Project-based Learning Helps Students Hone 21st Century Skills

Posted: August 20, 2008
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After a car accident occurred in the parking lot of Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston last year, Donna Landin with the West Virginia Department of Education saw a learning opportunity.

Starting with a lesson plan developed by West Virginia teachers and posted on the department’s Teach 21 Web site, she developed a Project-based Learning lesson to incorporate higher level thinking skills into the classroom. Students loved it.

Horace Mann students used geometry to redesign the parking lot to safely hold as many cars as possible. They also used their math skills to develop a finance plan. They landscaped the property to maximize environmentally friendly green space, among other skills.

“It was a real-world scenario that made it easier to understand why we were learning this stuff,” said Leeanne Mobayed, who was an eighth grade geometry student at Horace Mann during the project. “If we were just working out of a book, just doing problems, it doesn’t really help us want to learn about it because we don’t know why we were doing it.”

Project-based Learning shifts away from the traditional classroom with teacher-centered lessons and instead emphasizes learning activities that are interdisciplinary, student-centered and integrated with real world issues.

Among the Horace Mann project’s goal was to help students understand the mathematical concept that lines that appear to be parallel or perpendicular in the real world may not be. Students had to answer these basic questions:

1.    How can the relationships between parallel and perpendicular lines be proven?

2.    How can you determine whether lines are parallel, perpendicular, or neither?

3.    How can you justify that slopes are undefined or zero?

4.    What is the relationship between horizontal and vertical lines and can this relationship be proven?

5.    How can you formally prove that lines are parallel and/or perpendicular?

Problem No. 1: “You are a lawyer representing the local school board.  Your client is being sued because a student’s car was damaged in the school parking lot.  The student admits that the back end of his car was parked across the line in the lot, but claims that it was impossible to park correctly because the lines were not parallel.  It is your job to defend your clients and prove, without a doubt, that the parking lot lines are parallel.  You must investigate the parking lot and prepare a report and diagram of the lot, for the judge, proving that the lines are parallel.”

Problem No. 2: “You are an office manager for a paving company.  You are asked to design a parking lot that is 200 feet by 400 feet for a local elementary school.  You must make at least two different scale designs.  One with perpendicular parking lines, one with angled parking lines, or a combination of both.  Each design must have maximum parking and include the required number of handicapped parking spaces. Since maximum parking is a priority, you must be prepared to support and defend the feasibility of your design to both your clients and supervisor.  In addition, you must be able to justify that the parking lines in your designs are parallel and/or perpendicular. The Parent-Teacher Organization has provided \$1,000 for parking lot landscaping. You are to submit a landscaping budget to you supervisor for review.

“The benefits of Project-Based Learning are clear,” said West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. “Students work in groups to solve challenging problems that are authentic and curriculum-based. Student learning is inherently valuable because it's connected to something real. This is true 21st Century Learning.”

One immediate benefit of Project-based Learning is how it can motivate students by engaging them in their own learning. Students can pursue their own interests and questions and make decisions about how they will find answers and solve problems. Teachers become more of a facilitator rather than a lecturer. Instead of assigning students a static task such as providing a report on their home state, teachers might ask students to determine which state they believe is the most livable one in the United States.

With today’s techno-savvy students, who researchers like to call digital natives, Project-based Learning has been proven to be very effective. The concept has a long history. As far back as the early 1900s, American educational reformer John Dewey supported "learning by doing."

In fact, educators only have to look at West Virginia’s own educational history in McDowell County to find an example, which is illustrated in the movie October Sky based on the novel Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam.

At Big Creek High School, Homer – and the other rocket boys, Quentin Wilson, Ray Lee Cooke and O’Dell Carroll – learned about physics, math, teamwork, problem-solving and a host of other 21st century skills by building their rockets. This is Project-based Learning.

“Project-based Learning is active, engaging and inspires students to strive for a deeper understanding of the subjects they're studying,” Paine said. “Research also tells us that students are more likely to retain the knowledge gained through this approach far more readily than through traditional learning. This is the shift we must make in our classrooms if we are to transform our schools into 21st learning centers.”

Other lesson plans can be downloaded from the Teach 21 Web site at http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/ . The interactive site allows educators to quickly access 21st Century Content Standards, learning skills, research-based instructional strategies, technology tools and other resources for classroom use.