Posts Tagged project based learning

“Shark Tank” Wildwood Style

The stakes are very high the day I visit Deb Christenson’s Modern U.S. History class. Seven groups of students will present ideas for a start-up to a panel of Wildwood teachers and administrators—including me. Judging each plan based on a presentation, we’ll decide which student-led start-up has the greatest potential for financial success. We’re also here to make money—risking our own wealth as potential investors in the next billion-dollar business idea.

Sounds like Shark Tank, the trending TV reality show. But, it’s really the culminating event in a project, combining a study of U.S. economic history, entrepreneurship, and design thinking. (So, while our wealth isn’t real, we ‘sharks’ are here to lend authenticity to the proceedings.)

Owen L. and Benji M. make their pitch for Pythagoras Computing

Owen L. and Benji M. make their pitch for Pythagoras Computing

Each student group pitches their idea for a novel product or service. Maddy G. and Abby L. unveil Equilibrus—a start-up that synthesizes the ‘buy one, give one’ model of Tom’s Shoes with an online book store, donating books to a local public school for every title purchased through their service. Sunscreen Sprayers is the brainchild of Georgie M. and Anna R. Their business builds and distributes mobile sunscreen application booths that beachgoers or amusement park visitors use for a small fee, paid for through a smartphone app. Other students promote their visions: an environmentally sustainable restaurant; a mobile phone app to book babysitters; and an urban garden design service, are among the contenders.

At Wildwood and in other U.S. History courses, studying American entrepreneurs is pretty much standard fare. But today at Wildwood, there’s also an emphasis on teaching entrepreneurship—an added value of guiding students in developing their own entrepreneurial skills, to help them learn and lead in our complex, evolving world.

Clementine C. and Thomas E. pitch their start-up, Bird Words

Clementine C. and Thomas E. pitch their start-up, Bird Words

This year, Deb added design thinking to the equation to create the “Shark Tank” project—something new to her own teaching repertoire. Inspired after hearing Stanford Design School professor Tina Selig speak at a conference, Deb became intrigued by the idea of applying Selig’s approach to her Wildwood classroom. Deb read some of Selig’s books, watched her TEDTalks, and synthesized design thinking into a project for her course’s final unit—on the development of the modern U.S. economy.

“I’ve always been interested in designing authentic, performance-based projects for my students,” Deb tells me. “And the “Shark Tank” idea seemed to bring together that interest and design thinking.” So when starting this project, Deb’s students follow the design thinking process—defining a problem that needs solving, considering and creating a variety of solutions, and refining them. To execute their start-up each group spells out some essentials— including a mission statement, along with plans to address marketing, finance, and management.

Some of my fellow 'sharks' listen to pitch presentations

Some of my fellow ‘sharks’ listen to pitch presentations

After the final presentation, my fellow ‘sharks’ and I head to the room next door to deliberate and choose the winning idea.

After a lively debate, we ‘sharks’ agree to award $50K in mock seed money to Benji M. and Owen L. Their start-up idea: Pythagoras Computing. It’s a service that allows scientific researchers to purchase computing power from individuals’ idle laptops and other personal electronic devices—power that would otherwise be wasted. In true Wildwood fashion, Benji and Owen’s classmates congratulate them on hearing the news, with applause and high-fives.

Shark Tank, the TV show, is all about innovation, ideas and investment—the principles of entrepreneurship that Wildwood embraces. What’s more, at Wildwood many student projects pass on the additional value of focusing on social and environmental goals. So welcome to the “Shark Tank” Wildwood-style: Collaboration is competitive.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning



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Guess Who’s Coming to Wildwood?

Visiting Japanese educators with Director of Elementary School, Katie Rios, and noted educator, Barbara Polland

Visiting Japanese educators with Director of Elementary School, Katie Rios, and noted educator, Barbara Polland

Not just kids. But other kinds of learners, and, lots of them. At least twice a month, Wildwood hosts educators curious about what we’ve got going on here. As the director of the Wildwood Outreach Center, I play host to these visitors, who come from public and private schools all over the world. Some of our visitors are from as nearby as neighboring schools on LA’s Westside. Others come from as far away as New England and New Zealand, Singapore and Brazil.

Each of these visits is an opportunity to showcase the Wildwood approach. That’s valuable, as Wildwood is deeply committed to exporting what works here—from advisory to project based learning. But each of these visits is also a kind of exchange, as we gain insights from a huge range of teachers and education leaders from all over who face many challenges and come to us looking for ways to do it better.Camino Nuevo Charter Academy

I thought you’d be interested to know that often we open our classrooms for observations. Last week, for example, three middle school humanities teachers from City Charter School in LA’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood visited with their 6th grade counterparts, Wildwood Humanities teachers Alexis Lessans and Becca Hedgepath. We’ve also hosted a group of math teachers from LA’s Camino Nuevo Charter Academy who came to watch and learn from two of our teachers, Lori Reardon and Arlën Vidal-Castro.

U of Chicago Lab SchoolsThis fall I was honored when Asra Ahmed, an assistant High School Principal at the University of Chicago Lab Schools paid Wildwood a visit. Her school — which famously launched the progressive education movement in the early 20th Century—sent her to glean insights from Wildwood’s 21st century interpretation of ideas and practice. We talked about how Wildwood integrates Habits of Mind and Heart into the curriculum and our multicultural programming.

LAUSDOthers come looking for teacher professional development ideas. Michele Shannon is a doctoral candidate at Harvard on a year-long fellowship as an administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She told me she’d heard about Wildwood’s reputation, and came to explore what we have to offer the LAUSD administrator corps to boost and focus best educational practices in schools throughout the city.

Both of the last two years the Outreach Center has hosted a contingent of teachers and administrators from Singapore American School, here to learn from, what they consider to be, one of the most innovative schools in the world—Wildwood. Other international educators seek out Wildwood as a laboratory, where they can see best practices at work. We’ve hosted such delegations of Japanese elementary school educators, and Heads of international schools, like Medbury School in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the progressive High Scope Schools in Indonesia.Singapore American School

All of these visits make for engaging conversation about what we do at Wildwood, why, and how. These visits are also an occasion to remind myself: our school is founded on meaningful conversations, both internally and externally. Last month I was fortunate to spend some time with Tom Little, the Head at Park Day School in Oakland, CA. His school is a like-minded progressive, independent school similarly situated to Wildwood. Tom spent time in several elementary classrooms and then sat down with me and Director of Elementary School, Katie Rios, to ask us some questions for a book he’s writing on progressive schools.

High-Scope-IndonesiaThese visits are all part of a day’s work for me, but I’m not sure many people in our Wildwood community know about this constant flow of visitors who know and care about what we are doing. Thanks to our outstanding teachers and a genuine commitment to great teaching and learning, the buzz about Wildwood is real, and growing.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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Every Picture Tells a Story

IMG_0245I love seeing Wildwood students in the thick of the creative process, applying what they’re learning in class in novel ways. This week, in Jane Kaufmam’s 7th grade Life Sciences class, I get to watch a group of middle schoolers produce their own short, stop-action animated videos to illustrate their understanding of mitosis.

“This is how life works; it’s how we began and how we grow,” says 7th grader Felix S., explaining the process by which cells divide and duplicate themselves.

7th Graders Emma H. (left) and Chantal S. (right) prepare photos for their mitosis video

7th Graders Emma H. (left) and Chantal S. (right) prepare photos for their mitosis video

Jane’s students began studying plant and animal cell life before winter break. Now they are working in teams of two or three on this culminating project—re-creating the various stages of cell division in different colored clays on a white background. Then, using either a smartphone and tripod, or a laptop camera, they photograph each stage, and edit the pictures together to produce their film.

IMG_0256Felix and his partner Ferdi A. are believers in the project-based approach to learning about this key biological process.  “When you can build a cell in clay, with all of its parts, and then show how it divides, you’ll never forget it; it’s fun.” Felix adds, “seeing it in a book is one thing, but it’s easier for me to see and understand mitosis this way.”  See Felix and Ferdi’s video below.

Next up for these 7th graders?  Jane fills me in: “The poison picnic,” she says. “We’ll be studying single cell bacteria next, and the kids get to do a CSI-like project where they apply their knowledge to solve a mystery about what causes a hypothetical group of Wildwood teachers to get food poisoning.”

Sounds interesting

Already hoping I’m not invited to that picnic.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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The Wildwood Difference: A Bunch of Hot Air?

The day that I sit in on one of Levi Simons’s 12th grade physics classes, watching the lesson that he’s invited me to see, I begin thinking to myself: umm…this is pretty traditional high school stuff—a lecture and discussion on Avogadro’s Law. Sure, physics students need to know this essential physical law about the density of gases at various temperatures and pressures.

Levi Simons lectures to his 12th grade physics class

But…this is Wildwood. Like other upper school courses Levi’s class is project-based and the curriculum is both college preparatory and progressive, emphasizing critical inquiry and problem solving.  So why are the students sitting at tables, taking notes as Levi writes equations and examples on the whiteboard?

In a traditional college prep classroom, this lecture would fit into a predictable pattern: students memorize lecture content, maybe apply that content in a lab with a pre-ordained outcome, and then take test on the content. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

But just as I’m really starting to wonder…the Wildwood difference reveals itself. The lecture soon evolves into a conversation that prods students into asking questions; it’s clear that Levi invited me today not merely to sit through a lecture but rather to join his students on their first day of eight weeks of learning, investigation, planning, and design; work that will culminate in a project requiring students to synthesize everything by designing, prototyping, and testing their own hot air balloons. (There’s a video at the bottom of this post of an example from last year)

“High school science classrooms can reflect the actual work that researchers, engineers, and designers engage in,” Levi tells me later. “That work definitely involves acquiring knowledge but it also requires skills development to apply that knowledge.  Oh, and trial and error—lots of trial and error!”

Avogadro’s Law

Levi plans his courses to make room for all of this. Daily lessons provide a kind of scaffolding to ensure that every student gets the framework—all of the skills and knowledge they’ll need as they work their way up to completing the project. Today’s lecture is the first in a series introducing four key gas laws students will need to master before attempting their project. Levi designs each lab and homework assignment to allow students to apply their knowledge of the gas laws, experimentally and theoretically.

There’s much more than meets the eye in today’s lesson

Once students have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills, they’re ready to create.  “First the students propose a design based on what they’ve learned. Then, they’ll build a prototype,” Levi explains. “That prototype probably won’t work, but that’s good.  They need to analyze what went wrong and redesign and re-prototype.” That’s where the real learning takes place, and the Wildwood difference shows.

Back in class, the discussion prompted by the lecture on Avogadro’s Law is already provoking students to think with an eye toward its application. Levi presents a necessary assumption upon which the law is based: that gas molecules will bounce back off of other with the same amount of energy with which they collide—a concept known in physics as perfect elasticity. Immediately, students begin to challenge the assumption, knowing that perfect conditions never exist. One 12th grader, Luke Z. asks, “Wouldn’t that mean that there’s no energy loss and you could build a perpetual motion machine?  That doesn’t seem possible.”

“Exactly,” says Levi. “Of course some energy will be lost and perfect conditions never exist. Assumptions are necessary starting points in scientific inquiry.” “So, they’re like the foundation of a house,” Luke posits, to which Levi adds, “Yes, houses built up with experimental evidence.”

The imagination is launched.

For the final project, it’s not essential that students’ hot air balloons actually work.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but students’ assessments don’t even hinge on whether the balloons take flight. As Levi points out, that’s because “scientific and design breakthroughs are built on mountains of failure. For example, when we use an iPhone, we don’t think of the hundreds of designs and prototypes that ultimately failed to reach market.  But without knowing what didn’t work, Apple couldn’t have perfected the ones that did.

That is the philosophy that guides this project, too.

It’s really Wildwood. Real learning, not a lot of hot air.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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