Project-based learning at heart of program

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald
Fifth Street Elementary first-grader Krissia Diaz, right, jokes with Faith Schwartz as she fills her eggshell with dirt in order to make a seed-starter at the school on Tuesday. The activity was part of a larger project that teacher Audra Jahn created for her students through a STEM Fellows program. The goal is for the students to become interested and engaged with nutrition and healthy lifestyles.


Third-graders at Ireland Elementary crowded into Emily Freeman’s fourth-grade class last week for a lesson on simple machines led by Freeman’s fourth-graders.

Freeman challenged her students to design simple machines that could be used on the Jasper Elementary construction site to ease workers’ load. The students came up with mechanisms to help painters, roofers and movers using simple machines such as wedges and pulleys that they learned about in their science lessons.

The project was the capstone for Freeman’s participation in STEM Fellows, a yearlong Regional Opportunity Initiatives leadership and teaching program to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM — activities in K-6 schools. The program teaches teachers to implement project-based learning, which teaches students through hands-on activities that encourage problem-solving and independent thinking.

Fifth Street Elementary teacher Audra Jahn and Cedar Crest Intermediate teacher Kelly Schroering also participated in the program.

Freeman combined several disciplines in her project. To cover science and math, the students had to design and build their machines. To build the machines, the students used the TinkerCad computer program to design the parts and a 3-D printer to produce them. Once the machines were built, Freeman brought English into the project by having the students write persuasive essays to pitch their machines to investors and buyers. The project ended with the presentation to third-graders, which brought in public speaking, another English skill.

Fifth Street Elementary first-graders Rosalyn Gramelspacher, left, and Sophia Harris listen to instructions before planting seeds at the school on Tuesday.

“It forces them to be problem-solvers,” Freeman said of project-based learning. “If they came to me and said, ‘This happened,’ I asked what they were going to do about it.”

According to the students, the project involved a lot of trial and error, and each group had something they would have done differently if they had more time.

Noah Kurzendoerfer’s group, for example, invented Paint-a-Pulley, which is a pulley system that painters can use to paint walls and avoid using ladders. The machine involves a tub of paint on wheels and a pulley system attached to a paint roller that partners can pull up and down the walls. If they could do it again, Kurzendoerfer said, they’d make the wheels smaller and find a way to attach the tub to the axles. In the current design, the tub sits on top of the axle and gets displaced by the wheels.

Jahn also chose to design a capstone project for her STEM Fellows work. In her first-grade class at Fifth Street, the students are studying biology through a gardening project.

“Gardening and healthy eating has always been something I talked about with my class,” Jahn said. “I just made it bigger for project-based learning.”

To kick-start her project, Jahn invited a nutritionist into class to talk to the students about healthy eating. The students took to it well, Jahn said, and several parents shared that the kids were making healthier food choices.

“One parent told me that their child said, ‘Don’t get me gummies, get me fruit,’” Jahn said.

The next step of the project will take a lot more work. The students will design and build flower beds where they will plant vegetables to be harvested over summer. Jahn plans to email their parents when the vegetables are ready so the students can come back and take some veggies home.

Fifth Street Elementary first-grader Faith Schwartz looks at her cucumber seeds before planting them in her eggshell at the school on Tuesday.

The students started their gardens this week by planting cucumber, carrot and tomato seeds in eggshells that will be transplanted to the raised beds later.

“You can compost eggshells,” Jahn explained to the class. “They’re going to serve as a type of fertilizer for our plants.”

Project-based learning lessons like the ones Freeman and Jahn created are becoming more popular in education. At Cedar Crest, the curriculum is structured around project-based learning through the Summit Learning platform the school adopted this year.

Several local teachers have also attended STEM and project-based learning workshops at Hub 19, a local education resource created from grants from the Regional Opportunity Initiatives. Ireland Elementary fifth-grade teacher Amber Hoffman attended one of the trainings and had her students research styrofoam and come up with alternatives for the material. They suggested the school invest in disposable dishes made from sugar cane.

Although project-based learning is only just starting to take hold in schools across age levels, it seems to be here to stay.

“[The students] love it,” Freeman said. “And I just love the real world problems.”

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