Posted by Anna C Morison
When my teenage son was accepted to a New Tech Network charter school last school year, he and I were curious as to how project-based learning techniques would assist him not only in learning new material but in boosting creative skills and understanding the benefits of teamwork. He entered the school as a freshman after the first half of the year as a transfer from a private school that was no longer planning to offer high school courses. He was used to traditional lessons and deliverables such as reports and presentations, but he was not accustomed to the collaborative framework emphasized at this, his new school. We were not sure what changes would occur or how he would handle them. I must say that he and I were pleasantly surprised by the positive changes that a project-based, collaborative learning environment has provided.
First, my son is learning not only subjects offered at a traditional public or private school, but he is also learning specialized subjects that engage his interest and prepare him for a career, which will happen sooner than people sometimes realize when they are teenagers. He absolutely loves learning about engineering, as he has long stated that he plans to become an architect or engineer in the near future. He used to think that he wanted to design roller coasters for a living, and he experimented with this by building model roller coasters at home when he was much younger, but now his view of the field has expanded by including building models of various other structures, participating in the robotics club after school where they even entered in competitions, and learning about programming, which is his new favorite thing. He would not have been exposed to these subjects in the private school he formerly attended. Engineering is truly his favorite subject, and it shows.
In addition, his creative skills have grown and multiplied as he has applied himself to various projects for every class, not only in engineering, but in other classes that might not be expected to use projects for learning. In biology class, since this is a new school that is still under construction, one project was for the groups to design a small park-like area on the campus. Not only did his group provide a schematic layout of this area with the improvements they suggested, but they detailed a proposal that covered every cent involved, including the digging of the pond, the installation of a waterfall, and every flower and tree. In English class, he is participating in a current group project where they are developing a TED Talk based on the theme “The Danger of a Single Story.” His team is focusing on Australia and how to banish stereotypes. Last year, in Spanish class, he wrote a children’s picture book, not only in English but in Spanish, and presented it—also in Spanish—to younger students at a nearby school. In this manner, he has immersed himself in a new culture and used a foreign language to provide entertainment for children.
Finally, he is not learning on his own. He is an integral part of a learning community that surrounds him and the other students with support and encouragement. The collaboration of group members adds an extra element to his engagement with the material. Not only does he show true comprehension of course materials instead of simply storing data in his short-term memory, but he has learned and is learning even more about how to work with others. This is another real-world job skill, as collaboration is key in today’s business environments. Project-based learning mirrors these situations as group members must combine strengths and weaknesses to portray roles within each group, which changes for each project and class. The leaders of the groups learn to delegate and rely on others, while those in the groups who may not be as motivated to perform are encouraged through group interaction to contribute, which promotes confidence.
Overall, project-based learning has turned out to be a positive experience for my son. He finds it helpful because it is a more relaxed, easy-going process, as he states that there is not as much stress involved with dry report-based assignments that require repetition instead of promoting true comprehension. He appreciates not having to carry books around all the time, and he has accepted that collaboration skills are a strength that he needs to have when he enters the workplace. He states that his favorite project was the mousetrap-based car in engineering, but it took him a while to think of a favorite, as there were so many school projects that he enjoyed. Think about that—there was so much about school that he enjoyed that he found it difficult to pick a favorite. He is learning new skills, applying creativity, working well with others, and enjoying the process, which to me is a huge benefit. Thank you, New Tech Network!