All courses at our school use a "Project-Based" approach to instruction. Students in project-based classrooms learn all of the same content standards required by all schools in the state of Michigan, but they learn them by working in collaborative groups, completing projects that are relevant to their lives.
In project-based classrooms, learning begins with an entry document that introduces the end product students are expected to produce and asks the driving question(s) that the project should answer. Students then read and discuss the entry document to generate their list of "Need-to-Knows" that will guide the learning required to complete the project.
Using the list of students' Need-to-Knows as their guide, teachers plan workshops, activities, discussions, guest panels, etc. that will provide students with the content knowledge and skills necessary to answer the driving question(s) and complete the project. As students work and collaborate in groups, they generate more Need-to-Knows, which are added to the list. In this way, students and teachers share control of the course content until the project is complete.
Whenever possible and appropriate, we bring in area business and community partners to help add real-world relevancy to our work. For example, when our goal is to engage students in work around the political process and issues facing our society, we bring in local policy-makers and political groups to help our students create an authentic product. When we learn about cellular structures and division, we work with our area hospital to bring in practitioners from the field.
Projects requiring student collaboration begin with groups drafting and signing contracts that outline each individual's responsibilities for the project. In these contracts, students include steps to be taken if an individual does not complete their share of the work. Similar to a professional work environment, group members are expected to hold each other accountable. Individuals can be "fired" for not doing their part of the work.
The job of the teacher(s) is to help groups write solid contracts and to support students in following their contract language throughout the project. Because students are required to not only understand but also agree with these contracts, they learn quickly to take responsibility for their work from the beginning.
A question you'll hear and see frequently around Meridian High School is "What's your next step?" We always want our students to look to the future, thinking about how their need-to-knows can help them move forward on their own.
This is a crucial part of how we work and characterizes how project-based classrooms differ from traditional high school classrooms. In project-based classrooms, students don't sit passively waiting for teachers to tell them what to do. Rather, it is our expectation that students develop the skills necessary to figure out what to do on their own. Our role is to help teach and model those skills as an explicit aspect of what we do.
Workshops & Instruction
As students work through projects in each course, establishing "next steps" based on "need-to-knows," our teachers work with them to determine what information and skills might require a workshop for deeper understanding.
Workshops can take the form of a lesson, discussion, or activity designed to address one or more need-to-knows. They can be required or they can be voluntary, depending on the need and purpose. They can be teacher-led or organized by a student. They can be long or short, but the focus is always on advancing the project by helping students reach their next step.
Application & Solutions
Throughout the learning process, as "need-to-knows" become known, our teachers push students to apply what they learn back to the project that was introduced in the entry document.
If and when their next step becomes "solving the problem" or "completing the project," they do! Until then, learning at New Tech is a cyclical process requiring teamwork, inquiry, and critical thinking at every step.
Projects end with some kind of exhibition. Whether it be groups presenting their solution to a math problem to the class, a panel of health professionals evaluating groups' work, or an open house where the entire community is invited, it's important to us that learning is shared.
By planning events where students can show others what they've learned, we create a sense of energy and authenticity that simply doesn't exist in traditional high schools. Our teachers use this energy to push students to dive deeper into the content and skills that will be needed to be successful.
Evaluation & Reflection
Both during the learning process and after, our students are evaluated on five school-wide learning outcomes in addition to their understanding of course content. Outcomes are communicated to students in the form of rubrics, designed to guide them toward high-quality work. Through Echo, our online course management system and grade book, we are able to communicate all of this in an easily understandable format leading to a letter grade.
The goal of evaluating students as we do is to encourage reflection upon their individual strengths and opportunities for growth.
Cells Gone Wild
In 2013, Mrs. Sarah Kapral (Callewaert) and Mr. David Pettyplace had their "Cells Gone Wild" BioHealth project nominated as a national "Best in Network" project. Eventually named a "top 3" project, Mrs. Kapral was honored on stage at the New Tech Network Annual Conference in New Orleans, LA.
The following video showcased the Cells Gone Wild project for that event by interviewing the individuals involved (students, teacher, administrator, partners, etc.). It stands as a great example of what project-based learning looks like.
Merrill Cart Project
In 2014, Mr. Andrew LaFave and Mr. Ben Younkin asked students in their GeoDesign course to help our partners at Merrill Technologies Group design a new "cart" to carry the massive pieces of metal around their facility. Through this yearlong project, our students learned about design and engineering hands-on by working with Merrill as a client.
Below is a video made by Merrill that highlights this project. It too provides a great example of what project-based learning looks like in our school.