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Project-based learning: the pros and cons

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By Psyche Pascual

Patent-worthy projects

In some cases, what students accomplish is astounding, even patent-worthy:

  • In a classroom in Milwaukee, a student led a team to develop a biomedical device to help handicapped people and post-surgery patients stand up easily.
  • In Clifton Park, NY, a group of students designed an 8-foot by 5-foot portable disaster relief shelter with ventilation, water-filtration systems, a rooftop solar panel, and room for four people.
  • Students from High Tech High in San Diego went on a summer expedition to Tanzania as part of a conservation project to study African bush meat trade.
  • A group in Omaha invented a cook stove that’s being used in Madagascar.

Not all projects are as global as finding solutions for disaster relief or stopping illegal animal trade. It doesn’t have to be expensive either. Lubak has developed projects for his students that involved used toy or mechanical parts.

When Michael Delorio, a 16 year old who attends the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, a public high school in Carson, CA, designed an air cannon that launched ping-pong balls 80 to 100 feet into the air, he built it with $40 worth of polyvinyl chloride pipes and a sprinkler valve. First, however, Delorio and his team had to learn computer design software to draw the device, piecing the launcher together like a puzzle.

“It was hands-on, and it suits the way I learn better,” Delorio said. “I prefer to touch and feel it rather than learn about it from a book.”

After the launcher was built, the team went to a field with the machine and used a chronometer to track how fast the ping-pong balls traveled: 400 feet per second. Since then, Delorio has gone on to design small robots and other mechanical devices in national robot competitions. Delorio hopes what he has learned so far will propel him into a college robotics program.

If college is the goal, then projects are one way to get a student used to rigorous research habits. According to Project Lead the Way surveys, 97 percent of kids who went through the group’s STEM programs planned to pursue a four-year degree, compared with 67 percent of students who did not go through the group’s programs. Students who took Project Lead the Way courses were at least five times more likely to pursue engineering and technology classes than other first-year college students.

‘It’s gotta be fun’

Working on robotics, examining animal meat, and inventing disaster relief devices may be rigorous, but they all have one thing in common, said Jeff Robin, an art teacher at High Tech High in San Diego.

“It’s gotta be fun. The more fun the project is, the more interested they’ll be, the more they’ll learn,” he said. “In fact, I have parents say, ‘I’m really concerned. My kids really like school. My kid’s having too much fun.’”

When Robin asked his art class to create a graphic novel based on novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories in “Welcome to the Monkey House,” students had to learn drawing techniques, storyboarding, and dramaturgy, the skills to write a play or drama. They also had to learn about computer programs they needed to scan and publish a book of their artwork. They even held a gallery exhibition to talk about their work.

Robin said students learned more about writing and illustrating Vonnegut’s works than they would have if they had simply read his short stories and wrote a book report. “It’s more about personal interest. It’s about finding an idea about where you fit in,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”