Sunday, May 19, 2013

Project-based Learning and Dinosaurs

I have been mesmerized by Project-based Learning (PBL) since I read my first article two years ago. I wanted to do a project, but I couldn't develop one; my mind couldn't wrap around an idea to help me start. Everything I read said, start with a question. I kept saying, okay, but I can't think of a question. It was driving me crazy! 

Then, one day, riding in the back roads of the mountains around Park City, Utah, with my husband, our brakes started smoking. We had to drive really slow. Since the scenery wasn't changing too quickly, I read my book on PBL and enjoyed the slooooowly moving sites, I had my EUKEKA! moment. "I've got it!" I announced to my husband. I planned on teaching my kids about dinosaurs this year; dinosaurs and PBL seemed to fit hand in glove. I quickly wrote down notes with all my ideas. Then, I enjoyed the rest of my vacation. 

Arriving home, I got right to work! I filled out all the areas of the PBL project form. At the beginning of the school year, I told my third through eighth grade students what we were going to do. Every afternoon, for three weeks, they worked on their projects and had a blast. 

First, let me introduce you to this little guy. He stood about 3-feet tall and was about 4-feet long. He was the smallest dinosaur to show up in my room. Like all of the others, he was free-standing.

To begin the project, I divided the kids into groups with a seventh or eighth grade student as the group leader. One sixth grade boy co-led with an seventh grade boy because of language difficulties. (The 7th grader had only been in America for a couple of months.) I gave each of them a letter I typed up to look official. It bore the name of a paleontology group that almost existed and signed it by a leader that was almost real. It told each group that they had been challenged to hatch a rare dinosaur egg that had been found. Upon completion of a diorama that showed an understanding of the home their dinosaur would need, they were given an "egg" that help a small rubber dinosaur-each one was different. 

The eggs were made from balloons. First, I put in the dinosaur. Then I covered the eggs with paper mache. When they were dry, I covered them with a thin layer of Plaster of Paris. Food coloring was added before it was applied. When it dried, it had the feel of a thin egg shell. Each group opened their own egg to give "birth" to their dinosaurs which were then added to their dioramas.

After that, each group decided how they were going to share their information about their dinosaur. They did research on the computers, encyclopedias and from the 33 dinosaur books I checked out from our local public library. In the course of time, they created large dinosaurs, put information together and created their projects.

At the end, they presented their projects to our class as well as two classes in Florida via Go-to-Meeting with the aide of an iPad. The kids were fully engaged. I rotated and helped them trouble-shoot, obtained materials they needed and reminded leaders to keep everyone in their group active.

This project also helped me learn who my leaders were, who tried to do as little as possible and other amazingly helpful insights for a teacher to learn at the beginning of the year.

This project was a definite winner. The kids took ownership. The funniest part came when it was all over and I planned to throw the dinosaurs away. They all wanted to take theirs home. We drew names. I heard phone calls that went like this. "Mom, can I bring home my dinosaur. It's a small one." I watched as parents loaded a 9-foot long brontosaurus in the back of their vehicle. Knowing how much they loved their dinosaurs let me know how much they had connected with our first PBL project.