In her earth and environmental science class last year, Laura O. Spencer assigned students to build model houses that could withstand the equivalent of hurricane-force winds. At the time, she was delighted with at least one product: a house so sturdy that it stood up to a leaf-blower.
But this year, she is scrapping that activity, cool as it was. “I don’t think the students got much out of it educationally,” the 31-year-old teacher said, mulling over the project. “That was a reflection of me not setting up specific learning goals.”
With a better grip on project-based learning, thanks to a summer workshop at her Charlotte, N.C., community of small high schools, Ms. Spencer is trying a different plan.
Unlike the hurricane-house lesson, the new project started with a serious question. It’s one that cuts across course content and takes into account the thematic focus of the school, called Global Studies and Economics at Olympic.
Known as a “driving” or “essential” question, Ms. Spencer’s query is this: How does the availability of natural resources affect the economic development of Third World countries?
The way Ms. Spencer has planned it, groups of students will tackle the answer, in parts. Students will complete individual assignments weekly, with Ms. Spencer’s expectations laid out for them in scoring guides she has devised.
Later, each group will identify an economic or environmental problem in its chosen country and propose a sustainable solution to it. Finally, the groups will pitch their solutions—with visual aids—as if they were facing potential donors at a summit of the wealthy G-8 nations. Again, rubrics will be available as guides.
It’s a stretch from the hurricane houses, and the workshop leader hinted it may be too ambitious. But the project is an improvement, and the best ones are built over time.
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.