Instilling a Love of Learning
Part 3: Project-based Learning
Last January, six Charleston Collegiate faculty members traveled to San Diego to attend an intense, multi-day workshop on a modern and progressive educational approach called project-based learning.
A documentary released at last year’s Sundance film festival entitled Most Likely to Succeed was met with high acclaim, and was the basis for the faculty’s endeavor. The film follows the day-to-day lives of students at High Tech High in San Diego, a school that is fully immersed in a project-based learning educational model. The CCS faculty members spent four days at High Tech High, witnessing students design, produce and present projects and collaborating with the school’s talented and innovative faculty. The CCS teachers returned from the trip with contagious energy and excitement, as well as a wide array of fresh ideas and cross-curricular teaching concepts which they shared with their fellow teachers.
Mr. Brian McDermott, Upper School history teacher, has put this concept into action in several ways. A semester-long project was recently completed, linking a chess board to a World War II battlefield, where Mr. McDermott challenged his students to create chess pieces representing impactful players from the WWII era. Once complete, the students presented their chess board and pieces to an audience of their peers, parents, and other members of the faculty. In American History class, students created a “ ‘68 History Bracket” containing the most influential events and people from the 1968, then took the project one step further and built an 8-foot tall model of the sports-themed bracket, using it to discuss the characters and events in debate format with their classmates to determine the “winners”. The culmination of this project resulted in the students gaining a working knowledge of that historical time period while polishing their debating skills at the same time.
This fall, Charleston Collegiate’s tenth grade students approached the study of World War II in a different way under the guidance of Elizabeth Boyd, Upper School Humanities teacher. Mrs. Boyd challenged her students to create historically accurate fictional characters from the WWII era, then to write several diary entries from the perspectives of these characters. The students then followed up their diary entries by switching perspectives and writing feature newspaper articles as modern-day journalists having discovered the diary entries. They also created three-dimensional, era-specific examples of propaganda to accompany their writings. Mrs. Boyd said of the students’ experience, “There is a great deal of value in these students being able to study a historical time period in depth from different perspectives. They can develop their writing skills while also applying a creative approach to a project.” Josh Corbin-Tomlinson, a student in the class, stated that “the project helped me see historical events from several creative perspectives. I feel that I have a deeper understanding of World War II now.”
Successful application of the project-based learning approach is also evident in science and math classes, even in the younger grades. Middle School S.T.E.M. teacher Jen Joseph uses miniature trebuchet kits to create a competition in which teams of students must collaborate on the assembly of their catapults, then launch a series of objects, tracking their distances to learn the concepts of average, mean and median to determine the winners of the competition.
Ms. Joseph’s students have also learned about measurements and scaling in fun and creative ways, such as the Candy Bar Scale Project in which students were asked to pick a candy bar, trace the wrapper, and then use their knowledge of proportions to scale up their candy bar at least four times the original size. They then drew their scaled candy bars to display in the classroom. Sixth graders also applied the concept of scale through their Solar System Project, in which they researched and then scaled down the sizes of the 8 planets and the sun. They then researched the distance between each of the planets and the sun and also scale those down proportionately.
As a STEM project, CCS’s tenth grade created a Galileo thermometer with Mrs. Ellis and Mr. Hale. Each student made his or her own “temperature bulb” of a specific density that would float in the middle of a large tube of water when the water reached a certain temperature. They discovered ways in which water’s density changes as the temperature changes, and were able to calculate individual densities that would float in the large water-filled tube at different temperatures.
However, project-based learning isn’t merely applicable in the classroom. For instance, September 21st was International Peace Day, which Charleston Collegiate celebrated by gathering students and faculty together to help remind ourselves and our community what Peace truly means. Peace Day is celebrated by a moment of silence at noon in each time zone; Charleston Collegiate followed their moment of silence with a unifying activity: the formation of a Human Peace Sign. The United Nations selected this year’s Peace Day theme to be “The Sustainable Development Goals: Building Blocks for Peace.” In utilizing the concept of building blocks, CCS took each student as an element of the Peace sign, ultimately creating a moment of collaboration and unity.
Director of Fine Arts, Valerie Shears, stated, “We have been marking International Peace Day at CCS for many years. Students have created Pinwheels for Peace for display at our entrance, staff have learned to create over 1,000 origami Peace cranes, and this year the entire student body created a living Peace sign! We do things like this at CCS because we believe it is important to bring our students up in a community that values peace and wants to work toward a culture of peace. I think Pericles said it best for us, ‘What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone mountains, but what is woven into the lives of others.’
Also outside the classroom, Lower School applies project-based learning to their community service projects both on and off campus. First Grade has participated in several service projects, including Bishop Gadsden visits, Beach Clean-Up, Habitat for Humanity, and raising chicks! At Bishop Gadsden, the students built strong relationships with their buddies through lunch visits, story read-alongs, holiday caroling, and arts and crafts. When volunteering at Habitat for Humanity, the first grade students made welcome home cards, accomplished basic home projects, and participated in arts and crafts activities to learn hands-on work and how to connect with their local community. The students also raised baby chicks for several weeks on campus, learning about the animals’ care and maintenance needs, and eventually released the chickens onto a farm! At Kiawah’s Beachwalker Park, students cleaned up the beach and learned how to preserve local land, water, and inhabitants. This April, Lower School will be participating in a week-long “Happening” where they will learn nearly everything there is to learn about the ocean and will decorate their building to represent the process.
Project-based learning is an exciting and effective way to get students more involved in their learning, deepening their understanding and comprehension and significantly increasing the length of time that the students retain the knowledge learned. Head of School, Hacker Burr, explains:
“Project-based learning – teaching students through active participation – is ideal in that students are doing to learn rather than just learning to do.”
This approach thrives when teachers of different subjects collaborate on topics being covered in class, allowing their students to become fully immersed in a particular area of study while also honing their skills in communication, team work, and creativity.