Monday, July 1, 2013

Project Based Learning Helps Make the Abstract Relevant

As I've written in the last few days, I am teaching at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at UC Santa Cruz for the next few weeks.  I am going to meet a group of kids from all over the United States and across the world who are going to be in my Mathematics of Money in which they will learn the mathematical basis for economics and personal finance for this three week session.  They don't know me and have just met each other.  They are going to be in eighth, ninth, and tenth grade.  On the surface, they have very little connection to the class content or to each other.  How do we get them to understand what we want them to learn?
We're going to use Project Based Learning (PBL) with the students as individuals and in groups to connect the students to the content and to each other.  I am lucky as Elizabeth Andrews has built us an excellent standard curriculum that creates a common class at all of CTY's different sites.  I am also lucky as I've built a strong background in PBL over the last 10 years starting at the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA.  When I looked at Elizabeth's curriculum last year, I could see very quickly how good it was.  All I had to do was put the projects into motion and guide the students through them and we'd be good to go.
Of course it wasn't that simple.  As a typical teacher, I had to make changes!  Why can't I just leave well enough alone?
What I did was take Elizabeth's curriculum and put it into Google Docs and I have my students create blogs on Google Sites where they post their projects so their parents can see them at home.  We do much of the course work with literally hands on classwork, but we also go to the computer lab every day and get our work done on our projects on our blogs.  The combination has worked great.
We have the students create three projects which they will present to their classmates.  They begin with an interview project in which they ask three people over 30 about their financial experiences and report their findings back to the class.  We get everybody in front of the class and break the ice and talk finances in the first week.
From there we get more sophisticated with their personal budget project as the students have to build two hypothetical budgets, one for the first year after they graduate college or get out on their own and one for ten years later.  We have the students look at all the different financial issues they have to deal with and how they'll change over time.  Once again, the kids have to present their findings to the class.
Finally, the students group together to build businesses which will produce a product that will be sold to their peers for in-class money.  They have to sell stock to raise money, they have to produce a business plan, test market their product, buy the components of their product, sell their product, and finally deal with the profits or losses.  As with the other projects, they have to present their findings to their peers.
As with all projects, I don't really know how the final products will look.  I have a good idea, but I don't know for sure and neither do the students.  I want the projects to be individual, but also to help the students understand a set range of skills and concepts.  My job is to make sure the students have enough information to build their project, but not so much that the products come from the same cookie cutter.  I also have to guide the different students along their own paths to reach their final product.
If you have questions about where you can learn more about PBL and see other examples of great projects, take a look at the Buck Institute for Education in Marin County, CA.  I have been very impressed by the breadth and width of the PBL resources they have produced.
In the end, we can get students who have no direct connection to the content to understand what we want them to learn.  I have had a number of students at CTY and my home school tell me that they had no idea of what we were doing when we started, but were so glad we had done it by the time we had finished as they began to see these concepts would have direct consequences for them as they grew up and moved out into their own lives.  Isn't that what teaching's all about?
Let me know if you'd like more information about these projects or projects I use in other classes.  Also, I'd love to hear about your pet projects.  Please tell me about them!

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