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What is project- based learning?
In project-based learning, students are guided through a lesson by a “driving question” that requires them to explore an issue or complete a task. To answer the question, the students must work together to gather information about the topic, create a “product” and present their work to an audience.
On the web
•The Talent Initiative
•The Buck Institute for Education
Karen Francisco | The Journal Gazette
Michael Gorman, a consultant for the Buck Institute for Education, explains the concept behind project-based learning to teachers and administrators. Gorman is also a technology instructor at Woodside Middle School.

Learning 101

Lilly grant powers teacher transformation


Investing $20 million to yield maximum returns for the region’s economy requires a measured approach. Invested in short-term job training and high-tech equipment, it boosts a recession-weary region. But the biggest payoff comes with an investment in education, which explains why two dozen educators gathered at Science Central this month to learn about PBL – shorthand for project-based learning.

They represented the first of about 1,200 northeast Indiana teachers and administrators who will take part in PBL 101 over the next two years. Multiply the effect of those teachers building student skills in critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and communication and you begin to see how the culture of a school can be transformed, and why education and economic development officials are taking notice. The goal? Graduates who don’t just ace physics or a foreign language for a test, but know how to work with a team solving a manufacturing problem, or to analyze the practical and political considerations in doing business in a third-world country.

The impetus for the massive training effort comes from the Talent Initiative, established from the Lilly Endowment’s generous 2009 grant and charged with building a base of highly skilled workers for northeast Indiana’s defense, aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries. Looking for a way to create long-lasting effects from the Lilly grant, Talent Initiative officials awarded a $2 million share for professional development for educators. Its emphasis is on project-based learning because the approach is designed to give students the skills they need to work in those ever-evolving fields and most others.

While the project-based approach to teaching is spreading across the nation and globe (see sidebar), Indiana is emerging as a leader, and northeast Indiana is emerging as the leader within the state. The Buck Institute for Education, a California-based non-profit, is a pioneer in the project-based approach. Its faculty members are leading the PBL 101 workshops. David Ross, director of professional services for the Buck Institute, said the scope of the regional training effort is unprecedented.

“We will train roughly 4,500 to 5,000 teachers this year, so you can see that northeast Indiana is about 20 percent of that,” he said. “By comparison, the other big states are Texas and New York. We might train 300 teachers in New York and 300 in Texas.”

The institute is working with the Lilly Endowment to train teachers in central and southern Indiana, as well. Ross said Indiana is unique for the widespread support project-based learning is receiving, not just from schools, but from state-level education officials, economic development officials and the Lilly Endowment.

Workshop lessons

Teachers and administrators from Blackhawk Christian School, North Adams Community Schools and St. Joseph’s-St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Decatur were the first to participate. Each left with a project ready to roll out in his or her classroom. Administrators learned how to mentor teachers using project-based learning.

Bob Freeborn, a biology teacher at Blackhawk Christian, created a classroom project that will have his high school students using a “Law & Order”-style investigation into Allen County’s geographic features.

He imagines the students creating YouTube videos, clay animation models and more to demonstrate what they learn. Freeborn is already imagining a second project – one that will have students learning about the health effects of high-fructose corn syrup.

“In teaching science, we do lots of hands-on activities, but it’s usually after I’ve stood at the front of the room and lectured,” he said. “The kids are anxious to get to the part where I blow up bottles. But when I’m Mr. Wizard, they just remember what they saw, they don’t understand why it happened.”

Freeborn, a teacher for 35 years, acknowledged that he’s seen lots of instructional trends come and go. This one has staying power, he believes, because it reflects the way students have changed.

“We can’t just keep doing the same thing year after year,” he said. “My role will be different. I’ll be more of a facilitator than a lecturer.”

How it works

The projects Freeborn used to entertain his students are what the workshop instructors call “dessert projects” – the fun exercises at the end of a lesson plan. Students enjoy them, but they do little to reinforce academic content.

Michael Gorman, a veteran technology teacher at Woodside Middle School in Southwest Allen County Schools, is also a national faculty member for the Buck Institute and co-presenter for the first local workshop. He said content is the key to a successful project.

“What’s more important than answering questions is making up more questions,” Gorman said. “If we can get our kids into an inquiry mode, that is so, so important.”

Briefly, a project begins with a driving question: When is war justified? Is our water safe to drink? How does an ecosystem stay balanced? Should President Truman have dropped the atomic bomb on Japan?

Realizing they will be responsible for creating a product to answer the question, students begin to gather information. They are allowed voice and choice in what they will create, how they will work and use their time, but the teacher directs the process, making sure that the academic content remains the focus.

At the project’s end, the students make a presentation to an audience. Presentation skills – public speaking, answering questions, collaborating with team members – represent more of the 21st century talents students will need.

The products students create can be as simple as a letter to the editor or as intricate as a scientific instrument. They can be as low-tech as a poster or as advanced as a computer database. Sara Hallermann, Gorman’s co-presenter, cautioned the teachers not to get hung up on the technology. She’s co-written a guide for using project-based learning in elementary schools, outlining what a simple project for five-year-olds would look like.

Sustaining the work

Leonard Helfrich, director for the Talent Initiative, said the professional development grants were structured to focus on middle and high school teachers, with an emphasis on those who teach science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM areas that are the foundation for careers in defense and the other industries the Lilly award targets.

Linda Michael, who wrote the grant application for the Region 8 Education Service Center, said school superintendents were asked to create teams of educators who will continue the project-based approach once teachers return in the fall. Two Region 8 “coaches” will be available to work full-time with them, ensuring the lessons aren’t abandoned once the school year begins.

Fort Wayne Community Schools submitted its own grant application to the Talent Initiative and will train 315 teachers – including 80 percent of its high school teachers and all of its LEAD school teachers – beginning next month. FWCS got an early start on project-based learning with its New Tech program at Wayne High School.

New Tech, a carefully prescribed version of the approach, uses templates and training materials created by the Buck Institute. Huntington County Community Schools, home to the Viking New Tech program, also has intra-district training session planned for other district teachers.

IPFW, Indiana Tech, the University of Saint Francis, Huntington University, Manchester College and Ivy Tech Community College all share in portions of the Lilly grant dedicated to training instructors in project-based learning.

Not every lesson a teacher delivers will be project-based, but it’s easy to see why students prefer it to the “sage on a stage” approach. The hands-on learning brings the content to life – students begin to see the relevance to learning equations, scientific theories, historical references and more.

Employers have long complained about workers who are book-smart but unable to apply what they know to real-world problems. Project-based learning bridges that gap between knowledge and application.

If northeast Indiana can engage thousands of its students in the higher-order thinking fostered by the approach, it will be well positioned not only to fill the jobs needed, but also to attract new ones. Overall, a sound investment.

Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email,