Wonder & Asking Questions: 6 Steps to Project Based Learning

As a homeschool family, we have read about the first European colonists in the Americas and constructed paper models of Jamestown.  We have explored the ecosystems of North America and created posters to illustrate food webs.  We have created travel brochures to teach others about Alaska. We have even created multimedia news reports to share our experiences at Chinese New Year.  And the lapbooks.  When we first started homeschooling, we created many, many lapbooks. Sound familiar?

These are common examples of the kind of assignments that teachers and homeschool parents bill as projects. A classroom filled with student work may suggest that students have engaged in meaningful learning. However, it is the process of students’ learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than the resulting product—that distinguishes projects from busywork.

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

Many students find schoolwork meaningless because they don’t perceive a need to know what they’re being taught. They are unmotivated by a teacher’s suggestion that they should learn something because they’ll need it later in life, for the next course, or simply because “it’s going to be on the test.”

With a compelling student project, the reason for learning relevant material becomes clear: I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. Teachers can powerfully activate students’ need to know content by launching a unit in a way that engages interest and initiates questioning.  This can take the form of a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, or a field trip.

Come along with me as I share an example of one particular project we have recently undertaken utilizing the Project Based Learning Cycle. You’ll discover that the cycle isn’t a concrete, step-by-step approach, but a fluid, natural progression of learning and growth.

PBL Cycle6 Steps to Project Based Learning

1. Identify the Problem

A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn. It could be abstract (When is war justified?); concrete (Is our water safe to drink?); or focused on solving a problem.

On a Roots & Shoots nature walk a few months ago, we observed that the population of native pond turtles had significantly declined.  In the past, we had observed many pond turtles basking in the sun but this time, we saw only two native turtles and a large number of non-native Red-eared slider turtles. 

This led us to question, “Why the change in population size? What was happening to the native pond turtles and what could we do to combat the decline?”

2. Analyze the Problem

In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice, the better. However, teachers should design projects that fit their own style and students.

You may choose to limit the choices, allowing learners to select what topic to study within a general driving question or choose how to design, create, and present the final product. You might provide a limited menu of options for creative projects to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed by choices. On the other end of the scale, students may decide what products they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time.

A few days after our outing, the coordinator emailed the kids suggesting they take action to increase public awareness and ultimately, prohibit the sale of red-eared sliders in pet stores.  My daughter was quick to pick up the challenge. She was eager to make a difference. 

3. Field Studies & Investigation

Students find project work more meaningful if they conduct real inquiry, which does not mean finding information in books or websites and pasting it onto a poster. In real inquiry, students follow a trail that begins with their own questions, leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often ultimately leads to generating new questions, testing ideas, and drawing their own conclusions. With real inquiry comes innovation—a new answer to a driving question, a new product, or an individually generated solution to a problem. The teacher does not ask students to simply reproduce teacher  or textbook provided information in a pretty format.

On a family walk a few weeks later, we observed numerous Red-eared sliders once again (a different location than the first).  My kids both lamented pet owners releasing these turtles into the wild without considering the consequences. My daughter began to further her questioning, “Where is the population of Western Pond Turtles the largest? Where is the population of Red-eared sliders the largest? Is the population of Western Pond Turtles changing at the same rate at Mary Lake as it is at Turtle Pond?” 

As she posed these questions to me on our walk, we discussed strategies for answering the questions.  She expressed an interest in collecting real data – capturing and tagging the turtles.  “I can bring my fishing net and I can paint a number on the back of their shell so I don’t count the same turtle over again.”

I suggested she reach out to local agencies (Fish & Wildlife, Parks & Recreation, Forest Service, etc.) to see what efforts the resource specialists had made (if any) in this regard.  Would they allow her to pursue this is more depth?

4. Identify Resources & Research

A project should give students opportunities to build such 21st century skills as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and the use of technology, which will serve them well in the workplace and life. This exposure to authentic skills provides the project with an educational purpose. A teacher in a project-based learning environment explicitly teaches and assesses these skills and provides frequent opportunities for students to assess themselves.

One step in the research process is to understand the natural history of both the Western Pond Turtle and the invasive, Red-eared sliders. My children have kept nature journals for years and so it was a natural decision to illustrate the turtles in their journals as a way to record their knowledge and research.  See my earlier post, Saving the Native Turtles: Part One – Naturalist’s Notes.

5. Test Solutions and Revision

Formalizing a process for feedback and revision during a project makes learning meaningful because it emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is an important purpose of the endeavor. Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.

In addition to providing direct feedback, the teacher should coach students in using rubrics or other sets of criteria to critique one another’s work. Teachers can arrange for experts or adult mentors to provide feedback, which is especially meaningful to students because of the source.

At every step in the learning cycle, the kids have been making changes and revisions. As my daughter brainstormed ideas to investigate the population size, she modified her action plan with suggestions I made.  When she meets with the resources specialist, she will undoubtedly make additional changes to her approach.  As the kids work on their posters and letters (see step 6 below), they will create a rough draft and seek feedback from one another as well as from their parents.  

6. Present Solutions & Engage the Public

Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for the teacher or the test. When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality. Once again, it’s “the more, the better” when it comes to authenticity. Students might replicate the kinds of tasks done by professionals—but even better, they might create real products that people outside school use.

One of the projects the kids have planned is to create posters to educate the public about the dangers of releasing exotic pets into the wild. They have invited their friends to join them in this service learning activity and they intend to hang the posters at local pet stores and the science center. They have also begun to write letters to their state congressmen to encourage them to take legislative action.

National Moth Week 2014

The annual National Moth Week is coming up in just a few months. Coordinators are now planning events and working together to make this year’s mothing event one to remember.

National Moth Week’s main goal is to promote moths, and more generally, biodiversity, by encouraging interested parties to organize events at their local park, environmental education center, university, or homes.  Moth Week will be held worldwide July 19-27th.

mothweekWhy Moths?

Moths are among the most diverse and successful organisms on earth.  Scientists estimate there are 150,000 to more than 500,000 moth species – with colors and patterns so dazzling or so cryptic they define camouflage.

Moths can be important bioindicators. A bioindicator is a species or taxon that tells us about the health of an ecosystem. A greater diversity of moths typically means there is a greater diversity of plant species, which leads to a greater diversity of other species as well.  They can help us monitor food plant populations and they are important food sources for many nocturnal AND diurnal organisms.

Moths typically have a reputation of being drab, dull pests. However, that is certainly not the case. An extreme minority of moth species can cause trouble to humans, but most moths either have no impact on our lives or may serve important ecosystem functions such as pollination. Many moths are actually very interestingly patterned and colored.

Moths are a world of sphinxes, hawks, owls, and tigers, all waiting for you outside your door, or perhaps in your home. Visit the National Moth Week website to learn more about this wonderful citizen science opportunity. 

Saving the Native Turtles: Part One – Naturalist’s Notes

A few months ago, we enjoyed a nature walk with our Roots & Shoots group.  While the focus of the walk was on Bald Eagles, we also had the opportunity to observe a few native Western Pond Turtles basking in the sun. Sadly, their numbers were few.

native turtlesThrough anecdotes of her own personal experience and observations of the turtles in our local community, our Roots & Shoots leader encouraged the kids to help make a difference.  While we have always been interested in invasive species and have taken part in numerous community weed pulls in the past, she awakened a new interest in my kids.  

We have thereby begun a long-term project to increase public awareness and help save native turtles.  We began by learning more about each species and familiarizing ourselves with the problem.  The first task I assigned the kids was to do a nature journal entry on the Western Pond Turtle and to read an article that was published in our local newspaper.

Naturalist’s Notes

pond_turtle

Photo courtesy of USGS

The Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata)

Description
  • Lacks bright coloration on shell bottom which is usually a creamy yellow with some dark blotches
  • Top shell ranges in color from dark brown to olive
  • Head and legs are dark brown to olive
  • Grows up to 10 inches long
Habitat & Ecology
  • Inhabits a variety of aquatic habitats, including; ponds, rivers, reservoirs, streams, seasonal wetlands, and flooded gravel pits
  • Not fully aquatic; may spend part of the year in upland forests
  • Uses underwater hiding places such as undercut stream banks, mud substrates, logs, and dense patches of aquatic plants to avoid predators
  • Basks on logs and large boulders in the sun; an important behavior crucial for thermal regulation, digestion and other life requirements
  • Lives up to 40 years in the wild
  • Breeds from mid-May to late July, clutch size varies from 1-13 eggs
  • Females nest around 50 meters away from the water in short, grassy or weedy areas
Range
  • Extends down the West Coast, from Southern British Columbia to Northern California
Diet
  • Eats mainly insects, larvae of caddis flies, dragonflies and nymphs
  • Also eats some plants and scavenges on dead meat
native turtle

Sweetie’s nature journal entry

Western Pond Turtles are a species of special concern. One of the causes of  their disappearance is the release of aggressive pet Red-eared Sliders into local ponds. The State of Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department banned the sales, importation and possession of Red-eared Sliders in 1996. Despite stoic efforts, advocates in California have failed to accomplish this in the last 20 years.

You Can Help

I will keep you apprised of our progress.  Our next step is to reach out to local resources agencies to learn more about native turtle habitats and efforts underway.  We will also plan to begin a letter writing campaign to prohibit the pet sale trade of Red-eared sliders in California.

You can help, too! Research what turtles are native to your area.  Are they endangered due to threats of an invasive, non-native species.  Write a letter to your state representative expressing your concerns for native turtles in your area.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Jane from Roots & Shoots

April 3rd is Dr. Jane’s 80th birthday! Join Roots & Shoots groups around the world in sending her your birthday wishes by signing her online birthday card.

Dr.JaneSince Dr. Jane founded Roots & Shoots in 1991, young people and their adult mentors have been making positive change happen in their communities. Many Roots & Shoots students draw inspiration from Dr. Jane’s story and are working together in support of her hopeful vision for our world.

In honor of Dr. Jane’s birthday, I have created a compilation video of some of the projects and endeavors we have undertook with our local Roots & Shoots group.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Jane!

 

If you would like to wish Dr. Jane a happy birthday and let her know how her work has influenced you,  sign her global birthday card today!

Insect Hotels: Nesting Habitat for Mason Bees

The plight of the honey bee and other pollinators is of concern to me.  Insect hotels or habitat for insects is the perfect project for our Roots & Shoots group to show care and concern for animals.  It was also a great introduction  to service learning for my STEM Club kids.  I thereby invited both groups to join us for a day of insect revelry.

I began by introducing the kids to the Mason bee, the common name for a species of bees in the genus Osmia, of the family Megachilidae (Blue Orchard and Hornfaced the best known species). They are so named for their habit of making compartments of mud in their nests, which are made in hollow reeds or holes in wood made by wood-boring insects.

Unlike honey bees (Apis) or bumblebees, Osmia are solitary; every female is fertile and makes her own nest, and there are no worker bees for these species. The bees emerge from their cocoons in the spring, with males the first to come out. They remain near the nests waiting for the females. When the females emerge, they mate. The males die, and the females begin provisioning their nests.

Osmia females like to nest in narrow holes or tubes, typically naturally occurring tubular cavities. Most commonly this means hollow twigs, but sometimes abandoned nests of wood-boring beetles or carpenter bees, or even snail shells. They do not excavate their own nests. The material used for the cell can be clay or chewed plant tissue. One species (Osmia avosetta) in the palearctic ecozone is known for lining the nest burrows with flower petals.

Females then visit flowers to gather pollen and nectar. Once enough provisions have been gathered, she backs into the hole and lays an egg. Then she creates a partition of “mud”, which doubles as the back of the next cell. The process continues until she has filled the cavity. Female-destined eggs are laid in the back of the nest, and male eggs towards the front. Once a bee has finished with a nest, she plugs the entrance to the tube, and then may seek out another nest location.

By summer, the larva has consumed all of its provisions and begins spinning a cocoon around itself and enters the pupal stage. The adult matures either in the fall or winter, hibernating inside its protective cocoon. Most Osmia species are found in places where the temperature drops below 0°C for long durations, like Canada, and they are well adapted to cold winters.

insecthotelsBuild It & They Will Come

Maintaining Mason bee habitats or insect hotels can be a simple, yet powerful way for people of all ages to intimately connect with the awesomeness of nature. Mason bees don’t sting unless they’re squashed or squeezed so they’re kid and pet friendly and don’t require protective clothing or training to work with. Since they’re sociable but solitary, there’s no need to coax colonies into complex forms. A well-designed and well-built habitat with ample nearby pollen sources will naturally attract mason bees, can allow intimate year-round observation of their lifecycle, and especially for teachers, parents and community garden programs be a powerful real-world teaching tool.

Mason bees are increasingly cultivated to improve pollination for early spring flowers. They are used sometimes as an alternative, but more often alongside European honey bees. Most mason bees are readily attracted to nesting holes; reeds, paper tubes, or nesting trays. Drilled blocks of wood are an option, but do not allow one to harvest the bees, which is vital to control a build-up of pests.

I found the post, Housing Mason Bees at Bees, Birds, & Butterflies particularly useful as I researched the how-tos for building insect hotels.  You can also purchase pre-made insect hotels from a variety of sources.  For example, Esschert Design Bee House. The kids had a great time building their own and it allowed their creativity to show.  Most of the kids recycled materials (soup cans, two liter bottles, etc.) to create a cylinder to hold bamboo and paper tubes. Many of the kids stated they wanted to build a wooden frame around their tubes and planned to finish their projects at home.

Attract Pollinators with Native Plants

To help bees and other pollinating insects (butterflies) you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, pollen, and nectarthrough the whole growing season. Patches of foraging habitat can be created in many different locations, from backyards and school grounds to golf courses and city parks. Even a small area planted with the right flowers will be beneficial those with small yards shouldn’t hesitate to do their part.

  • Use local native plants.
  • Choose several colors of flowers; particularly attractive to bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
  • Plant flowers in clumps.
  • Include flowers of different shapes. Bees are all different sizes, have different tongue lengths, and will thereby feed on different shaped flowers. 
  • Have a diversity of plants flowering all season.

Contact your local extension agency to learn what plants are native to your area.  You may also find useful fact sheets provided by The Xerces Society.

Additional books & resources:

Homegrown Learners

BioBlitz 2014 – Citizen Science in Golden Gate National Parks

Coming in March – the National Parks Service, National Geographic, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and Presidio Trust are teaming up to host a 24-hour BioBlitz species count and two-day Biodiversity Festival.  Participants will have the opportunity to learn about redwood canopy plants and animals, take a picture as a redwood tree climber, or look closely at redwood organisms.

bioblitz14

Be a Part of an Inventory Team!

A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms as possible. 

The three national park units that make up the Golden Gate National Parks encompass more than 80,000 acres and 91 miles of shoreline along the northern California coast. These parks are home to an amazing array of biodiversity, including over half of the bird species of North America and nearly one-third of California’s plant species!  

The joint BioBlitz and Biodiversity Festival will be held Friday-Saturday, March 28-29, 2014 to help better understand, appreciate, and protect this natural treasure.

As part of BioBlitz 2014, Save the Redwoods League and scientists from Humboldt State University will be leading the first-ever biodiversity study of the redwood canopy at Muir Woods. Never before have the trees at Muir Woods been climbed.

Register Today!

Join an expert-led species inventory team to discover, count, map, and learn about the parks’ diverse organisms, ranging from microscopic bacteria, wildflowers, and seals, to hawks and towering redwoods. Choose the park location, date and time, or subject matter that interests you most. Spots on inventory teams go quickly.

For more information and to register as a part of the inventory team, visit Golden Gate National Parks BioBlitz 2014.