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Science through toys, squirrels and boats

Project-based learning results in uptick in science scores

Kentwood — Third-grader Isaac Wellman closely examined the fossil in his hand. 

“This is a trilobite,” said Isaac, who worked to match the rock and its ancient etching with drawings on a worksheet. “It lived 359 to 416 million years ago.”

Students in Glenwood Elementary School teacher Mindy Geer’s class were learning about organisms and environments dating back through major geologic periods. They considered how organisms adapted and changed – the evidence can be found in fossils –  to ultimately figure out the STEM unit’s main question:  “Why do we see so many squirrels but not any stegosauruses?” 

“The pictures look like the bones of sea creatures,” said third-grader Betty Mugiraneza, as she looked at pictures of different fossil types.

Geer teaches science through Project-Based Learning, and she does so using a curriculum made by CREATE for STEM, an institute at Michigan State University. It’s proven to be effective and engaging, and a Kent City Community Schools K-5 STEM class that used the program was highlighted in a recent U.S. News and World Report article. It was part of research that shows students in PBL classrooms across the U.S. significantly outperformed students in typical classrooms. 

Geer is in the fourth year of using the program, and now other Kentwood third- through fifth-grade teachers are implementing it as well. Teachers in Wyoming, Northview, Sparta and Kent City are also using the curriculum.

Guided by open-ended questions that allow them to discover and explore, Geer’s students will dig further into their study of animal adaptations with in-depth research on squirrels, a species that has survived since prehistoric times. They will practice balancing and jumping like the nimble animals and conduct a field investigation to observe squirrels on school grounds and record what they see. By the end of the unit, they will have learned why squirrels but not dinosaurs frolic in their school yard, and about the anatomy and behavior of squirrels.

On the way, they will have lots of questions they will work to find answers to themselves, and that’s a great way to learn, Geer said. “They start questioning everything.”

At East Oakview Elementary School in Northview Public Schools, third-grade teacher Annie Powers, who is also in her fourth year teaching the curriculum, sees her students thinking deep and working through trial and error. 

“They actually get to discuss and explore and experiment and collaborate– along with doing a lot of research.”

Student-led, student-centered

Kent ISD partnered with CREATE4STEM and brought the science program to Kent County schools, said Wendi Vogel, Kent ISD educational science consultant, who was excited to share the national research.

It shows: elementary students in PBL classrooms outperformed their peers by 8 percentage points on a test of science learning, according to one of four studies released by Lucas Education Research. The studies showed “that when schools provide the chance for underserved students to engage in high-quality PBL, significant learning occurs.” 

From the Kent County data, research showed that third-grade students participating in the CREATE4STEM course did better on a science assessment, which aligned with Next Generation Science Standards, than students in a non-project based learning course. The positive impact held across racial and ethnic groups and socio-economic levels and regardless of reading ability level, meaning struggling readers in the PBL class outperformed struggling readers in the traditional class. 

“I like that everybody, no matter what level they are at academically, they can be involved,” Geer said. 

She’s looking forward to an upcoming toy unit, during which students build a toy sailboat, car or rocket, and another on birds, which they study as they migrate back in the spring, building a bird feeder based on the lack of food after the winter.

“You can be at any level, and you will be engaged.”

In her own classroom, Geer has seen a big boost in vocabulary test scores, and sees it cross into all subjects. Students write about squirrels in English Language Arts, and include information from what they learn in science. 

“This has led to my students asking questions in all subject areas, asking questions of their peers, and knowing you need evidence to answer a question in science, math, and reading,” she said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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