Project-Based Learning: Five Teacher-Tested Ideas

By Graumann, Peter | Technology & Learning, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Project-Based Learning: Five Teacher-Tested Ideas


Graumann, Peter, Technology & Learning


Experienced educators tend to agree that students learn best through a project-based approach in which they are able to discover things for themselves. Last February the Autodesk Foundation brought together a number of the nation's most innovative technology-using teachers to share their successes with project-based education. Here are some highlights.

RoboRover: Ed Tech on Wheels

Although Vermont requires all junior high schools to offer courses in technology, few of the state's small, rural schools can afford their own educational technology specialist. That's where Tom Keck and his trusty science van, RoboRover, come in. Normally Keck teaches at the U-32 Junior-Senior High school in Montpelier. But he spent the Spring '93 semester in some of Vermont's most isolated classrooms ("Nobody ever comes here," lamented one teacher), leading students and teachers through his vast repertoire of technology learning projects.

"Generally I do a bit of razzmatazz at first," says Keck. That may mean using liquid nitrogen to demonstrate superconductivity on a small magnetic-levitation vehicle. "I usually try to find the biggest teacher around and levitate him on my vacuum-cleaner-powered Hovercraft."

Once he has everyone's attention, Keck selects an age-appropriate activity, explains the ground rules and lets things fly. An elementary class might become an "M&M Cookie Factory," in which students go through the steps of forming a company, designing a product, organizing the production line, and calculating their profits--or losses. Middle school students might get involved in designing and constructing active space suits. High schoolers might be challenged to design and build a robotic arm using electric, pneumatic, or hydraulic power. The common ingredient in all of these exercises is the necessity for students to be methodical yet creative. While keeping his lectures to a minimum, Keck says he always brings up the social consequences of technology, both its good and bad sides.

RoboRover was funded by the National Science Foundation. (Keck is Vermont's NSF-Christa McAuliffe Fellow for 1993.) The teacher and his van generally spend two or three days at a school. Keck provides most of the materials for the activities; the only cost to the school is for his mileage and the commitment to set aside one day during his stay for a teacher inservice. Although RoboRover's grant ran out in June '93, Keck is hopeful that the state of Vermont will agree to pick up the fundings.

Solar Car Revs Learning in New Hampshire

"The key to making a project work is to make sure it's way over your head to start with," says Bill Biglow. True to his word, Bigelow's 11th- and 12th-grade students designed and built a solar-powered automobile which went on to win the nation's most prestigious solar race. Now his students are construc,ting a remotely controlled submarine, complete with robotic arm and three television cameras.

Bigelow, a former woodshop instructor, teaches classes in applied technology at Contoocook Valley Regional High School in Peterborough, New Hempshire. Class sessions extend two hours each school day, earning participants a double science credit.

In 1991, the class car, "Solar Survivor II," won the 250-mile, five-day Tour de Sol race. The victory is even more impressive considering the competition came from MIT, Cornell, and other universities.

Students performed every function in the solar car campaign. While some teams designed the vehicle with a powerful CAD program, others concentrated on the fund raising and public relations end of the venture, learning computer spreadsheet and word processing skills as part of the process. Bigelow assigned participants to areas where their skills needed the most development: Those weak in math helped calculate the car's dimensions and power requirements; less verbal students were assigned to give public speeches on the project; those with the least mechanical experience helped to construct the car. …

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