George Lucas Educational Foundation

Anatomy of a Project: "Soil Superheroes"

Project Learning Assignment: Seventh graders work with community experts to advance their understanding of bacteria in the environment -- and then share their findings with the community at large.
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Anatomy of a Project: "Soil Superheroes"(Transcript)

Girl 1: "Hey, is this the place where you can get a job to make people sick?" And the guy's like, "Yeah."

Narrator: Students in Scott Comstock's Scientific Communications class are critiquing the product of their semester-long exploration of the role of bacteria in the health of soil.

Girl 1: Okay, now I want feedback.

Girl 2: I like how you asked for a job to make people sick, because you wouldn't like normally think that.

Girl 1: Right.

Girl 2: But since the bacteria does that, it makes sense.

Narrator: Each student produced a unique "Soil Superhero Pamphlet," which integrated science, art, history, math, language arts, and multi-media. A team of seventh grade teachers at King Middle School began planning the project during a three-day summer session.

Scott Comstock, Teacher: At the beginning of every expedition, we usually look at District Calendar to see what we're going to be doing for the fall. Then we start zooming in a little bit on exactly what it looks like from September through say, December. And we X-out some days we wouldn't be here. And then we kind of, what I like to call, maybe bracket the time of a kick-off, through the culminating event, and the celebration of the final product.

Scott Comstock, Teacher: This is where we start as a staff is creating the model before we ask the kids to do it. So essentially we kind of run ahead seven to nine weeks in advance and figure out what exactly we're going to build. So here's a good example of an informational pamphlet around bacteria. There's like a science piece around metabolism, and that's a science content piece. Here's a math piece around size of their bacteria. This is a multi-media piece where the kids have drawn their work, characters, text and background. And then they would scan it and then they would bring that in. So we did that first to see how challenging that would be for the kids.

Teacher 2: Do we have some flexibility...

Ruth MacLean, Teacher: The scientists were all -- they were like, "Oh, sure, we'll come. So they're all very excited to do this."

Ruth MacLean, Teacher: In Expeditionary Learning we love to develop relationships between the students and community members, because the excitement that it generates in the students, deepens their learning, and lengthens their retention.

Gail Fletcher, Maine Science Corps: There's a word that you might not know. The word is "soluble." In other words, it's able to be dissolved by water.

Gail Fletcher, Maine Science Corps: Ruth contacted me and says, "I want to do this thing with the kids about soil bacteria, but I don't a lot about microbiology." So we sat down over the summer, and we probably talked seven or eight hours. And she read microbiology textbooks, and she did a lot of learning on her part.

Scott Comstock, Teacher: One of our ideas was to create a comic to kind of jazz up and make bacteria colorful and exciting for the kids. But to also teach them the benefits of bacteria in soil scientifically. And so we brought in an expert, who showed them how to make something come alive through illustrating it.

Girl 3: And today, we're working with Annie O'Brien, a comic book artist. And she's teaching us how to make expressions.

Annie O'Brien: It can be a line.

Girl 3: And we learned how to draw some eyes and some mouths, so we can make good facial expressions.

Scott Comstock, Teacher: And they would start storyboarding out different ideas to start coming up with this little story about habitat and setting. So we're taking the content, making it exciting for the kids, and having them make a mini-product like in a comic-like situation on their laptops. If they're creating a character for the comic life, they'll do something like this. They'll black-line it. they'll color it. They'll scan it. And then we'll pop it over here into a folder called "Drawings." And then, here's their character, and here's their situation. They can go over that on the District server, bring it back to their work space on their desktops and start to manipulate that. As we get so much digital information in the computer, we have to start organizing. So typically, we'd have something like this that we'd create, where we'd have a major folder, and we'd have Social Studies, Science, Math folders in that, which would house the Social Studies information, the Science information. So when it was time to create the product, we knew exactly where to go.

David Grant, Teacher: Do you guys know how to get to the King Middle website?

Girl 4: Yeah.

David Grant, Teacher: It doesn't work well when you ask kids to learn new technical skills at the same time you're asking them to master content. So what we do is we scaffold it so that we're asking them to learn a new set of technical skills around content that isn't hard for them. We might ask them to produce an organizational structure around shooting letters of the alphabet in the building. It's content they already understand. Scott asked them to learn the file structure that they're going to use in their final product for their expedition, well in advance of ever thinking about how bacteria and pamphlets are going to be put together. So it's a matter of being smart about how you plan your teaching, scaffolding, collaborating with your team members, and giving kids the confidence to build meaningful products around deep content.

Ruth MacLean, Teacher: And when I ask the other students to move out, you're going to slide into their spot, open up and show the scientists your particular piece that you're working on improving.

Narrator: During the Learning Expedition, students present their work and get feedback from outside experts.

Teacher 4: Okay, a de-nitrifier is a superstar when bacteria collect organic nitrogen formed in the biosphere. That's correct. And then it breaks the compound down to decompose it. I like how you're breaking the sentences up and making it really easy to understand.

Girl 5: Mm-hm.

Narrator: As part of a culminating event, students distribute their pamphlets to local garden centers, universities, and at the main Flower Show.

Scott Comstock, Teacher: There's assessment embedded in everything that we do all along. But that final product is out there, and it's going to be celebrated and it's going shared with the community. And it's exciting. You know, we get to hold the kids to that. We get to hold ourselves to that. And someone said once, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well." And that's kind of our thoughts around that.

Scott Comstock, Teacher: Grammar, spelling, punctuation. We'll just think about those things. And thank you very much, Kaeleigh.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Camera Crew

  • Gilberto Nobrega
  • Kevin Kalunian

Associate Producer

  • Doug Keely


  • Carl Bidleman

Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Additional Resources for the "Soil Superheroes" Project


Six Steps for Planning a Successful Project

Interactive Online Final Pamphlet (King Middle School's Web site)

Graphic: Five Shot Guide to Video Production 972K

Soil Superheroes Student Video Blog (King Middle School's Web site)

Click on any of the titles below to download a PDF of one of King Middle School's many resources.

Teacher Planning Guides:

Expeditionary Learning at King Middle School (Example of the Six-Step Rubric in Practice) 80K

Project Outline for Students 476K

Samples of Student Comic Strips:

The Bacteria Runway Show by Darcy 808K

D-D At The Monastery by Maddie 864K

Bacterium for Hire by Noah 812K

More at Free Resources and Downloads for Project Learning

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