Project-based learning

Project-based Learning Reflection and Revision: What’s the point?

The goal for the first run of The Westminster Schools’ Fifth-Grade Science PBL, That’s So Bad For You!, was for students to become activists and educators by researching and presenting their findings about water pollution in the Atlanta area.

The projects Driving Question (writing effective driving questions for PBL) was:

How can we create awareness about the effects of water pollution in the Atlanta area?

Since most pollutants are spread via water — which directly connects to the 5th grade ecosystems curriculum — their study focused on storm water run-off, erosion and dissolved oxygen levels. Students first built and then observed eco-columns.

During their studies, students visited the Lake Lanier to analyze and explore Georgia’s most important lake. They conducted experiments from the deck of a floating classroom (Chota Princess II), then visited the Lakeside Water Treatment facility in nearby Gainsville, GA. As they dug deeper into this work, students become much more aware of how little water there is in the world, and how important it is to conserve it!

To share their understanding and make a difference, students chose a final product in which to participate, including:  Public Service Announcements, iMovies, PowerPoints, Logos (to promote conservation), a Water Lesson for fifth grade students to teach to second graders, and more.

During PBLs, we ask students to revise and reflect as part of their formal learning. If we ask this of them, shouldn’t we, as educators, follow the same process to provide high quality learning for our students?  Shelly Linkon, Lower School science teacher, was pleased with her students’ efforts and results from their PBL last year. However, as Linkon and students pursued their work in this PBL, she noted several areas that could be improved upon in the future.

  • Formalize the process for feedback and revision.  Since most first attempts don’t result in high quality results, revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.  During and after a project, a standard process for feedback and revision would make the learning meaningful by emphasizing the importance of purpose and the role of high-quality products in the endeavor.

Linkon saw the need to improve revision and reflection while working with students on final projects. In this ambitious PBL plan, the number and variety of individualized final products exceeded the time allotted, or exceeded the management available for six different classes. This resulted in over-focus on details of the product, rather than the desired full engagement in researching, learning and developing 21st century skills.

  • Provide an authentic audience.  Linkon found that allowing too many options on the element of Voice and Choice derailed the connection to the students’ sharing of their information with authentic audiences. Also, she was aware that students needed an authentic audience — one who required students to show what they know as well as one who would provide true and helpful feedback. As our Buck Institute faculty instructor, Erin Sanchez, continues to remind us, “An audience who loves you is not an authentic audience!”

Revision and Reflection Steps:

Linkon decided to make the following changes.

  1. Students will use a new digital portfolio to record: journal entries, research notes, and daily observations of eco-columns, water data sample collections, and lab reports.
  2. Students will share their scientific data throughout the school year, using the digital Schoology, with scientist Lucy Taylor Mejia, a graduate student in geosciences at Georgia State University.   Mejia has a BS in Geology and currently interns at the City of Atlanta Watershed Department.  Additionally, as a “Visiting Expert,” Mejia will provide students with an authentic understanding of how a scientist works, from the start of their research throughout the development of pollution experiments in the classroom.
  3. Students will embark on a year-long study of Atlanta area waterways by collecting and testing water samples in their own communities and sharing this information with scientists, via their digital notebooks through Schoology.

While most of the work will take place during the first trimester, students will continue to collect data throughout the second and third trimesters. The final event will culminate with a field trip back to Lake Lanier, where students will practice and demonstrate their expertise, stretch, and apply their learning.

This revision and reflection process provides both the personal connection and authentic audience. While there is no end product or presentation, students’ connection with a real scientist and sharing the results of their science experiments provides a real world experience. The students’ focus will be on the essential and driving questions and the skills they will develop through the process of the PBL. They will engage in true scientific inquiry.


Guest Post by: Cynthia Montgomery, Instructional Coach at The Westminster Schools

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