Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Very Big Project

A few weeks ago, my students completed what I will confidently call my first full-blown Project-Based Learning endeavor! Quite frankly, I'm really effing proud of it, and excited to share my successes and learning for future PBL, and get whatever feedback I can.

Middle School science project-based learning? Heck, yeah!

Our overarching prompt:

The dams on the Elwha River used to provide local hydroelectric power. 
Now the dams have been removed and the ecosystem is changing.

I was very lucky to have an extensive field experience to incorporate into our PBL - a week-long class trip to NatureBridge Olympic National Park, where we quite literally immersed ourselves in the project topic. It was an INCREDIBLE experience.

The very general timeline was:
Week 1 - Question-storming, practice observational drawing (collaboration with art teacher)
Week 2 - Class Trip
Week 3 - Learning dump, concept mapping, project proposals and feedback
Week 4 - Introduce Project Organizer template, begin projects
Week 5 and 6 - Work, work, work, projects due!
Week 7 - Elwha Symposium!
exploration to synthesis

Week 1 - Question-storming, practice observational drawing (collaboration with art teacher)

On about the 4th day of school, after our wonderful You Matter science launch, I introduced our major topic: two 100-year-old hydroelectric dams have *just* been removed from the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, and the whole ecosystem is undergoing a massive overhaul. We chatted as a whole class about the idea a bit - as Pacific Northwesterners, my students have GOBS of background knowledge about salmon habitats - and then distributed to start question-storming. My students also have some experience with one-idea-per-PostIt, so it was easy to have them spill out all their questions, with one question on each PostIt.

My students then sorted their questions a la NoTosh by "Googleable and Non-Googleable," to begin considering the depth of their questions.

From there, they sorted even deeper... I gave a mini-lesson on Bloom's Taxonomy and we discussed examples of different levels of understanding of Magic (the card game), chess, dance, and other topics from my students. I stole these two images to help scaffold our discussions, and we found them quite effective:


Interspersed with all this question-sorting, we also continued question-storming. A fantastic book has been published about our exact topic: the removal of the Elwha dams. We borrowed a class set from NatureBridge, so my students flipped through the book to bring up more questions: What's going on in this picture? What are these scientists doing? This definitely wasn't close reading... more perusing and enjoying pictures. (Keep in mind this was also preparation for our week away from home, at camp - a major event for some students.)

Finally, we set up our camp observational journals. These would include non-science reflections for language arts and social studies as well, but the science section included some blank paper for drawing. Our art teacher - who is also another 7th grade "advisor" - visited to teach some observational drawing techniques. I brought in some lichen- and moss-covered logs from the park across from school, and we all practiced using perspective, texture, and shading to really see and record the details of the object we were observing. I hugely regret not having any pictures!

And then, on Monday morning, we were off!

Week 2 - Class Trip

From Monday morning until Friday afternoon, the entire 7th grade went to the NatureBridge Olympic National Park facility. The project-related highlights of the trip included (1) a day hike along the upstream Elwha River, above the former dam sites, (2) a day on the bed of one of the former reservoirs and then at the beach at the mouth of the river on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and finally (3) a canoe trip across Crescent Lake. On my class's canoeing day, we got to support a USGS survey of mercury levels in dragonfly larvae - an awesome bonus investigation into bioaccumulation!

Week 3 - Learning dump, concept mapping, project proposals and feedback

We returned home with full camera rolls, full observation journals, and LOTS more questions than we had left with. It wasn't until after camp that I had my students even turn on their computers (we are a 1-to-1 laptop school). Our first computer integration was a massive brain dump into a class forum. I gave my students the following prompt:

Following that brain dump (about 60 discussion topics in the forum), we got the information organized. I selected two collaborative concept mapping programs to test out - MindMeister and Coggle, thanks to FreeTech4Teachers - and students in small groups organized all that information. Here are a couple of the (not-exceptionally-legible-at-this-size) results:

This was a surprisingly intense week, with my students' final project proposals due on Friday! They were to choose or create an *important* question coming from the prompt:

The dams on the Elwha River used to provide local hydroelectric power. 
Now the dams have been removed and the ecosystem is changing.

They were armed with Bloom's Taxonomy, lots of practice formulating questions, and a giant range of topics organized to be easily explored. The proposals were also done in a forum setting, allowing for public feedback from me and from classmates. (I required them to leave some feedback. Our tech teacher had previously done an activity similar to Catlin Tucker's "Building an Online Community," so the stage was set for positive online feedback.)

Proposals ranged from focusing on the real "sustainability" of hydroelectric dams to effects on specific species of the Elwha dams to sediment shifting in the lakebeds when the dams were removed to mercury bioaccumulation to the impact of the dams on the local S'Klallam tribe's culture. Awesome.

Week 4 - Introduce Project Organizer template, begin projects

On Monday, I introduced the "Project Organizer." The organizer included a calendar planning page, notes pages, and a project rubric cribbed heavily (really... HEAVILY) from the Buck Institute for Education's (BIE's) Critical Thinking rubric.

I used Andrew Stillman's awesome Doctopus to distribute an individual copy of the template to each of my students' Google Drives. You can check out my Project Organizer template here.

And then... well... the kids got to work. From there, it was a LOT of just daily tracking and management, and making sure no kids slipped by without making progress. I added a few tools like a "Sharing your BEST resources" forum for kids to do just that. I also gave mini-lessons on finding bibliography information and identifying author expertise, reliability, and potential bias.

Week 5 and 6 - Work, work, work, projects due!

As work continued, I also posted a notice in our weekly bulletin to reach out to our community to find experts to bring in to consult with my students. One of our TAs was able to connect me with Roger Fernades, a S'Klallam artist and storyteller who visited to add additional context from the native perspective.

By amazing coincidence, I also learned that Victor Caal Tzuy - a community organizer from an indigenous group in Guatamala - would be in town sponsored by NISGUA and sharing his experiences protesting against a dam that would be built flooding his community's ancestral lands. By amazing luck, we were able to swing a visit to our school! 

I was also able to arrange visits from two local ecologists - also connected through our school community - who held question-and-answer sessions with students to help deepen their thinking. I learned things that I completely didn't know, such as that the salmon in the Columbia River are already exhibiting signs of microevolution with the installation of so many dams, even with fish ladders! The slow-moving, warmer reservoirs have impacted which fry are more likely to survive the journey downriver.

Week 7Elwha Symposium!

Finally, the projects were due. My students presented to each other, many of their parents, and many other teachers and administrators. I wish I could post pictures of their confident smiling faces as they shared their amazing findings!

We finished, of course, with (non-public) reflection. Here was the simple prompt:

Here is a smattering of their answers:

"In my Elwha project, I am proudest of my format/layout of the book, and I think my time management was better than usual, I didn't have to cram at all. I am proudest of them because I thought about my format and layout, and I am happy with the turnout. I am proud of my time management because usually I have to cram the last 1-2 nights of the project, because my timing was wrong, but for this project I think I timed it out right and used my time wisely.
From doing my Elwha project, I learned that I can work to improve on including specifics in my research and writing. I think I could have added more specifics, and I think that would improve the information I wrote about."

"In my Elwha project, I am proudest of my research because I started with one question, but after researching the subject, I concluded that another question would be better. I was originally researching how to lessen dams' impact on the ecosystem, but realized that blocking the sediment and removing the current had dramatic effects on the ecosystem that could only be solved by not blocking the river. That conclusion led me to research underwater turbines instead.
From doing my Elwha project, I learned that I can work to improve on building models because my model does not produce power, it only lifts a weight, and my model is a waterwheel, not an underwater turbine. I could have informed people better about underwater turbines if I had built an accurate, functioning model."

"In my Elwha project, I am proudest of my final product, not only because it looked nice, but also because of all the work I put into it. When I looked at my final project, the book, I was really able to see all the time and effort I'd put into the project. It was so much fun to look at it and see the bibliography that I'd created from scratch not using EasyBib, all the information I'd collected, and all the colorful pictures. I was so proud of how it all turned out.
From doing my Elwha project, I learned that I can work to improve on bibliography citing. This was not because it didn't turn out well or it wasn't properly cited, but because I'd never done it before and the citing took an especially long time. I had to keep cross-referencing back to the example in Moodle and I think I could've done it more efficiently if I knew the format. Obviously, I didn't, but I think I need more practice so that I can make the bibliography quicker."

"In my Elwha project, I am proudest of how I was able to create detailed sketches and line them up well so I could turn them into my puzzle timeline, which was the main part of my project. I also was able to get detailed information and correct dates on my timeline.
From doing my Elwha project, I learned that I should do the bigger things first, such as my drawings or text bubbles and dates, then I should do things like the title page and little intros to the next part of what is going on. I would do this, (kinda obvious), so that I could get all of the stuff that is necessary done on time."


I feel  like that's a really gigantic chunk of text to end on... I think the project went truly swimmingly, and I was able to capture the important essences of Project-Based Learning. The Buck Institute identifies 7 essential elements of Project-Based Learning to reach the deepest benefits of the method, and I believe I very solidly hit each of them:

Focus on Significant Content
Develop 21st Century Competencies
Engage with In-Depth Inquiry
Organize Around a Driving Question
Establish a "Need To Know"
Voice and Choice
Critique and Revision (this was probably my weakest)
Include a Public Audience


  1. That's a gigantic achievement.Inspirational work.It involves everybody in the teamenhancing 21st century skills.Bravo!You made my day.Thank you

    1. Thank you, Jasmine! I get so inspired reading about other educators' big exciting endeavors... I hope my own can bring some inspiration as well!