First of a Series on Project-Based Learning

In hopes that your children or grandchildren will be doing school projects later this year, for the next few weeks I will devote this space to project-based learning and some ideas for projects.  

Project-based learning has significant benefits.  First of all, students become producers of knowledge, not mere consumers of information that others decree they must know.  They own what they learn, and they reap the satisfaction of possessing expertise.  Moreover, they develop (or sharpen) a skill the adult workplace values: the ability to work with others. 

The best projects meet these five criteria: 

     1) The topic is of interest to whoever’s adopting it;

     2) The issue is significant, not trivial

     3) The project follows ‘The Goldilocks Rule.’  Neither huge and grandiose (“Solving the Middle East crisis”) nor tiny and trivial (“Comparing the rate of growth of avocado pits under different conditions“).  Instead, it’s “Just Right” so that students can get their hands and brains around it.

     4) It has local significance, which makes it easier to research and raises the likelihood of its having an impact; and

     5) It does not have a predetermined ‘correct’ answer but must be a genuine search for knowledge.

My first suggestion for a project that meets these criteria: WATER, which we take for granted but also which we cannot live without.

You may have read that President Trump is weakening the federal regulations regarding water quality, regulations that President Obama pushed through.  Apparently this change will result in more development of wetlands and more use of water by agricultural industries (which already use about 70% of our fresh water).

That news report got me thinking about water.  What follows will, I hope, be of some interest for students who decide to explore this topic.

Growing up, I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, about sailors stranded at sea and out of fresh drinking water. Its most famous verse goes this way:

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

What about us? Will parts of the United States run out of water?  Where water becomes a scarce resource, will ‘water wars’ break out?  

While the earth’s surface is about 70% water, only about 2.5% of that is fresh water; the rest is ocean, saltwater.  And most of that 2.5% is now in the form of ice, glaciers and sheets of ice around the North and South Poles. As that ice melts into the ocean, it becomes saline and therefore undrinkable, although the melting does contribute to rising sea levels.  And the melting may also be having other consequences. 

And while the actual amount of fresh water remains fairly constant because of the cycle of consumption, evaporation, and rainfall, the world’s population has exploded, meaning that competition for water is a fact of life

Not only that, the average person today uses more water than they did 50 or 100 years ago, not just to wash and clean but also to grow the food we eat today.  Want an example? Well, that hamburger you may have had for lunch took 630 gallons of water to produce, because raising cows is water-intensive.

As I mentioned, agriculture consumes about 70% of the world’s fresh water.   Producing the beans for just one cup of coffee requires 35 gallons of water.  Growing cotton is also a thirsty enterprise. It takes 2,640 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans and 660 gallons to produce a T-shirt. Avocados, almonds – even bottles of water themselves, are all highly water-intensive enterprises.  So we could save water by changing our diets, and perhaps by buying fewer clothes, or wearing clothing that requires less water to produce (whatever that may be, I don’t know).

According to the United Nations, “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.” It seems very possible–and frightening–that we will have ‘Water Wars’ in different places around the world.  

What can be done to remedy this situation?  I can think of three options but there may be others: 

1) Use less water.  

2) Recycle/repurpose water so we can use it more than once.  

3) Turn saltwater into fresh, a process called desalinization.

The issue is almost paradoxical.  Climate Change is melting the ice cap, which is causing the earth’s oceans to rise. That is, we have more saltwater, even as we are likely to experience shortages of fresh water.

It would be important to make this project local, which students can do by focusing on their own school and school district.  How much water does their school consume in a typical day? And exactly how? Cooking, washing, watering plants, flushing toilets?  What other ways?

Can you compare “water use per student” over the years? Are today’s students using more water, and, if so, why?  (As mentioned above, across the world people are consuming more water than they did years ago.)

How much does water cost the school district, and how much has the water bill gone up over the years?

Students could go beyond their own school or school district and focus instead on their local government agencies and their water use.  Or they could seek to learn about water use by local business and industry. Any of these inquiries could produce useful knowledge.

Finding out about local water use opens the door to larger (national and world) questions about water use, water recycling, and efforts to turn saltwater into drinkable fresh water. 

Can we change?  Well, knowledge is power, for openers. And the more we know, the more we can influence the future.

Who knows–maybe students who take on this issue will become hydrologists!  

(In the next few weeks I will be suggesting projects involving garbage, infant brain development, and air quality. I hope you will share this post with teachers and others interested in quality education. Themerrowreport.com also provides a link if you wish to subscribe.)

7 thoughts on “First of a Series on Project-Based Learning

  1. Dear John and others who care about our planet, and about helping young people learn that they can make a positive difference:

    Here’s a link to and first paragraph of a column I wrote for a number of newspapers describing students in New Mexico and MInnesota who are helping monitor and share water quality.
    Please feel free to share it with others:

    https://centerforschoolchange.org/2019/12/supporting-students-monitoring-water-quality/

    “Minnesota and its students are gaining from a unique partnership I learned about – on a recent trip to New Mexico. I had expected to learn about outstanding New Mexico schools. But I was surprised and delighted when Dan Shaw, co-director of New Mexico’s Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program, didn’t just tell me about their great water quality monitoring program. He also introduced me to a Minnesota project that would welcome more students.”

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  2. Hi John,

    You might be interested in the work that David Sobel, David Greenwood, and I have been doing with regard to place- and community-based education. Check out as well Tom Vander Ark’s web project, Getting Smart (https://www.gettingsmart.com/?s=place-based+education). He and his crew have been collecting examples of place-based education for the past four years. The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (greatlakesstewardship.org) has done substantive work in Michiganfor more than a dozen years, and folks at the Teton Science Schools (www.tetonscience.org) have been reaching out to rural schools to support this work in ways similar to what the Rural School and Community Trust once did. Here’s a link to a short article I wrote that was published last summer about the relationship between project- and place-based learning:

    https://catalyst.greenschoolsnationalnetwork.org/gscatalyst/june_2019

    Glad you’re attending to these possibilities.

    Best wishes,
    Greg Smith

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  3. Hi John,

    You might be interested in the work that David Sobel, David Greenwood, and I have been doing with regard to place- and community-based education. Check out as well Tom Vander Ark’s web project, Getting Smart (https://www.gettingsmart.com/?s=place-based+education). He and his crew have been collecting examples of place-based education for the past four years. The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (greatlakesstewardship.org) has done substantive work for more than a dozen years, and the folks at the Teton Science Schools (www.tetonscience.org) have been reaching out to rural schools to support this work in ways similar to what the Rural School and Community Trust once did. Here’s a link to a short article I wrote that was published last summer about the relationship between project-based learning and place-based education:

    https://catalyst.greenschoolsnationalnetwork.org/gscatalyst/june_2019

    Glad you’re attending to these possibilities.

    Best wishes,
    Greg Smith

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  4. John: Meaningful projects can lead to public action on water and the larger subject of climate change:
    The Heats On
    Arnold Packer
    “It was just a cop-out,” pronounced the Economist. “[O]ne of the worst outcomes in a quarter-change century of climate negotiations,” said the NY Times. These are verdicts on the U.N. Climate Conference (COP25) held in Madrid last December. Real action from the world’s leaders is missing and time is short.
    This is where the educators come in. Teachers have a major role to play in giving students the skills, such as science and economics, to manage the threat to their future. And they must do it during the spring, summer, and fall of 2020. The next UN Conference of the Parties (COP 26) is scheduled for November, a week after our Election day.
    Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, is the best-known of the young activists, having started the world-wide practice of skipping school on Fridays to protest inaction. In the United States, 16-year-old students, like Kallan Benson and Jamie Margolin, have started such large-scale movements as Climate Strike Action and the Zero Hour. Last year the Extinction Rebellion, a new movement, disrupted many cities. In Germany, the Green Party is gaining. Students all over the world are involved.
    A study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that active opinion leaders can influence up to 1,000 people through interpersonal connections. A thousand new young activists might change up to a million minds. The contest described below is a potential path to thousands of new opinion leaders.
    The San Diego Unified (SDUSD) has begun to act. Beginning this spring and continuing through the summer and beyond, students in San Diego’s schools will be working on climate change projects in SDUSD’s Project Based Learning Institute. Students from grades K to 12 will form teams of four to six and choose a subject such as Clean Jobs, Clean Oceans, Food Sustainability, Immigration, Making the Internet of Things Carbon-neutral, or other subjects of their choice.
    This is where town/gown collaboration comes in. Students will connect with an authentic audience of industry and university partners. The technology leader Qualcomm and the energy company Sempra are headquartered here, as are the University of California at San Diego (which houses the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and San Diego State University. Students will learn how STEM subjects apply to real-world problems.
    In May, projects will be judged during SDUSD’s Innovation Showcase with the best projects acknowledged on electronic billboards in San Diego. A week later, winning projects will be featured at the Climate and Weather Event aboard the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier in the port.
    The 2020 summer months provide a big opportunity to create change-makers throughout the country. Millions of youngsters will engage in some sort of learning program in schools, museums, libraries, summer camps, YMCAs and other youth-serving organizations. Here too, a Climate Change Project contest is one way to bring these diverse youth-serving organizations together in a common effort.
    This where contests come in. Under the aegis of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), a 25-year-old non-profit, nearly 250 organizations applied for prizes on other themes this past summer (sponsored by New York Life and Lands’ End); the four winners receiving $10,000 each. NSLA hopes that even more organizations will enter on the subject of climate change. NSLA will provide access to the lessons learned in San Diego and technical and curricula advice.
    Teachers who enter the contest will have curricular flexibility to test new ideas. Students will have time for more hands-on learning so important to STEM subjects. They will acquire collaboration, communication, and other workplace skills as they carry out their projects.
    Madrid showed there was insufficient political pressure for policy change in 2019. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) noted that “the deal they eked out evoked disappointment on multiple fronts.” In the first days of 2020, Australia gave the world a dramatic new lesson of the price of inaction. Yet, there is reason to hope. Greta and youngsters in the U.S. and elsewhere illustrated that students can change minds.
    San Diego and California’s experience of forest fires, rising oceans and drought have convinced this state’s voters that rising temperatures are dangerous. Revising the political calculus of lawmakers, however, requires convincing more voters in other states who remain skeptical. Young people can influence what happens in the U.S. and at the meeting in Glasgow next November and, thereby, what policies take hold over the next decade and beyond. Teachers can influence what students do.
    Dr. Packer was an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Carter administration and Executive Director of the SCANS Commission.

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