SMS students gain both knowledge and skills through PBL

Emerald Connection, October 10th, 2022

Do you remember completing projects in school?  Were they fun? Challenging? Meaningful? Collaborative? Useful? All of these? None of them?  At the Emerald Campus, Project Based Learning is a core approach to learning with our children.  The lower grades at our school have time built into the schedule dedicated to project-based learning and it is part of our teaching practice in every class in both the lower and middle grades.

PBL Works defines Project Based Learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”  In Patty McIver’s Grade 5 class, this is exactly what students have been up to at the start of the year.  The Grade 5 students are working in pairs to build a miniature golf course out of reused materials.  They have worked through a design process to plan each hole and are now in the process of building, and refining, their designs.  Like any good designer, they are thinking about their audience: in this case, the other classes at the Emerald Campus.  They are also developing their collaboration skills.  The guiding curriculum content that they are exploring is simple machines.  Through their designs, they are learning how simple machines make things work better and how poor design can make things fail to work.

I spent a chunk of time on both Monday and Tuesday in their class as the students worked.  I saw groups recognize that an inclined plane can make the difference in a ball getting through or to an obstacle with more or less challenge.  One group was exploring how to use a pulley system to put a second ball into place; I won’t add more details so as not to spoil their surprise.  In all cases, I saw skill building in both the physical use of tools and equipment and the softer skills of planning, collaboration, and revising.  With Patty’s support, they were continually building on their knowledge about simple machines.  More importantly, they were developing their understanding of simple machines through trial and error and first-hand experience.  They were living the Latin phrase Discimus Agere Agendo (we learn to do by doing).

Project based learning isn’t always the fastest route to learning, but it can lead to the deepest learning.  When projects and partnerships succeed, and when they fail, students are gaining insights that they will transfer into future experiences.  And to top it off, projects are fun!  It was great to see a group of students fully engaged for an entire period as they used simple machines and design principles to make something for their peers.  Smiling plus learning is a pretty good pairing for a school.  It exists in abundance at the Emerald Campus.

Happy putting.  I’ll lever off here.  I couldn’t help the pun; this unit makes me smile, too.

~Greg Friedman

Desert Week

This week Upper School students are on Desert Week, their annual camp trip in Utah. Students and faculty, in small groups, canyoneer, backpack, climb, mountain bike, and canoe.

Pictures from DW '21