Belton’s New Tech High takes lead in project-based learning

February 22, 2017
Temple Daily Telegram

Teachers from across Texas gathered Monday in Belton to discuss teaching complex concepts through real-world applications.

Belton New Tech High School @Waskow hosted a symposium on project-based learning, discussing a teaching technique that allows students to learn through problem-solving in career and other real-world based scenarios.

Principal Jill Ross said five schools districts participated: Manor, Dallas, China Spring and Carrollton-Farmers Branch.

“In project-based learning, we start with a driving question, which then drives our instruction,” said Shellie Dunn, an English teacher at Belton New Tech. “That driving question is based on a specific skill or skills that the student needs.”

Teachers are able to use these “driving questions” to help students understand the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state standards for what students should know and be able to do for their grade level.

“From that driving question, our students will then research and collaborate in small groups on how to answer that question,” Dunn said. “It’s through that research and collaboration that they develop the skills that they need and develop a product for presentation to an audience.”

Symposium participants listened to presentations on a variety of subjects, including one in which a group of Belton New Tech students explained their perspective on project-based learning.

In one of the morning sessions, a group of math teachers from Manor discussed the best way to deal with a project that appears to be a failure.

Micha Boyd, a novice teacher from R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton, said the presentation was very helpful.

“I mostly learned that it’s OK to scrap a project if it fails,” Boyd said. “If it fails, move on.”

Boyd has been teaching for one month.

Ryan Hochstatter, also from Carrollton, said the presentation was interesting although he was already familiar with some of the concepts.

“I’ve been teaching (project-based learning) for four years so not everything was new to me,” Hochstatter said.

Hochstatter said he strongly believes in project-based learning, and he would consider attending the event in Belton again if the school decides to host it next year. But Hochstatter said the teaching method might not be perfect for every student.

“Project-based learning gives the students a place to apply what they learn in the classroom,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a silver bullet, either. … It demands that students have a certain level of background knowledge.”

Ross said, however, that Belton New Tech finds that students who struggled in middle school with a more traditional educational model sometimes thrive with project-based learning. But Dunn said students do need to be invested in the process.

“For this type of learning, you need a student who is self-motivated, a student who is an independent learner,” Dunn said.

A recent project at Belton New Tech allowed math and science teachers to collaborate on learning how to apply essential classroom skills to a career in landscaping.

“They were looking at soil, what kinds of plants would be the best to grow here in Central Texas with the soil that we have, so they had partnered with a local nursery to help the kids understand what plants would be beneficial in this area,” Dunn said. “(The math classes) were looking at it from the sense of the area that they had, and if you were putting the plants so far apart, how many plants would you need for that area?”

Most of the attending schools already are involved in project-based learning, but two teachers from China Spring near Waco came to learn how they can implement the techniques in their school for the first time.

Boyd said the symposium was very helpful for her classroom preparations.

“It’s all brand-new to me, so it’s nice for me to learn,” she said.

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