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Pepsi & Project Lead the Way

June 2, 2010

First, thank you to all of you who have been diligently voting (and reminding others) everyday for our $25,000 Pepsi Refresh Grant. We are in the top 10 right now, but it will take a significant community effort to maintain our spot in the winner’s circle.

Second, I want to remind the community why we are pursing Project Lead the Way in the first place.  Recently, I had the opportunity to read about some of the research related to using a project-based instructional approach.  An article in Better Evidence-Based Education, by Christopher Harris and University of Arizona professor Ronald Marx describe Project-Based Science, an inquiry-based approach designed to improve motivation and learning. The idea is for students to investigate a “driving question” that frames important science content, connects to their interests and curiosity, and guides them through several weeks of collaborative investigations, weighing of evidence, writing explanations, and discussing and presenting their findings.  This is the basic model used in Project Lead the Way.

The authors noted 5 keys to this type of instruction:

Make it relevant. Students are more likely to learn science content if it is linked to need-to-know situations – for example, learning about force and motion by exploring the difference that wearing a helmet makes when a bicycle rider or skateboarder wipes out.
• Activate prior knowledge. People use what they already know to make sense of new information – but what if prior knowledge is incomplete or inaccurate? “Research tells us that these fledgling ideas can actually serve as productive starting points for building more sophisticated science understandings,” say Harris and Marx.
• Support reasoning and explanation. “Scientists advance in their understanding not simply by describing the natural world, but by explaining it,” say Harris and Marx. “…Similarly, students can advance in their own understanding by weighing evidence, interpreting results, evaluating claims, and sharing and critiquing explanations of their own and others.”
• Focus on learning goals. It’s easy for students to lose sight of the central point of a curriculum unit when they are immersed in a series of activities over several days or weeks. That’s why it’s important for us to clearly state the main learning goals, essential questions and organize instruction around them.
• Attend to student thinking. The best approach is to get students to make their thinking visible – getting them talking about their observations, hypotheses, and findings, listening carefully to gauge their level of understanding, and prompting when necessary to move students toward a deep understanding of the concepts.

In the end, project-based instructional strategies are what “good teaching” demonstrates.   The issue we have found with this approach is finding the time to incorporate these strategies into the fast pace of the current model.  Covering the State of Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations tend to drive process vs. being student driven.  It might be time to change the model….

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