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PBL + STEM = A Winning Combination

Project Based Learning & STEM

blog_newIn a world where there is much debate over how to best package and deliver an educational program that is relevant, engaging, impactful and will set our students up for future success – project based learning (PBL) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are commonly mentioned.  At PFFS these go hand in hand.

Sometimes this is exactly what families are looking for – they either know that their child is particularly interested in these topics and method of learning or they believe that it will help them be successful in college and beyond.

Sometimes, however, our parents express concern about when and how the arts and humanities are taught in a school that is expressly STEM oriented.   In their minds, perhaps, the focus on STEM will preclude learning about the human experience.   For us, this could not be further from the truth and a description of one of our interdisciplinary units, currently in progress, hopefully will shed light on how this is so.

IMG_2367At PFFS-Downtown, our 6/7th graders are studying Ancient Civilizations through the lens of how these civilizations’ used STEM.  The teachers launched this interdisciplinary unit with a mini-project where students had to build their own aqueduct.  It was a fun competition in which groups of students designed aqueducts that would transport water the furthest distance and most efficiently (scored by multiplying the length of the aqueduct in cm and by the percentage of water that went the distance without leaking, absorbing or pooling.  With their creative juices activated, the students were then placed on two teams.

On one of their teams, students are doing a deep study of their respective ancient civilization ((Khmer, Chthatina, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Incas, Aztecs, Hohokam).  The teachers have taught lessons highlighting different aspects of all these civilizations, but in these case study groups, students are ‘deep diving’ – analyzing the culture and history of their civilization.  The end product of their studies will be to have created a Living Museum in which each student portrays a person from that time/place who will explain different facets of their lives. In this exhibition of learning, students will be encouraged to imagine what the actual day-to-day life was like for their person, living in their culture at that time.

On their second team, called their Aspect Group, students are working together to create a documentary (using iMovie) of their respective ‘Aspect’ (Art, Economy, Architecture, Learning, Daily Life, Agriculture) spanning from early to modern times. The questions they are addressing are rich and multi-faceted.   Imagine, for example, that you are in the Architecture group. Here are the questions you would be tasked to ponder, research, and document.

  • What is the history of the development of architecture in the ancient world, and what archaeological evidence tells us that story?
  • How did geography and available resources influence the progress of architecture?
  • How is the legacy of ancient civilizations relevant to the use of application of architecture today? (e.g. What ancient developments in agriculture can be seen in modern agriculture?)
  • How was architecture practiced sustainably or unsustainably?

In assessing the documentaries, students will be graded on the extent to which they included the following:

  • Have I included evidence from multiple cultures and times?
  • Have I compared and contrasted the development of architecture over time?
  • Did I propose an improvement, refinement or solution to a contemporary problem or issue?
  • Have I utilized appropriate visual elements (maps, images, video clips, arrangements and composition)

IMG_2879Part of their research on these topics involves interacting with adults who themselves do this work as their job. Archaeology Southwest is a nonprofit organization that practices holistic, conservation-based research techniques to explore and protect archaeological sites and cultural landscapes throughout the Southwest.  Our students have been working with them to study primitive tool making and to work on the restoration of a Hohokam pit house.  IMG_2901Similarly, students visited the Arizona State Museum to analyze how they effectively organize their exhibits.

Our Exhibition Night for this project will be on Tuesday, September 29th from 4:00 to 6:00 pm. Along with the obvious academic content that students will be exhibiting, they also will be demonstrating what sometimes is known as 21st Century Learning skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication. 150911 Steam PumpAt all points in this learning process teachers taught and students practiced these skills which employees have identified as being the most essential for success.

In the end, STEM and PBL are natural complements, and when they are combined they necessarily call for interdisciplinary connections that will include the arts and humanities. After all, the story of science, technology, engineering and math is ultimately our human story about civilizations, culture, creativity and advancements. Learning about these concepts together make them vibrant and relevant and necessarily increases student engagement.

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