You're Invited: Project Based Learning: Why it Matters


(Please scroll down to see your invitation for a presentation and discussion about this topic on March 15th.)

In October,  I co-authored a blog about project-based learning, based on the partnership UVEI’s partnership with Holland Elementary School. Now that we are more than half-way through this year-long partnership, the teachers and students at Holland have all experienced at least one PBL unit in its entirety. As we enter the final cycles of our work together, we reflected on the growth and learning over the course of the fall semester, and drafted goals for the spring semester. As teachers make the shift from planning individual units to incorporating PBL teaching practices in daily instruction, we celebrated the successes of the fall.  

Holland Pre-K teacher, Dina DeSena, works to weave inquiry into daily instruction with her class of 3 and 4-year-olds. They have explored two driving questions so far this year: “What is a community” and “What impact have other cultures had on our culture?” During the first unit, Dina sought the expertise of several community members who visited the classroom to answer student questions about their role in the community. Transitioning from discussing local community to communities and cultures around the world was fairly seamless. As Dina presented different cultures, students explored books, music, food, sports, and dance from other countries. The music and PE teachers contributed to the unit as well. Students learned to try new things and discuss unfamiliar topics while keeping an open mind. In the final celebration of learning, each pre-k student chose an artifact they connected with during the unit to present during all-school  morning meeting. PBL is an approach that creates meaningful learning experiences at all age levels.

The K-1 students responded to the driving question, “How can I make my body healthier?” They visited the local grocery store’s produce department as the entry event to spark student inquiry. After their visit, students brainstormed a list of fruits and veggies for every color of the rainbow to visually represent their understanding. Using magazines, they created an “ideal” plate of food, cutting and gluing items based on their nutritional value. Students recorded their daily exercise/movement for a week with the help of their family members. The class did yoga together, and made posters to put up in the hallway showing a variety of exercises to choose from. They learned about the effects of food on the body, especially the heart. Their final class public product was a newly designed menu item for the school, which was created in collaboration with the school cook. K-1 teacher, Kate Underwood, shared, “I used a lot of student voice and choice because I feel it is important for students to give their thoughts and opinions during learning. This makes it more engaging for them because they have had some “say” in the learning process.”

Voice and choice also played a big role in the 2-3 grade students’ PBL unit from the very beginning. When their teacher, Roxie Moulton, asked them what they were interested in learning, they responded that they wanted to learn more about their town’s history, but that there were no books written for kids on the subject. The driving question for their inquiry became, “How can we inform children about our town’s history?” Their entry event was a trip to the Holland Historical Society, where they jotted down notes and questions about what they saw. Once back at school, they divided into groups based on their interest in various topics, and spent weeks researching. They using writing workshop time to collaborate and receive feedback from peers. The final product, a children’s book on the History of Holland, was presented to the community during a book signing celebration of learning. The students are selling their books for $5 each or by donation to raise money for the Holland Historical Society.* Roxie asked each of her students to reflect on their learning during this unit. “When asked what he learned in this unit,” said Roxie, “one student responded with, ‘focus.’ He left this unit with a new found understanding of what it means to be a learner.”

Roxie elaborated, “I don't think I completely understood [the impact of] this unit until I watched students take what they had learned and apply it in other areas of their day without being asked.” PBL units allow for increased collaboration, reflection, and the practical application of transferrable skills.

Fourth through sixth grade math and science teacher, Christine Almodovar, allowed students to chose their topic of inquiry as well. Students wanted to focus on owls, and they explored the driving question, “How has light affected Vermont’s ecosystems?” Owl handlers at Northwoods presented information and brought in an injured owl during an entry event that sparked a variety of questions from students. The students split into mixed grade groups to create a brochure to share their understanding. They spent time creating collaborative group norms and self-assessed their participation in the group. Visitors from Vermont Energy Education Program also visited the classroom to present information and respond to student questions during the unit. The culminating presentation of learning was an authentic opportunity to share what they had learned about a real-world issue of concern: “How do we make sure we have a balance of human interferences and preserve our natural ecosystems?” Students wrote letters and sent brochures to local and state officials.

Research and inquiry also played a part in the fifth and sixth grade English Language Arts PBL unit. ELA teacher, Sabrina Keller, launched a unit with the driving question, “How do community members appropriately address conflict?” Students selected a historical conflict and a modern day conflict to research. They researched effective methods to solve conflict, and as a class, students worked together to create the “Seven Steps to Address Conflict.” In her reflection, Sabrina shares, “Our unique grade combinations at Holland allows for a wide range of students academic abilities, developmental differences, and learning styles. Throughout this unit, I worked to provide opportunities so that all students would have access to the curriculum and demonstrate learning.” PBL allows for a variety of modes of differentiation. In this unit, students utilized technology, graphic organizers, models, and peer and teacher feedback to guide their understanding.

Quality PBL aligns to standards, promotes transferrable skills, and involves resources in the local community. Student-led inquiry, culminating in authentic celebrations of learning are key to successful units. This is not easy work! The teachers at Holland Elementary are inspiring examples of how coaching and perseverance in the face of challenge can have tremendous impact on our students’ experiences in school.

* If you wish to purchase a copy of the book, please contact Becky Wipfler at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Commentary by Becky Wipfler

Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of our faculty.  Read Becky's first blog on why project-based learning matters.

Please Join Us for the Presentation and Discussion

Project Based Learning:  Why it Matters

led by UVEI Program Faculty

Wednesday, March 15
5:00 - 6:15 PM

194 Dartmouth College Highway (Route 4)
Lebanon, NH

Seating is limited
RSVP if you plan to attend
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 603 678-4888