George Lucas Educational Foundation

Building the Foundation to Transform a Public High School to PBL

Sammamish High School is in the midst of a five-year process to change from traditional teaching to an entirely problem-based curriculum. Follow the journey of the teachers, administrators, and students as they reinvent their school. Read more about this school.
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Building the Foundation to Transform a Public High School to PBL (Transcript)

Hi. I’m Tom Duenwald. I’m principal of Sammamish High School.

When I first came here as principal Sammamish was in a place of declining enrollment. Things weren’t working. The staff came together and was thinking about, “Well, what could we do to take Sammamish to the next level and really serve our students?”

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: We have been fortunate to get a federal grant that’s allowed us to move forward with re-designing our school to be a problem-based school, wall-to-wall, in every curricular area.

Tom Duenwald: It’s a significant shift from what can be more of a traditional teacher-centered classroom to more of a teacher-facilitated learning process where we engage students in authentic problems. High schools have been very resistant to change. I mean I think a lot of high schools, you visit them and it could be fifty years ago. And I don’t think it has to be that way.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: So in eight days the school year is going to start and before that we are getting together for five days of professional development led by Sammamish teachers for Sammamish teachers.

Teacher: How do I transform my class from being driven by me to students wanting to take ownership?

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: PBL in a classroom is students actively working together to solve a problem. The problem can be big or small. It can be the type of thing that they can solve through discussion. It can be the type of thing that they build a product around. But, ultimately, it’s students trying to learn content through the solution to this problem.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: There is something to students having the opportunity to get together and deal with real-world challenges that makes them hungry for the next challenge, that desire to come back to the table and invest more of themselves in the outcome. We want to grow that feeling in them over the course of these four years. That’s what gets them to stay involved in education.

Jayesh Rao: This idea that the whole school is focused on problem-based learning is really powerful. Fifteen years of teaching here, I’ve seen quite a lot. I’m good at what I do. I would like to be better. I would like to be a more effective teacher.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: For an entire school to go through this across the board is a big, big change in what we’re seeing other schools doing across the country.

Rob Hallock: Sammamish has always been on the verge. We’re a really good school and we’re on the verge, I think, of always becoming a great school. If there’s something that’s gonna transform our school, this is what it’s going to be.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: I want to congratulate you guys for being on time. Hold on, hold on, hold on. Slow down, slow down.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: The first day of school we’re gonna have a brand new crop of freshmen coming into some brand new classes that we’ve never taught before. We’re hoping that we’re gonna be able to get them engaged early on and help them see the benefits and positives of problem-based learning, but I’m anxious about it.

Rob Hallock: So I have to tell you: we’ve got five teachers teaching this class. We’ve been working on it this summer. So we’re really looking forward to it. Your feedback is gonna be important to us.

Jayesh Rao: The problem has to be authentic in the sense that it has a resonance with the students.

Student: One of the problems in the ocean is that with the higher amount of CO2, calcifying organisms are decreasing. We’re testing to see how well life-- other life in the ocean lives without calcifying organisms.

Alejandra: I found out that corral reefs are being destroyed with high CO2. It moved me and I’d like to change that.

Teacher: Does your gravel ever get green and slimy?

Anna: Oh, yeah. Algae.

Anna: especially in science and math I feel like the subject can get a little bit overwhelming. So that’s why I like the project: it’s one step at a time.

Jainxin: At first I thought project-based learning was a plan by the government to increase the class sizes so one teacher could teach more students, but after I worked with it I realized it was a way for students to connect to the material and understand the material in our own way.

Student: Okay, migration patterns from rural to urban: we know that one. All right, rural is, like, farming, agriculture, right? And then urban’s kind of, like, where we live right now. So you can, like, draw a picture from someone, like, in eastern Washington moving over to Bellevue.

Karissa Stay: At first I thought that it might not be possible to try to get all the content in. But I’ve found that we can still find that balance where maybe one or two days out of an entire unit I can kind of really lead them down the content and then they can take that and better learn from one another.

Danielle: I get moderate grades. But if it’s, like, you have a group project, you’re gonna have other people who have other ideas besides you. So you’re gonna be, like, understanding it better than just reading something by yourself.

Rosendo: Yeah, I have a lot of friends who struggle with English, ‘cause they either just came in, like, two years ago or just barely came. So, like, if they’re in a classroom with a lot of lecturing, not enough group time, they’re not gonna learn English.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: One of the ways that we’re empowering teachers is we’re giving them time during the school day to work with their colleagues on curriculum that make sense to them, given what they understand about the best practices of teaching in their discipline. We’re saying, “Come out of that locked classroom. Come into community and let’s find a way that we, together, can move forward.”

David: Our project was to create a aquaponics system and we had several people working on it. In my case I was kind of the team leader. We had to learn how an environmental system in the wild would work and then simulate that with the materials that we were given. The whole creative process kind of went in steps. Two members of my group who are kind of just, like, the thinkers that would think, “What if we could include this?” Once those two came up with the ideas, it would go through another person who was kind of like the designer to figure out, “Oh, how would we make it?” And then it would kind of go up to me and I would kind of be like the final decider.

Jainxin: I think it’s a great thing that students have a choice. So when we do project-based learning we’re allowed to teach ourselves the material in a way that we can understand.

Rob Hallock: Well, the current project is called “The Scramble for the Arctic” and as a result of the climate change the arctic is getting smaller and there’s all sorts of resources in the arctic that will be available. And the question we’ve posed to students is, “Who should control these resources?”

Student: We’re arguing about the Northwest Passage.

Student: I know. We need that, too.

Christine: This would probably be faster than the actual Panama Canal.

Christine: It helps us prepare for the future. It gives you, like, leadership and really good cooperation skills with your group members.

Kyra: I think it’s more interesting. I don’t like just reading and having a test. It’s not fun and you remember it for the test and then you forget it.

Kelsey: We had someone come in, an actual client come in, and choose which one she liked the best.

Client: I appreciated how thoughtfully you responded to sort of the “client’s needs,” my needs.

Anna: It’s not just for your teacher who sees your work all the time; it’s for a client who’s deciding whether to build it. And so you really strive to do well.

Tom Duenwald: When the students know that what they’re doing in the classroom has an audience outside the classroom, it really helps them deepen their thinking on it. And I think that is pretty authentic in terms of what the future work world holds.

Kelsey: I wasn’t realizing how much I was learning until the end of it. I’m a better learner when I can actually get my hands on something and do it. And I’ll just remember it better, ‘cause I’ll have an experience to attach it with.

Christine: We’re preparing for, like, a U.N. summit, just, like, portraying it and how they actually do it in real life.

Rob Hallock: So you should say, “Can I have these folks come up and then we’re gonna got to Al Jazeera-- Al Jazeera for a first slide, media point.”

Rob Hallock: These are hearings about who should control the arctic, and what should we do when this territory opens up? They’re playing the role of countries, and indigenous people, environmental groups, multinational organizations. This is a real-life problem that’s playing out.

Student: Not only is oil drilling-- it’s extremely dangerous, but oil recovery is nearly impossible in ice. And this oil will not last for more than three years according to studies in the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s about standing up for environment and families and our future, and I won’t give up this fight.

Student: Thank you, Delegate.

Bruna: Do you understand that if I could have a trade route through the arctic, my shipping to the US would be cut two weeks shorter. So I’m sorry: I will not be supporting you.

Bruna: I was the U.N. ambassador to China, so I was a big leader and I was totally into it. I feel like if this was to happen in real life I could potentially change the world. And that’s the kind of stuff I really like doing.

Student: Even if there is a chance that what happened in the Gulf Coast-- even if it wasn’t by you guys-- or what happened in Alaska from you guys, could happen in the arctic, it could be devastating.

Student: If everybody just suddenly decided to drop oil, regular people do not-- like, my parents and your parents-- do not have the means to just stop and go buy an electric car.

Natasha: Everyone’s really, like, pumped up and excited for it and, like, there’s a lot of tension also, because people are agreeing, disagreeing, but I think that’s what’s making it fun.

Student: --to protect Oceania we have the World Wildlife Fund. We understand that you want to protect the natural environment of the arctic, both nature and wildlife in the area. However, we do intend despite your beliefs to go forward.

Rob Hallock: That was great. Really-- I’m really proud of you.

Rob Hallock: What we do in PBL, it builds on itself, so that these projects become part of the culture and traditions of the school. We have a day where we look at the presentations of other students. We have a day where we’re going to debate what happens in the arctic. The biochem folks, they grow their own food. And I know they as a class have some kind of feast. That’s great.

Chef: If you want some of the tilapia that we raised, get a little plate and come over here.

Rob Hallock: What that culture says to students is that what you bring to the table is valuable.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: As teenagers I think often what they fight against is a sense that life is happening to them. So we give them classrooms where they help to direct what’s happening there. They are important to this process. This is not a place that you can hide. This is a place where we want the best of you, we see the best in you, now let’s bring that out.

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  • Producer/Director: Gabriel Miller
  • Editors: Gabriel Miller, Daniel Jarvis
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Director of Photography: Gabriel Miller
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producers: Steve Arnold, David Markus, Zachary Fink

Editor's Note: This video showed year one of this five-year process. For periodic updates on the Sammamish story, visit our Sammamish High School page.

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Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stacy Watkins's picture

Wow!! This is amazing. Innovative. Why don't we do more authentic learning like this across the board? Is it more important to learn how to solve problems or to "cover" the material?

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

Wow! My kind of school! A very innovative way of teaching! In the last 15 years, this is the direction I have moved in my teaching were I am more of a facilitator and letting students think for themselves. In my opinion, if we want to better our present education system, we have to teach students how to solve REAL WORLD PROBLEMS!

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.'s picture
Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.
Former teacher, site admin, district admin & edtech CERO with PhD in ed.

I have to repeat the most appropriate word for this: wow! This video is packed with so many wonderful ideas, wonderful teachers, and wonderfully-engaged students! :-)

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