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What if a project mattered outside the classroom? What if we did something real?

“Don’t you want to take it home?” How many times have we heard, “No thanks,” in response? A recycling bin full of creative endeavors, shelves lined with student examples, disassembly to preserve possibly useful pieces of wood…

Project Based Learning has been a central philosophy to my teaching over the past 20 years before I even had even heard the words to describe what I was attempting. I have slowly built, through experience and trial and error, an ability to design projects that require critical thinking, student voice and choice, creative problem solving, and collaboration. My original motivation years ago was in response to a “Why should I care to learn this?” attitude from my students.  It is a very valid question. Why should a 13 year old care about history, adding fractions, or themes found in Shakespeare? The desire to connect curriculum and meaning to students led to engaging projects—but the products of all this work invariably ended back in the recycling bin.

A trip to my childhood Nature House at Miracle Beach Campground in Campbell River, BC, Canada, changed everything.

The Nature House is near a popular beach and was full of hands-on activities to learn more about local flora and fauna. I was so excited to share the marvels of the Nature House with my young nieces, but years of no funding had left my beloved Nature House worn, outdated, and lacking. As I reflected on my school year and the Nature House, I began to think big. What if…? What if we poured our Project Based Learning energies into a REAL project? What if we designed and built new displays and activities for the Nature House? BIE’s Gold Standard PBL talks about Public Product and Authenticity. What would be more authentic than really making something lasting for the public’s benefit?

Having Confidence in Students
Convincing the Nature House to work with us was more difficult than I expected at first. The idea of 90 grade 8s building something worth keeping took some selling. My advice when approaching the non-teaching public to work with you on a project is to stay confident in what your students can do. We know what is possible even when those outside our world do not.

My perseverance paid off and we travelled in October to Miracle Beach, Rathtrevor Beach, and Goldstream to see the Nature Houses and meet with the naturalists.  The students named the project, “Make a Miracle” in honor of Miracle Beach.  A key to PBL’s success is scaffolding and preparation by the teacher. We spent time before our visit learning about both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Students were prepared when we arrived at each site to both learn what the goals and needs of each Nature House were from the naturalists but also to collect data about the local areas.

Scaffolding and Building
Upon returning to Victoria, students spent the next six months developing their project ideas and creating the exhibits and activities, built out of wood, to install in the Nature Houses. The authentic audience required a level of academic rigor that they hadn’t faced before. Students chose a focus area for their projects and began the research and development portion of the project. To scaffold learning and design of interactive projects, we worked with the Royal British Columbia Museum to learn about interactivity, text level, and effective displays. Students sent their project proposals for approval to the naturalists before getting started.

One group had an entire section cut because they hadn’t adhered to the guidelines of local species only. The student who had written it was heartbroken that she had to restart from the beginning but persevered so that she could have her work in the Nature House at the end. Students also learned about creative property laws when they wanted to use photos they hadn’t taken, and had to contact photographers to ask permission. One photographer politely declined the use of his photos and the student who had contacted him was shocked but carried on and sought other sources.

Science, History, and writing complete, now the build was on! The math component of the project began in earnest. Students calculated material needs and costs and got to work in the Wood Shop at our school. The quality of text created was now matched by the quality of craftsmanship required. Our final show of exhibits and activities included students and parents but also a visit from the naturalists who approved and marked the exhibits for their destinations. Some projects were given feedback for changes and improvements before being accepted for the Nature Houses.

The Public Exhibition
Our final visit in May took us back to each site, where students rolled up their sleeves to clean as well as work with the carpenter and naturalists to install their projects. Three years later, I visited Goldstream and was so proud to see a large percentage of their displays and activities continue to be from this project.

I am now an authentic audience addict.  Since our bold move to take our energies outside of the school walls, we have worked with Emily Carr House, Craigdarroch Castle, and Point Ellice House in Victoria, BC, on similar projects. We have also developed an ongoing relationship with Langham Court Theatre to write, direct and perform a French play each year. These relationships with the community and real-life goals have added a dimension to PBL that can’t be replicated in the classroom.

This step in project design requires massive amounts of scaffolding as well as courage to ask yourself, “What if?” I now know that if the idea seems slightly crazy and a little bit scary… I’m onto something good!

To see the student project documentary about our Nature House adventures, follow this link:


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