Ridgely Middle School
By: Stephanie Strayer, World Cultures classroom teacher
Maintaining student engagement during the time when the end of the school year collides with the imminence of summer vacation can be challenging. And, how many times have we, as educators heard, “When am I going to use this again?” Last year, our seventh grade students completed a Project-Based Learning activity to maintain rigorous instruction as the temperature and anticipation of summer increased.
In keeping true to the spirit of PBL, students should be the deciding factors for all choices including the direction of the project. As this was our first foray into the world of Project-Based Learning, the seventh grade World Cultures teaching team decided to keep the activity on the school’s campus. Having space to conduct class outside has always been a desire of both faculty and students. We settled on having students create an outdoor learning space.
To kick off the activity and build enthusiasm, a video was created and shown to the students at the end of a lunch shift. Currently, Ridgely has designated space for an outdoor classroom. But, the decaying, splintered, weather-worn benches are not an inviting spot for students or teachers to spend any length of time. We identified two different locations. The following day, in World Cultures classes, students were given a tour of the two potential sites for our outdoor learning space. Once the tour was complete, each student was able to select which space he or she would prefer to design.
Through the process, we encountered many obstacles along the way. One of the first was how to making this activity engaging for all students. We were working with roughly 400 students. Finding a job for each student proved to be near impossible. We decided to take a page from reality television. We created a design competition where each student group would compete against all the others and the last design standing would be built.
Students arranged themselves in groups of up to four students. Each week, the group had questions or topics that must be researched and answers submitted. Although students had free reign for every aspect of their design, we did provide them with a few guiding principles. Students needed to research ADA requirements and ensure that their learning space met the laws established. Our students researched native plants and animals along with analyzing the impact the learning space would have on habitats. Students were provided a budget and were required to stay within it. Each group needed to include an art component as well. In one space, that meant designing a mural for one wall. The other space needed some type of found art installation. Accessing technology while using the outdoor learning space was also important to many of our groups. Groups researched internet connectivity, interviewed our technology liaison, and worked with the Office of Technology to extend our Wi-Fi signal strength to include our new learning space.
Students needed to work through their own questions and could often be found sitting in the hallways talking to local merchants. Many groups had our community Lowe’s and Home Depot on speed dial. In the end, students presented their ideas and a blue print to their classmates. We conducted three student votes until eight groups remained. At that point, we assembled a judging panel of stakeholders and the students presented one last time. After much deliberation, the panel named a winning group. Work to fulfill the group’s vision began almost immediately.
Fast forward to the present – we have been fortunate to work closely with the carpentry students from George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology. Our winning group has had one design meeting so far to discuss outdoor furniture and planters. Being able to partner with another Baltimore County School has been such a rewarding experience for all involved. We hope to have the outdoor learning space complete for use soon.
Keeping students engaged can be a tall order. However, providing students an opportunity to be creative and develop their own learning environment has been a positive experience that enabled the students to gain valuable, real-world, lifelong skills. I would be more than happy to discuss our PBL adventure further with anyone who is interested.