Welcome to the Real World: An Introduction to Project-Based Learning

Beginning next year, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) will introduce Cornerstone Assignments. These assignments are shared projects across DCPS that are designed to increase equity and expectations for all students. To push the design concept further, I imagine that the Cornerstones will also develop student capacity for 21st-century skills—skills like critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration. These skills were all present during a recent three-day, two-night expeditionary learning program hosted by NatureBridge at Prince William Forest Park.

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From the very beginning, camp counselors Danny, Candace, and Isabella did a great job setting expectations.  Students realized quickly that they would be held accountable for every minute and that every experience would be tied to a learning outcome. Punctuality, stewardship, respect, and active participation were highly stressed. And from the onset of our first two-mile hike to Quantico Creek where we learned about aquatic macroinvertebrates, we knew our students had embraced the expectations. They weren’t silent—but they were quiet, thoughtful, and engaged within the group. Complaints were few. The group’s north star had been set, and all of them worked together to reach their goal.  

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After hiking, creek-crossing (a few didn’t make it across without an unexpected dip), and learning about watersheds and macroinvertebrates, students returned to the campsite for dinner. Dinner, of course, was tied to specific learning outcomes as well. How can we reduce food waste? How can we use what remains for composting?  How can we be great stewards of our cafeteria space? (The chef, though, didn’t need much help in regard to food waste—his meals were excellent.) Nevertheless, students still exercised great stewardship in respecting their space, ensuring leftovers were received in their designated bins, and weighing waste to set goals for the next meal.

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Following dinner, students had an hour of free time to rest, shower, organize their cabins, call home, and play with friends. Then, at 7:30, students met in an open field to learn about animal adaptations and nocturnal animals and participate in an activity to learn how bats use echolocation to find food. The group acted as a circle of trees around the “bat” and “moth” (played by students). The “bat” was blindfolded and instructed to say “eek” repeatedly to find the moth, which clapped twice every time the bat said “eek.”  If the bat was in danger of flying into the trees, the students would whisper, “Trees, trees, trees.” After several minutes, if the bat couldn’t find the moth, the circle of trees would come in closer to reflect habitat encroachment. For teachers, the this reflected a response to intervention (RTI): When the extent of the work is too broad, you have to narrow the scope for some students so they can feel successful with less to focus on.

Although the above examples only represent a small snapshot of experiences taken from day one, this 72-hour expeditionary learning workshop provided just as much learning for teachers as it did students. Over the course of three days, we were provided rich opportunities to witness and participate in planning, goal-setting, inquiry-based discussion, data-analysis, whole- and small-group activities, reflection, and presentation—which are actionable takeaways for students, teachers, and schoolwide community practice.

Kudos to Jim Serfass and his staff at NatureBridge for delivering an exemplary experience of what project-based learning can look like in practice.

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School


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