In all departments and at every level, teachers at Portland Adventist Academy are introducing students to Project Based Learning (PBL).
“We’re working for NASA,” says Courtney Clark, a PAA junior in her last week of school. She sits backwards in her chair facing classmate Austin Ulloa as he carefully draws a tetrahedron. “We’re supposed to create containers that can transport food long distances through space. It’s a PBL.”
Bob Johnson, Courtney and Austin’s precalculus teacher, asked students to demonstrate their understanding of pre-calculus by solving problems that scientists at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) might actually need to solve one day. Transporting food long distances through space may soon become a reality as humans explore the possibility of traveling to Mars. It’s exciting to students because it could happen in their lifetime.
Mr. Johnson has been teaching math to teenagers for more than 30 years. As a veteran in the high school classroom, he sees PBL as an ideal companion to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. He has seen his classes come to life for many students who may typically dislike math or feel uninterested in it.
Modern learners, like Courtney and Austin, thrive on PBL. They’re intelligent, they’re excited to learn, they’re social, and they have all the answers to all of life’s questions on their smartphone or laptop. They’re excited to apply the answers to solve real life problems.
In PBL classrooms, students become a community of learners that seek solutions to real life challenges. Smartphones and laptops are resources and tools. Students share ideas freely, teach each other, and learn to work in and out of teams.
On the last day of class, Courtney proudly sports a NASA jacket and smiles widely as she holds up her final cylindrical prototype. Austin shows off the tetrahedron he was so carefully measuring earlier that week.
While neither Courtney or Austin have any goals to work for NASA, they see value in this PBL assignment.
Austin plans to work in healthcare as either a nurse or an imaging technician. “I know I will have a lot more classes in math and science ahead,” he says.
Courtney is enthusiastic. “I really love working with numbers, graphs, budgeting, finance and all that kind of stuff,” she says. “Even though I don’t use pre-calculus in my everyday life, I know it’s getting me ready for all the other things I still have to learn for what I really want to do someday.”
And what is that?
“I want to be a CFO, just like my dad.”