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Casa Grande students do 'project-based' learning

CASA GRANDE -- Supervisory Border Patrol agents Andrew Staples and Ronald Rose hid four jack-o'-lanterns on the Mesquite School playground and hid them well.

The next morning they brought 17 handheld GPS receivers and taught 17 fifth- and sixth-graders how to calibrate them and use latitude and longitude to find the jack-o'-lanterns.

It wasn't a game or a Halloween stunt. It was part of a project-based learning experience, a teaching model that puts a driving question at the center of the learning process. Students learn content by focusing on a real-world scenario that generates projects or activities that will lead them to a product they can make a public presentation about.

In this case, the driving question for the fifth-graders from Mesquite's gifted and talented class was: "How can we create a geochallenge for our peers or the public?" The driving question for the sixth-graders from Ironwood School's gifted and talented class was: "How do we create and publish a geocache — a high-tech treasure hunt — on geocaching.com?

Students in both classes started their research the second week of school and learned about latitude and longitude, mapping and GPS. But they reached a point where they needed to tie everything back to the real world.

The Border Patrol, which uses GPS every day, was willing to help.

"If they can get on the Internet or play Xbox, they can do this," Staples said.

The officers took the students to the playground and showed them how to turn around slowly to find true north on their GPS receivers and calibrate the built-in electronic compass.

Then they showed them how to punch in the geographic coordinates, latitude and longitude, as decimal degrees, one of the formats Border Patrol uses, and as degree minutes, the format helicopter pilots use.

"I didn't know we could switch the GPS formats," said Hezekiah Lockhart, 11.

Andrew Lloyd, 11, said the most interesting thing for him was learning how to use the different GPS formats.

The students calibrated their GPS receivers, and the hunt began. In less than an hour, all four groups found all four jack-o'-lanterns using both GPS formats.

The coordinates only took the students to within 9 feet of the jack-o'-lanterns, so they still had to look around. Staples said Border Patrol agents have to look around, too, when they try to locate something.

After the agents left, the students wrote about the experience in their journals.

The fifth-graders meet for only 30 minutes a day, four days a week, but a week after the Border Patrol's visit, their teacher, Vicki Ellis, said one of her groups believed it was ready to start figuring out how to create a geocaching challenge. The other two groups thought they needed more research.

Ellis said the first year she tried project-based learning, she gave her students too many instructions.

The whole point is to give students ownership of the project, she said. This year, she is holding back, forcing them to make more decisions.

She told them about geocaching.com, for example, but did not take them to the website.

"They have to say to me: 'Well, can we see the site now, because that is the next step for us.'"

Two weeks after the Border Patrol's visit, the Ironwood sixth-graders did a geocache from geocaching.com. Starting at the front door of their school, it took them less than 30 minutes to follow the coordinates and find the cache, but they couldn't take any souvenirs, because they had forgotten to bring "swag," something to leave in return.

I'm just happy," said Ashley Lackey, 11, "It was quick, but it was fun."

Their teacher, Sandra Ross, said the students' next step will be to decide what to learn in order to create and publish that geocache.

Bryan Harris, professional development director for the Casa Grande Elementary School District, said the new common core standards shift more responsibility to the students. They require students to be active learners, to demonstrate, critique, evaluate, model, explain, clarify and compare content — not just learn it.

The new standards do not require teachers to use project-based learning, but many do because it gives students a chance to use or demonstrate those active learning skills in ways that mirror real-life situations. He said part of project-based learning is for students to identify what they want to know or learn next, and for teachers to design activities that help them answer their questions.

The reason projects are so powerful, Harris added, is because when students identify something they want to know, it gives them a reason to learn the content. They learn the math or language or facts in order to do the project, instead of learning it merely because they were told to.

Ellis said she found out about project-based learning from a colleague mentor four years ago.

"It was not even something that I could wrap my mind around," she said.

Six months later Ellis attended a workshop, sponsored by the Pinal County School Office, on project-based learning and signed up for the science, technology, engineering and math program.

Taking "baby steps" at first, Ellis said she looked at the standards and modified existing projects to incorporate the philosophy of project-based learning.

Then she tried one project with one class. Last year, she tried one at every grade level. But she didn't become comfortable with the model until the end of the school year when she and Ross made a presentation at a conference for curriculum enrichment teachers and heard their feedback.

Now she says: "I am extremely excited about project-based learning. I love it. It fits my teaching style perfectly."

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