PBL World 2016 Day Two: Keynote by Briana and Leona Das

This morning we were treated to a presentation by two of the best student speakers most everyone in the audience had ever seen. The Das sisters, rising 10th grader Leona and rising 12th grader Briana from Nueva Upper School in San Mateo, California, were awesome – fitting, since they started the Tribe Awesome club, one of whose projects is a hydroponic plant-growing system.

Leona told about her start in PBL when she was nine years old, exhibiting a “no touch garden” at the Bay Area Maker Faire. Following a design thinking protocol she termed “research > prototype > iterate” Leona and her sister dug into the task of developing a hydroponic system for growing basil, lettuce, mint, bok choy, and other edible plants. They have spread the word to other people about how to build their own systems in workshops at Tech Liminal in Oakland, California, where many low-income residents lack access to fresh vegetables.

In 5th grade, Leona experienced an entrepreneurship project created by BizWorld, in which teams of students make and sell friendship bracelets, learning about profit margins and the role of investment in running a business. She also told about a 9th grade world history project in which students taught each other about revolutions. Her team created what sounded like a highly engaging game with two sides, aristocrats and serfs, which involved stealing cookies, revolts, and executions. Leona joked that she learned “high school students will do anything for cookies.”

Two important lessons Leona said she learned from doing PBL (which all PBL teachers should note) were:

  • Don’t procrastinate
  • I work harder on things I love doing

Briana’s first experience with PBL was in preschool, when the class studied the ocean and transformed their classroom into an underwater environment with blue walls and fish hanging from the ceiling drawn by students. She showed a video she created in 5th grade to document a project she did with a team for the “Tech Challenge” at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. Their challenge: place a battery on the side of a model satellite suspended in midair. Their winning time: 45 seconds, but as the video showed, it took many failures to eventually succeed at the task.

Two other projects Briana described from her years in high school were a proposal for a wearable “stress tracker” device and a cool-sounding creativity project where she created “Kreative Kits” with activities for her peers.

Just as impressive as their presentation – which got a standing ovation – were their right-on answers to questions from the audience, which is a pretty sophisticated group. Here are a few highlights, paraphrased:

Q: One of the biggest challenges for PBL teachers is knowing what each student in a group contributed to a project, so how did your teachers handle that issue?
A: At the end of each project each member of a team wrote about what we contributed and what our teammates did. They didn’t see what we wrote, so we could be honest with the teacher.

Q: Do you feel like being at a PBL school prepared you to take tests like the SAT and A.P.?
A: Yes, because I understood the concepts well so I knew what the test questions were really about. I did some preparation like learning how to solve a test problem quickly and time my answers.

Q: I’m a high school math teacher and I’m wondering about how your teachers taught math in a project?
A: We designed vases using functions and 3D printers and… (Details lost on English/Social Studies teacher, sorry. I could tell it was impressive.)

Q: Most colleges do not teach using PBL. It’s changing slowly, but most still use large-group lectures. Is going to a PBL school making you seek out colleges where they do use PBL?
A: Yes. (Their parents later noted in an interview that they have changed their ideas for what kinds of colleges are best for their daughters – and they’re not necessarily the traditional “best colleges.”)

Q: Did doing all these projects give you an interest in pursuing a particular career?
A: No one in particular, although I might enjoy designing wearable technology like the “stress tracker” device. But a lot of the jobs for my generation have not been invented yet, so PBL prepares me well for anything I might choose to do.

Couldn’t have said any of it better myself.

Watch the full keynote: