Going Public: The Power of Local, Community Partners in PBL

By Mike Kaechele
Ever have a project that students don’t get very excited about? Chances are that it was lacking a quality audience and purpose.
Deciding on the right public product that is authentic to students can be one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of designing a gold standard project-based learning (PBL) project. Sometimes teachers try to force a project on a set of standards in an artificial way. A way to avoid this is to start with an excellent, local partner.

How We “Went Public”

In our community, Grand Rapids, a couple of local citizens started an organization called Grand Rapids Whitewater, dedicated to removing dams from the Grand River in order to restore the original rapids for economic and ecological reasons. They raised money and political capital until it became obvious that their dream was going to become a reality. My colleagues and I immediately recognized that this was going to be the biggest change to our city in decades. We had to get our students involved!
Our team recognized ties to science standards in ecology and social studies standards around the development of cities, urbanization, and the long-term effects of industrialization. We decided to have our students build a scale model of Grand Rapids around the river. Students researched and made surveys, and then designed new features for the community. Students used geometry to scale their model. English standards were met with written reports and public speaking to communicate their learning.
Students were so excited by the authenticity of the project because it was tied to a real purpose in their community. After weeks of hard work and preparation, we had a showcase that included many important guests including one of the co-founders of Grand Rapids Whitewater.
We had never seen so much student buy-in before. Students got excited about the project and selected themselves as leaders. At one point when student leaders had a meeting about logistics and communication for the project, they turned to the teachers and said, “We don’t need you right now. We got this.” Students took over and owned the project in ways that we had never anticipated.

So how can you design a project with maximum local impact? Here are three steps to connect your students.

1. Brainstorm Potential Partners

You might be surprised by how many connections you already have. By yourself or with colleagues, brainstorm potential partners by asking yourself questions such as:

  • What businesses or organizations are active in our community?
  • What kinds of community events are popular in our area?
  • What is the “hottest” local trend in your area?
  • What is your community “famous” for?
  • Who is doing something unique in business, education, or community service in your area?
  • What professionals do you know who are doing meaningful work in your community?

Make a list of the biggest annual events, important community events, local leaders in their fields, higher educational institutions, major businesses, natural resources, etc in your area. Even better, brainstorm this list with your students. Consider making a parent survey to find out what experiences and connections that they have that could be a community partner for you.

2. Connect to Standards

Look for connections between your community connections to the standards in your curriculum. Science and social studies standards connect with a myriad of local topics. English standards apply to the research and documenting of your project. Math calculations are needed as you design solutions.
If you are an elementary school teacher, consider how things on the list may connect with multiple subjects that could be integrated into one project. Secondary teachers could team up with different content areas to integrate a gold standard project.

3. Connect to Partners

Finally, connect with individuals in the context that you have targeted. Connect by an email, phone call or personal visit. Challenge students to take on the roles of connecting with the community also. This is a great opportunity to teach students how to communicate in a professional manner. Students may get better results than adults, and it will get them excited about the project.
If one door closes, don’t bail on the project, but be persistent until you find someone willing to work with you. Finding local partners takes some effort, but the payoff for students is so worth it!
This post is in partnership with Buck Institute for Education (BIE) as part of part of a blog campaign titled Getting Smart on Edu Blogging. BIE national faculty are writing about how project-based learning (PBL) is engaging students and transforming classrooms and schools. To engage in professional learning about PBL, check out the upcoming conference, PBL World in Napa Valley June 13-16 and join in the conversation using #PBLWorld.
For more, see:

Mike Kaechele is a National Faculty member of Buck Institute for Education and uses American History to teach students to think critically, evaluate bias, empathize with others and to make a difference in the world. Follow him on Twitter: @mikekaechele

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