Project-based Learning (PBL) at the High School

Project-based Learning (PBL) at the High School
Yvonne Domings

Project-based Learning (PBL) at the High School

Introduction by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

As a progressive school, Sparhawk has long put high value on teaching students to do more than memorize information. Sparhawk teachers spend countless hours designing and developing interesting curricula that help students learn how to think critically and creatively. Project-based Learning (PBL) is a great example of a progressive approach where teachers present students with a complex and authentic question, problem or challenge and structure tasks and activities in a way that allows them to gain deep knowledge and skills.

PBL, when done well, is supported by research that indicates:

  • Improved academic outcomes across age groups, ability and achievement levels (Boaler 2001)(Halvorsen, Duke et al, 2012).

  • Improved ability to transfer skills and understandings to new contexts (Barron & Darling Hammond, 1998).

  • Improved student engagement in learning (Barron & Darling Hammond, 1998)(Holm, 2011).

  • Improved collaborative and problem-solving skills (Barron & Darling Hammond, 1998)(Ackermann, n.d.).

  • PBL supports identity development when students work on teams that require both independent and collaborative work (Langer-Osuna, 2015)(Langer-Osuna, 2011).

Although PBL is used in our Upper and Middle School classes in various ways, we dedicate Friday afternoons to PBLs that focus squarely on helping our students develop the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity that have been called out as crucial for success in 21st century college and careers (Partnership for 21st Century Learning).

If you visit the Upper School on a Friday afternoon, you will find classrooms and hallways alive with students actively working on real-world problems. You will see student historians, scientists and researchers, textbook editors, mathematicians, marketeers and movie makers. This wide range of roles provides opportunities for them to try on different “hats” within a project, thereby leveraging their passions and strengths to mediate their challenges (Langer-Osuna, 2011 & 2015). Students make key decisions, develop and live within timelines. They innovate and collaborate, pitch and test ideas, collect data and reflect upon results. At the end of the semester, students communicate their experience and learning to a real-world audience at PBL Exhibition Night.

What follows are descriptions of each of the PBLs that students are working on this semester. We invite the entire Sparhawk community to join us for the PBL Exhibition night on June 14, 2018.

Back to the Roots

by Lee Ford (with Dana Nuenighoff)

Driving question: How can we construct an aquaponics unit that uses the waste from fish to fertilize plants?

As a teacher who generally teaches the Humanities, it has been both inspiring and refreshing to help co-facilitate a science-based PBL with Dana this semester. Every Friday, our students gather in small groups to research, design and construct their own aquaponics system (a method of growing that allows for the cultivation of animals and plants in a shared, symbiotic environment).

They are also learning to collaborate and work through design iterations through which they hold each other accountable to back up their choices with analysis and research. I love the way this particular PBL allows students to explore a wide range of skills and disciplines in a single afternoon -- relying on chemistry to monitor the pH in the water, troubleshooting engineering challenges in their design, or becoming ecologists and botanists in order to determine the best species to include. In addition, I love that sustainability and agricultural innovation have a place in our science curriculum at Sparhawk. Who knows -- the students problem-solving their fish tanks today might be the ones to pioneer new ways to feed our growing planet tomorrow.

Voices and Visions of the East

by Shelley Carpenter

Driving question: How do we develop a text that represents the voices and visions of the Eastern world?

The students in the Voices and Visions of the East PBL, have been spending the last few weeks researching India. In this PBL, students are working as a group to develop an online “textbook” that can be used to teach and learn history from the perspective of voices of the Eastern world. In the first two PBL meetings, students shared their research in presentation format as they proposed topics to the group. After several round table discussions about their central content focus, the students decided to pursue areas of interest relating to Indian culture such as Art, History, Medicine, and Religion.

Each week, students begin with a round table discussion where they pitch ideas, share their progress and get feedback. The students are writing individual research papers that will evolve into an online text - one article and two side bars relating to persons, places, and events in Indian history.  In the second phase of this project, students will choose a platform and produce the online text. Although I continue to support the process, my role as direct facilitator has ceased. I have turned over complete control of the PBL to the students. This PBL utilizes and builds twenty-first century skills such as: critical inquiry, evaluation, analysis, synthesis and Socratic discussion.  

Behind the Numbers: Decision Making in Sports

by Mitch McDonald and Jennifer Esty

Driving question: Can we create a model for sports performance that helps to select an ideal team using common sense and statistical data?

The Behind the Numbers PBL allows students to dig into the math behind sports.  Some students walked in hoping to just talk about sports and study their favorite teams. They thought they would be able to ignore the math! However, what they have found is the math of sports is fun!  

We began the semester by debating questions like: Who is the best soccer goalie in the world… do you use total goals saved or allowed?  Minutes played? A great goalie with a great defense in front of them will have numbers that look fabulous, but what about that goalie on a lesser team that is playing a better team? The answers require research, analysis, evaluation and critical thought. They stimulate great debates and require students to use the numbers to back up their position!

Each week, students work on small groups to do research and decide which statistics and aspects of their sport chosen are essential to success. Students are learning to use sports databases, R software, and their own creative ideas to draw conclusions about of what creates athletic success. They may study simple statistics like goals scored or minutes played, or they may investigate more advanced metrics such as PER (player efficiency rating) or 4th quarter scoring. These more complex statistics involve truly understanding the sports being studied. In some groups, students have background knowledge on the sport chosen that allow them to filter through how data is relevant to their analysis. As in a front office of a sports team, the viewpoint of fresh minds collaborating with sports fans help to make business decisions. In the end, students strive to answer: What combination of statistics best describes and predicts the qualities of a winning team or a successful player?

Power of the Podcast

by Nate Velluto

Driving question: How does one create a persuasive, powerful podcast?

Podcasts give everyone a voice because anyone can make them. In this PBL, my students are working hard to create their own podcasts. They have researched professional podcasts and come up with elements they would like to emulate and those they would like to avoid. They are developing podcasts on a diverse range of topics, from Chinese history, to video game reviews, to discussions of various issues affecting teens today.

Students are working in groups, some to record, others as peer-editor groups. The students have worked to solve such problems as what recording equipment to use, how to integrate introductions and closings with music, as well as how to script multiple episodes in a short time period. We are working to have our podcasts finished and uploaded for consumption by the end of the semester. Be watching for our podcasts on iTunes and Soundcloud!

Making Movie Magic

by Bob DeLibero (with Casey Wright)

Driving question: What elements, when combined harmoniously, lead to the magic of successful films, documentaries, social media and advertising?

This PBL team has been busy learning about lighting a scene, camera angles, storyboards, and sound techniques. During the first half of the semester our students, working solo and in small groups, have been practicing their skills while filming 2 and 5 minute short videos on a variety of topics. Currently, they are in the process of brainstorming and creating their own story to shoot from the ground up.

This project entails writing an original piece, planning the shots, music, lighting, film style, casting, directing, etc. The groups are responsible for all pre and post production work on their video, as well as the actual filming. The goal is to create an 8-10 minute short film which will be viewed by an audience of friends and family.

Works cited

Ackermann, E. n.d. Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference? Accessed January 30, 2018.

Barron B & Darling Hammond, L. 1998. “Teaching for Meaningful Learning: A Review of Research on Inquiry and Cooperative Learning. Edutopia.

Boaler, Jo. 2002. “Learning from Teaching: Exploring the Relationship between Reform Curriculum and Equity.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 33 (4). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:239–58.

Halvorsen, A L, Duke N K, Brugar K, Block M, Strachan S, and Berka M. 2012. “Narrowing the Achievement Gap in Second-Grade Social Studies and Content Area Literacy: The Promise of a Project-Based Approach.”

Holm, Margaret. 2011. “PROJECT-BASED INSTRUCTION: A Review of the Literature on Effectiveness in Prekindergarten through 12th Grade Classrooms.” Rivier College.

Langer-Osuna, Jennifer M. 2011. “How Brianna Became Bossy and Kofi Came Out Smart: Understanding the Trajectories of Identity and Engagement for Two Group Leaders in a Project-Based Mathematics Classroom.” Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 11 (3). Routledge:207–25.

Langer-Osuna, Jennifer M. 2015. “From Getting ‘Fired’ to Becoming a Collaborator: A Case of the Co-construction of Identity and Engagement in a Project-Based Mathematics Classroom.” Journal of the Learning Sciences 24 (1). Routledge:53–92.