Learning by doing is generally considered the most effective way to learn. The Internet and a variety of emerging communication, visualization, and simulation technologies now make it possible to offer students authentic learning experiences ranging from experimentation to real-world problem solving.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematician Seymour Papert once said,
“We teach numbers, then algebra, then calculus, then physics. Wrong! Start with engineering, and from that abstract out physics, and from that abstract out ideas of calculus, and eventually separate off pure mathematics. So much better to have the first-grade kid or kindergarten kid doing engineering and leave it to the older ones to do pure mathematics than to do it the other way around.”
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Everybody is motivated by challenge and solving problems. Project-based learning gives everybody a chance to sort of mimic what scientists do, and that’s exciting. Better still, it’s fun if it’s done well.
While classroom experience is necessary to learn the foundational skills, nothing beats real life experience gained through travel and simply being open to opportunities. In real life, we don’t spend several hours at a time listening to authorities who know more than we do and who tell us exactly what to do and how to do it. We ask questions of a person we’re learning from. We link what the person is telling us with what we already know. We bring what we already know and the experiences we’ve had that are relevant to the topic to the front of our minds.
Students can be engaged in identifying, researching and graphically representing different types of “resources” in their own neighborhoods to create a Community Resource Map.
- Where is the library? Where are the parks? Where are various types of businesses?
- What services are offered at these sites?
- How can families access them?
- Where should the neighborhood prioritize building new resources?
Students can also create a directory or a documentary style video. Through these real life learning experiences, students learn research and communications skills, graphics, and computer skills as they create an actual map of their neighborhood.
Additionally, students can develop skills in surveying, geographical information systems (GIS), aerial photography and satellite digital image manipulation; digital mapping, and geographic positioning system (GPS) topographic data.
The process of creating a community map can also help students to identify areas of need. Roots & Shoots utilizes this model for their service learning programs.
One of our favorite hands-on activities is to Create a Geography Picture Dictionary. As a special travel keepsake, target the illustrations to the region you visit.
Another great hands-on activity is to build your own 3-dimensional topographical map.
When we travel, we engage the kids in using maps to aide in identifying natural landmarks. Read of our experience in discovering the Geology & Geography of the Galapagos.
Like geography, the sciences are a natural first for real life, project based learning. Students can utilize scientific principles and methods to conduct research and develop solutions to medical, forensic, and environmental issues that impact our community.
In a CSI/Criminal Forensics Lab, high school students can explore issues in medical science and human anatomy/physiology through their involvement in scientific research projects, and would investigate how a healthy body functions and how it reacts to disease.
Students could investigate the inner workings of the human mind on the chemical level. Why people behave in certain ways? What factors influence behavior? How is behavior controlled, changed and modified?
Students can use investigative science techniques to solve intriguing problems involving the law. Students would use scientific evidence to paint a picture of what happened in the past. DNA, fingerprinting, physical evidence analysis, scene reconstruction, and biotechnology are some of the techniques that would be introduced.
Students could conduct field research to develop an awareness of the impact of human activities on the environment. The data collected could be used to design and produce environmentally friendly products, solve problems and investigate policies that ensure sustainability and stewardship of the Earth’s resources.
Middle school students may enjoy a Theme Park Project whereby students are required to:
- Decide on a theme for a new amusement park
- Design a physical layout
- Design four rides/attractions and create models of them
- Determine an initial business plan
- Create marketing materials to attract the chosen demographic
Real Life Learning is Interdisciplinary
Real life learning allows students to practice thinking across disciplines in organic, natural ways similar to what will be expected of them once they leave their formal education. Because projects reflect real-world challenges and unknowns, students work within a complex environment. They must be able to solve problems and refine their strategies.
Real life projects integrate various content areas and instructional methods and require students to plan their tasks in advance, sequence their work, check their progress. Most projects involve collaborative and group learning scenarios which reflect the demands of the modern workplace. In the end, students celebrate and demonstrate their learning with an exhibition or performance.
My kids are engaged in a long-term project to study the impact of invasive turtles in our local area. Utilizing Google maps, they have begun to create an interactive map to illustrate the locations where native turtles and non-native, invasive turtles have been found. They are also working alongside resource specialists and connecting with community leaders.
These real life learning opportunities enable students to learn how planning, literacy and math skills are foundational in all curricular areas as they put together and present community development proposals.
Real Life Learning Resources
- Wonder & Asking Questions: 6 Steps to Project Based Learning
- 7 Steps to Successful Project Based Learning
- Project Based Learning Online
- Edutopia – Project Based Learning
For more resources and Ideas for Real Life Learning, visit the iHomeschool Network.