Sandra Skea: Project-Based Learning

November 1, 2001

Sandra Skea , a fifth grade teacher at The Mott Hall School in New York City, describes an interdisciplinary project in which her students researched, designed, built, and wrote about kites.

1. What is the concept behind your students’ project on kites?

We're exploring kites. And we began our exploration with the history of kites, and that project developed into -- across the curriculum -- [an] endeavor where each student is exploring their own interest in kites, such as music and kites or kites and poetry, as well as designing their own kite.

As the project progresses, we will be flying these kites and testing them, redesigning them, bringing in the math with ratio and proportion. And, hopefully at the end, we're going to take all the information we learned about kites, write "how- to" designs for each kite, and then develop our own Web page so anyone who wants to know how to make Stoces box kite or the Tetra kite over here can just print out the scale drawings and the plans for it.

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2. Why did you decide to do a project on kites?

There was a kite in a story that we were reading in communication arts. So we started talking about it, and then different students started mentioning, "But I'd like to know about kites and music or kites and poetry or the history of kites," and some of the students wanted to research fighter kites or kites in celebrations. And then they went home with these ideas, and it turned out many of them had parents who flew kites in the Dominican Republic or in China but they remembered them from their childhood. Lily's father talked about how important kites were in celebrations, and then Jessica's father said, "I remember a kite I built, and let me show you my design." So it's become a project where everybody's involved.

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3. How does this hands-on project help your students understand abstract concepts, especially mathematical concepts?

At this point in math, we're studying ratio and proportion and they're difficult concepts, especially for a ten-year-old. Because they were having some difficulty with it, especially in understanding how to see the proportions, I thought that a hands-on experience would be ideal. They can actually see as they draw a figure, whether it's a rectangular prism or a two-dimensional object, and then set the scale for one side and then they can, as they build it, see how the other size changes in proportion.

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4. How do the laptops enhance the unit on kites?

For this project, the laptops prove to be especially useful. In creating the scale drawings, in doing the research, in being able to make revisions in order that they could set up ratio and proportion and see instantly what the effects were if they changed the length of, let's say, a rectangle, what happened to the width and how it looks in proportion. We have the wireless, so it was easy for us to go online, get additional information, to explore things.

And then, of course, there's just the plain Microsoft Word in creating their poetry and their stories. It makes it easier for me, too, because I can just get everything on a disk, bring it home, and I can look at it at home rather than carrying a whole bag full of papers like I used to do.

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5. What is the language arts or communication arts component of the project?

As we were exploring the history of kites, we also explored how different scientists used kites. And as we were doing that, students became interested in certain personalities that of course are famous for their use of kites. And that would be one of them in particular -- Ben Franklin. Other students became interested in Alexander Graham Bell because none of us really knew that he flew kites. But when the interest was focused on Ben Franklin, students were talking about how people around Ben might have thought about what he was doing.

The idea came up to write short stories and poems from the perspective of a kite. Brandon, one of my students, got the idea to write his short story as himself being the main character who was a kite -- the kite that Ben Franklin used -- hanging on the wall. And he's watching Ben Franklin at work, and he's getting a little nervous because every once in a while Ben looks up at him weirdly and the kite finally flies down during the night and looks in the journal -- Ben Franklin's journal -- realizes that Ben has a plan for him that could be very dangerous if not fatal. And then the story goes on from there.

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6. How do you assess student work?

The rubrics are based on how well they work together, how much research they did, how they planned their second design, what variables they thought about and tried to fix if their decision to ... well, maybe didn't fly because the kite was too long and then they make a kite that's too short, and it doesn't fly anyway. The kite falling on the ground is not going to cause them to fail because that wasn't the purpose. The purpose that they thought to try a new design on the kite and that they're starting to connect purpose to design, with the science part of it, that's what's behind it.

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7. In your experience, what are key ingredients to a successful project?

Over the years, each time I've done a project, it's become a little bit more, and I've understood over the years that one makes a project successful when you involve the students right from the beginning. Because then they look at it as their project. And they take great pride in being able to say to me, "Why don't we do kites and music, too?" And then everybody's on the Internet, we're all looking for any kites. "Let's go fly a kite -- is there a tune to it? Is there lyrics to it?" And when I'm doing projects like this, I generally have 100 percent on homework.

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