Classrooms Come Alive

Project-based learning brings life to Ranch classrooms

Classrooms Come Alive

Cher Baggett's classroom was a barnyard...literally. Hay, pine chips, heat lamps, and chickens. The 4th-8th graders in her classroom spent several months in the spring of 2018 hatching chicks.

On the other side of Dakota Memorial School (DMS), the on-campus school of Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, high school students were reading "The Old Man and the Sea," by Ernest Hemingway, learning the math and science behind boat design and flotation, and ultimately, building a wooden boat!

Hatching chicks and building boats are both examples of project-based learning, a teaching technique that prepares students for the real world by going beyond traditional lectures, instructions, memorization, and tests. Teachers engage students in solving a problem, answering a complex question, or creating a tangible product (like chickens and boats!).

Tine DeGree, Principal at DMS-Minot, said, "Project-based learning gives students the opportunity to connect 'what' they learn, to 'why' they learn it. They learn 21st-century skills such as collaboration, creative problem-solving, and teamwork."

While many schools incorporate project-based learning into their curriculum, it's especially important for students at the Ranch. "Our kids usually lack problem-solving and collaboration," DeGree said. "They weren't the kids anyone wanted to collaborate with; and truancy and behavior issues often took them out of class, so they didn't get to participate in the hands-on activities."

Ranch kids also haven't had much of a chance to belong to something. They haven't usually been involved in extra-curricular activities before coming to us, and many have been moved around a lot--they live with families that move often, are passed between family members, or move in and out of foster care homes and treatment centers.

"Working on a project from beginning to end, especially one that involves many students and teachers, builds a sense of belonging, and gives kids a chance to be proud of something they've done, and of their school," DeGree said.

Building a Wooden Boat

The DMS boat project involved multiple classrooms and teachers working together. English teacher, Jim Miller, introduced the project with the novel, "The Old Man and the Sea," by Ernest Hemingway. As students read the novel, they took note of any details about the boat and discussed the setting of the story. For instance, they determined Santiago (the old man in the story) had a flat-bottomed wooden boat called a skiff, approximately 16 feet long.

In Occupational Math class, teacher Raye Genre guided students as they calculated area, volume, and the measurements of irregular shapes--all concepts involved in boat building. They then created a model of the boat matching the proportions written in the novel.

Science teacher, Josh Hvidsten, taught and demonstrated the concepts necessary to make a boat seaworthy—surface tension, flotation, and displacement. Students took part in a variety of experiments to learn and understand the principles, so they could build a boat that would float.

At the same time, students in Andrew Meier's Facilities Management class learned woodworking techniques and practiced with the tools they would need to build the boat. Once they had the boat designed, they created a materials list, and everyone came together to cut, hammer, sand, and drill.

At the end of the school year, the boat sat outside of the school where everyone on campus could celebrate its completion.

Hatching Chicks

Baggett, who teaches reading and math intervention to DMS middle schoolers, hatched chicks in her classroom. As they started the eggs in the incubators and watched them develop, they embarked on a comprehensive study of multiple subjects. They calculated the hatch rate (Math); discussed who raises chickens, where they are raised, and various poultry-related jobs (Social Studies); wrote two newsletters, haikus, and cinquains (English); and researched (Reading).

"The students have run the show from the beginning," Baggett said. "They were aware that temperature and humidity were critical, so they were in constant observation. They documented the growth of the embryo, took pictures of what they saw when they looked through the ova scope at the egg, and researched like crazy."

Students watched and waited; and wrote about everything they saw, heard, felt, and discovered. After nearly three weeks of waiting, they watched for pips, tiny cracks on the surface of the shell. The first pip launched a wave of visitors as students screamed, flapped with excitement, and told everyone in the school the chicks were hatching!

Once the chicks hatched (12-18 hours after the first pip), the students took on a whole new level of responsibility as they cared for the baby chicks. Each student had the opportunity to maintain the brooder--feed and water the chicks, watch the temperature, and clean out the living quarters.

Throughout the whole project, Baggett's students stopped by the classroom several times a day to make sure the eggs, then the chicks, were being properly cared for. 

"The most beautiful thing about the chicks in our classroom is that many of our students have faced a lot of trauma in their young lives," Baggett said. "Yet, the moments they share with the baby chicks is precious. It is pure, simple, and tender. Most of them would never have this opportunity to watch life begin and grow. They absolutely adore the chicks."

DeGree tells of one young man who was really struggling in school and close to shutting down. "You wouldn't think you'd want to set something as fragile as a baby chick next to an angry child. But I watched Ms. Baggett put the chick down beside him and it was just like flipping a switch. Having something to care for turned his mood around," she said. "Sometimes it's hard to see the gentle side of our kids because they are so enraged. But, that underlying love of others is always there. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to show them they are worthy of being trusted."

Does project-based learning work?

Studies find that project-based learning can improve student scores on standardized tests, especially for children in high-poverty schools. Michigan researchers studied a group of second-grade students in high-poverty schools--randomly assigning project-based social studies units to half of the participating teachers, while the others taught social studies lessons as they normally did.

The initiative, "Project Place," found significant differences in social studies and reading scores—gains in the project-based learning group were 63 percent higher for social studies and 23 percent higher for informational reading than in the control group.

The key, according to Marcia Bartok, Superintendent at DMS, is developing the project so the students are solving some sort of problem, working both individually and in teams towards a common goal, and making sure the learning ties back to state and federal education standards.

"Kids like to see relevancy to the things they do and learn. At the simplest level, they learn how math relates to science and how what they are learning matters in the real world," Bartok said.

On a more complicated level, project-based learning develops executive functioning, a set of mental skills that help you get things done by managing time, paying attention, and working together. Executive functioning is all based in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is often under-developed in children who have faced severe or repeated trauma. Education experts at the Buck Institute for Education say, "Too many students, especially those furthest from opportunity, are unprepared for the modern economy and the challenges of the 21st century."

Incorporating chicks, boats, and other project-based learning opportunities into the DMS curriculum prepares Ranch kids for academic, personal, and career success in the modern economy. It builds confidence and shows them they can work together to accomplish something authentic and meaningful.

Most importantly, "It's just fun!" DeGree said. "Learning should be fun. It's not supposed to be torture. Finding ways to build fun into learning is one of the greatest hooks to getting kids passionate about education."

This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2018.

Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.

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