Reflections on Make A Change: Projects versus Project-Based Learning through the Peace on EarthBench Movement
By Christine Hodges, Fourth Grade Teacher, Colegio International Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
In the continual race to hone best practices in education, the impact of amalgamating Project Based Learning (PBL) and 21st Century Skills becomes glaringly apparent. PBLs alone lead to amplified relevance in learning, assessment authenticity, promotion of lifelong learning, and accommodation of students with various learning styles (George Lucas Educational Foundation, 2015). Because they incorporate 21st Century Skills, PBLs pose real-world problems that are not meant to have one solution, and as new information is gathered throughout the learning process, the perception of the problem changes. Students rise to the challenge to find realistic solutions using innovation skills, information, media and technology skills, and life and career skills (Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2015). PBLs were a new concept to me this year, and integrating them into my fourth grade classroom has been a valuable experience. Specifically, grappling with the difference between projects versus PBLs finally painted a clear picture of what PBLs really are.
The Peace on Earthbench Movement: Bottle-Bricks, Peace on Earthbenches, and How Our Students can get Involved
Every year, Colegio Internacional Puerto La Cruz (CIPLC) participates in a Make A Change Symposium, during which classrooms showcase any sort of project that they have completed throughout the year to better our local or global community in one way or another. I began contemplating what to do with my class at the beginning of March.
The class had just engaged in an anticipatory set, Steve Spangler Atomic Insta-Worms (Spangler, 2013), and were embarking on creating both ThingLinks (ThingLink 2015) and informational posters to demonstrate what polymers are and to evaluate whether or not their choice of specific household items were, in fact, polymers (thanks to Mr. Yau-Jau Ku, our fabulous technology coach, for the ThingLink suggestion).
This activity hooked the students, and I was pleased with their learning. However, I wasn’t sure how to tie it in with Make A Change. How could the fourth graders use their newly acquired information about polymers to truly make a difference in our world or community? Recycling and reusing concepts seemed like old hats, and we needed something fresh.
Thanks to colleague and friend Joe Spolar, I came across The Peace on Earthbench just in the nick of time. Upon musing over CIPLC’s Make A Change Symposium together, Joe suggested the “Earthbench Movement” as a creative twist on the “reduce, reuse, recycle” regime. This included students building “bottle-bricks,” which are plastic bottles compacted with other non-biodegradable waste. The bottles are then stacked and bound together to create a frame for a bench, on which a type of clay called “cob” is placed to create the outer surface. Here was the solution I’d been looking for! (For more information, please visit www.earthbench.org).
The fourth graders were keen on the idea when introduced to the concept, and started planning our bench right away. Here’s the low-down of the project and how the Geckos have been carrying it out:
After securing approval from administration and determining a spot on campus for our bench, the students created posters to spread the word to the community about helping us collect plastic bottles and non-biodegradable trash. They hung both Spanish and English versions around the school and community areas such as their churches or parents’ businesses, and placed collection bins nearby for others to place their contributions.
I immediately contacted Ms. Bryce Joslin about assisting the class with designing the benches in art. She engaged the fourth graders in constructing potential designs for the bench, and then deciding as a class upon a practical and creative design to embrace the feel of our CIPLC community:
Meanwhile, I contacted Mr. Ku about the availability of his high school class to help in the construction process. My teaching assistant, Ms. Jezabel Lezama, contacted both maintenance team member Mr. Oswaldo, maintenance member Mr. Nelson Velasquez, and parent Mr. Salomon Trias about collecting materials such as straw and sand, and about assisting the students with the bench construction.
Once donations starting streaming in, students took the bottles and trash from our collection bins and began the construction of bottle-bricks. At the time of drafting this article, this is the point we are still at: First, the fourth graders rinse all of the bottles out. Then, one at a time, they stuff them full with non-biodegradable trash until the bottles are as compact as a brick.
Our next steps in the project will take place within the following days and weeks, and will be completed before the last week of school. First, the fourth graders will construct the framework of the bench from their bottle-bricks. Mr. Oswaldo and Mr. Ku’s class will assist them in the process.
Once the framework is complete, the students will mix sand, water, and straw to create the cob clay and model it into the selected design.
When the cob dries, the fourth grade will paint and decorate their bench.
Upon completion, the class will host a grand opening and create an informative presentation on the project to encourage others to join them in the Peace on Earthbench Movement. Watch for it on our classroom blog, http://vidadegradocuarta.blogspot.com/, at the end of the month!
Bottle-Brick Transformation: From Project to PBL
The fourth-grade Geckos have whole-heartedly delved into an ambitious project that represents the warmth of our CIPLC community and will serve as a place for sharing and storytelling. Although the bench is not yet completed, I am pleased with their progress. I have also already begun to reflect and pinpoint how to improve the project in the future. Most importantly, this project would be more powerful as a PBL. As an anticipatory set, the educator should first showcase a few examples of Peace on Earthbenches in order to raise students’ curiosity about what the benches are and how they are made. Then, rather than engaging in the ThingLink activity, he or she would pose a driving question for a PBL: “How do we create a Peace on Earthbench to promote awareness of reusing polymers?”
This is where the critical difference lies between the completion of the Peace on Earthbench as a project versus as a PBL: Rather than using what they had already learned through the ThingLink activity to extend into the Peace on Earthbench project and then following my suggestions of how to complete the bench, students would need to gain knowledge about polymers in order to answer the driving question and to decide for themselves how to create the final product (Miller, 2011). Specifically, they would decide how to research what polymers and Peace on Earthbenches are, conduct the research on the topics, assess how they could recycle polymers for the bench, conclude what materials are needed and how to gather them within a set budget, determine ratios and measurements for bench construction, and determine how to spread their message to the greater community in order to collaborate with and engage them in building of a bench.
At its core, the project would engage students in in-depth inquiry while focusing on significant content, developing 21st Century Skills, and encouraging student voice and choice. Rather than simply completing the project as an extension of what they have already learned, students would organize tasks around the driving question and develop 21st Century competencies as they constructed, revised, and reflected upon how to create the bench while engaging a public audience.
Our Challenge to You
The Peace on Earthbench has challenged my thinking as an educator, and has encouraged CIPLC’s fourth grade students to use their knowledge of polymers in the real world. The Geckos now officially challenge you, dear teachers, to promote the movement: Please join us in building a Peace on Earth Bench for your school community, and consider other ways of how you can use PBLs to not only integrate 21st century skills into curriculum, but to engage students in service learning. We challenge you and your students to Make A Change!
Bird, B. B. (2013). Peace on earthbench movement. Retrieved from http://www.earthbench.org
George Lucas Educational Foundation. (2015.) Why is project-based learning important? Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-guide-importance
Miller, A. (2011). How to refine driving questions. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/pbl-how-to-refine-driving-questions-andrew-miller
Partnership for 21st Century Learning (2015) Partnership for 21st century learning. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/index.php
Spangler, S. (2013). Atomic insta-worms: Make a batch of eerie, glowing “atomic” insta-worms. Retrieved from http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/atomic-instant-worms.html
ThingLink. (2015). Thinglink: Make media come alive. Retrieved at https://www.thinglink.com/