STEM crafting creative curricula

Mr. Justin Gaudreau’s Algebra II class made popsicle stick catapults as part of the project-based learning pilot last year – courtesy of Mr. Justin Gaudreau

In the past year, some students have noticed a sizeable increase in project-based assignments from teachers. This change is not a result of spontaneous whim, but rather a strategic move to incorporate more project-based learning (PBL) into the curriculum. These past two summers, Mr. Nathan Bridge, Mr. Justin Gaudreau, Dr. Daniel Goduti, and Ms. Taylor Smith-Kan participated in the Penn Graduate School of Education’s Project-Based Learning Certificate program.

    Over the course of one week on Penn’s campus in August 2018, virtual, video-based, instructional coaching throughout the 2018-19 academic year, as well as a final week back on campus this past summer; Haverford faculty engaged with groups of other professionals of all backgrounds.

     During their days on campus, teachers collaborated with other members of their cohort, who were randomly selected and ranged in background.

     “It was so much fun because we were treated like students who would engage in a project,” Mr. Bridge said.

     For example, they built towers using marshmallows and spaghetti, dropped eggs off of balconies, and simulated being stranded on a desert.

     “All of these activities were designed to get us thinking about the different aspects of project-based learning,” Mr. Bridge said. 

     The four aspects are as follows: authenticity, which is about creating an authentic learning experience; collaboration, focused on how group members work together; disciplinary practice, about how the project reflects the area of study; and iteration, revolving around how students are able to improve upon their project in multiple attempts. 

     One of Mr. Bridge’s favorite projects, where they discussed whether plastic straws should be banned, highlighted each facet of PBL and even presented the differences of opinions stemming from each participant’s background.

     Mr. Gaudreau said, “You had teachers from different disciplines with different outlooks. My group had an environmental scientist, and you could see where her perspective came from. But you also had people who were like, ‘Why is this a big deal?’”

     The environmental scientist used her knowledge to argue her point; a chemist could have brought up the properties of plastic that makes it difficult to decompose; a biologist could have talked about how plastic straws would affect animals living in polluted habitats. All of these exemplify some sort of disciplinary practice. However, debating the question also required collaboration, as the goal was to reach a final group decision after considering all the different perspectives.

      “Everyone had an opinion, but it was how we came together and collaborated as strangers to solve the task,” Mr. Gaudreau said. 

     The implementation of PBL in the curriculum is a significant change for these teachers, primarily a change in focus. The shift in teaching technique may create a more effective learning experience.  

     Mr. Gaudreau says he focuses now the question, “How can I get my students to climb the ladder, to draw the conclusion, as opposed to me giving them the conclusion? Instead of me giving them an equation, how can I allow them to work with each other, use their strengths and their weaknesses, their collaboration skills, as well as previous knowledge to get to the point where they’re drawing the conclusion when I could have just said, ‘Here’s what you need to know for Friday’? There’s more value in the process the students are going through to draw their own conclusions than for us, as teachers, to stand and just deliver content.”

     PBL does come with its challenges. For one thing, the faculty found some students dismissive and unenthusiastic about the change because of the lack of strict guidelines, set path, or definite answer.

     “A lot of times, the answers that come out of these learning experiences is not a right or wrong answer, it’s an argument, it’s a perspective, it’s open-ended,” Mr. Bridge said. “You can’t go to the back of the book to check what the answer is, there is no right answer. It really was about constructing an argument to try to make a case for how to solve the situation. There was a general discomfort from the students when they realized, ‘I’m going to be graded for this, but how? It’s not a formal test; it’s not a formal quiz. How are you going to give me a grade on it, and why is your grade valid?’ It feels uncomfortable because it is brand new.”

     As a result, when the four teachers piloted PBL last year, they made “buy-ins.” In building the rubric, they made sure that students were involved in the process to understand how and why they were being graded in such ways. 

     In addition, students may find it difficult at first to collaborate effectively by balancing and sharing ideas, listening to others, and creating a space where everyone speaks. For Mr. Bridge, he found that the hardest part of some projects was giving other members in his cohort speaking time.

     “I knew that their ideas can contribute to a better overall project for us,” Mr. Bridge said.

     When the teachers implemented projects into their curricula, they both found that students grew keen. Teachers have found that there is more student buy-in to the information, and it is more powerful, fun, and interesting for the students. 

Yan Graf ’20 peruses some posters based on problem-based projects – Tyler Zimmer ’21

     Moving forward, both Mr. Bridge and Mr. Gaudreau expressed a deep interest in continuing PBL in their courses after the pilot year. They said that the degree to which project-based learning will be incorporated depends on students’ needs.

     “In many classrooms, I don’t think it’s the teachers driving the train, and all the students are aboard it. I think it’s really a collaboration between the two when a class achieves its maximum objective,” Mr. Bridge said. 

     In addition, the change will not be a “zero to one-hundred” shift. The traditional educational technique has its time-tested values, whether it be repetition and direct teaching that build a foundation for the material, or tests and quizzes, that serve as data points. That foundation can then be used in an applied process through a project. Teachers are working to find the balance between the two that develop the most effective means of learning.  

“These changes, in the beginning, may not have been well-received, but gradually people realized that there is value in them.”

Mr. Justin Gaudreau

     As Mr. Gaudreau said, “It’s really a question of learning. How can we best let the students learn the material in addition to learning from us.” 

     To see the change to PBL throughout the community will probably be a greater, long-term shift. 

     “Teachers get comfortable with the way they have been teaching,” Mr. Gaudreau said, “and if you research education from a few centuries ago, you can see that things have changed. These changes, in the beginning, may not have been well-received, but gradually people realized that there is value in them.”