AEC_Prog_Developer/Instructor (PPBL Focused)

Those monitoring/assessing PPBL instruction (walk-throughs as well as "formal observations") must be equipped with the visionary skill-set(s)) to fully grasp (in a reasonable manner) the inherent thinking progressions (such as: Analytical/ Practical/Creative/ Research-based, et al). Without these basic/core "fundamentals", the current unwarranted divide (between acknowledged Academia's & Career-prep practitioners) will likely be subjected to further splintering. In response to Business & Industry (the job producers), this divide must be resolved. Not to worry standards-based teachers, for notwithstanding my embodied comments, as the divide closes both you (even your earning/impact potential) and those proverbial standards will measurably accrue to the better.

Keith Schenck's picture


Paul Arigo's picture

The basic core fundamentals makes a difference in the unwarranted divide discussed by ELJ. These barriers are significant and exposed in the classrooms you have discussed.

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