Social Sundays: Project Based Learning in Action

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Last week I mused about projects versus project-based learning.  This week, I will share observations from a school I visited that is entirely built on project-based learning.  Let me preface this post by saying that this school (name changed for protection of students) is a private school and as such is not subject to standards or testing.


In the Juno School, student inspired work is an important and valuable part of the program; it is not “extra.”  The school was designed specifically to support student projects and to facilitate the authentic learning.  The space feels more like a large artist’s studio than a school.  


The building used to be a factory, so the ceilings are high and there is plenty of light from high windows that frame the walls..  The space is mostly open.  A platform has been built that is used for presentations and performances.  There are small, loft classroom spaces with stairs leading up to them. Unfinished wood dividers section the large space into different project and learning areas.  The walls are concrete.  A couple of large dining style tables and chairs litter the space. These are used for group work, project space and lunch.  It is an unconventional space, but in many ways Juno School is an unconventional school in its approach to learning.  This is a school that places strong value in the student voice.

Much of the space is devoted to projects. Carpentry tools hang on the walls.  Large cubbies contain clay and wire and paint. Buckets, like those used by professional painters, are abundant. There is a full kitchen complete with pans, mixers, and other cooking tools.  For one project, a 4th grader spent several weeks investigating the effects of temperature while exploring one of his personal passions, baking. Using an identical recipe for chocolate chip cookies each time, he tested his recipe with different temperatures and bake times. He recorded the results of each experiment including not only the appearance but also the consistency, texture and taste of the cookies.  He asked members of the school community to rate the cookies on each of his variables.  After analyzing the data for several rest runs and tester ratings, the fourth grader optimized his recipe temperature and cooking time to score highest on both taste and texture. Of course, everything is subject to personal taste. Just like there are people who prefer crunchy peanut butter to smooth peanut butter, there will be people who prefer certain cookie textures to others.

The school is also equipped with movie making equipment, stop motion and live action, beanbags for reading and studying, large reams of paper with design plans for various projects and a handful of laptops for project research.  Discovery and exploration are a central part of the school culture. Students are exposed, on and off campus, to a variety of opportunities to get inspired. Guest speakers are frequent contributors to the learning environment.


As part of every unit of study, individual and small group projects are included in the curriculum.  For example, students recently explored the concept of time.  At different age groups, students delved into the concept through books related to time, exploring the relative nature of different species within the time if the earth, and thinking about the relationship within the universe of orbit and how we measure time. Fourth through sixth graders explored time through the development of clocks.  


One child was interested in the clock of the human body. For her unit project, she generated, distributed, and analyzed a set of surveys that asked questions related to sleep habits and diet. She also tracked her own eating habits as well as sleep patterns.  A classmate designed a project in which he created a metal sundial.  In order to complete the project, he had to understand and apply two skills: first, how to weld metal and second, how to place the numbers correctly so the sundial would accurately tell time.  He spent a considerable amount of time investigating other sundial designs as well as learning about the relationship of the earth to the sun particularly regarding the earth’s rotation and the earth’s movement around the sun.  A pair of girls wanted to create an actual time telling device using a ball. They ascertained that they would run a ball down a ramp but then would need to translate the gravity of the ball into incremental units of time. Their first iteration measured one minute. The goal was to eventually create a piece that could measure an hour. The overall concept in each of these projects is that of “time.”  

Social Sundays is a weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message on Facebook or at the store in the question and answer section. 


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2 comments

  1. What an awesome experience! I would have loved to have taste tested those cookies :)

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  2. What a great experience! Thanks for the stories and the explanations.

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