Finding Depth in Project-Based Learning

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Academics at New Hampton School are interested in depth. When you walk into one of our classrooms, you are likely to see 12 desks in a horseshoe or circle, and you’ll often find students leading the discussion or collaborating in small groups. We are not interested in traditional classes, where you’d find a teacher lecturing to 30 students scribbling down notes to regurgitate on a test.

Project-based learning teaches numerous skills to today's students.

Meaningful processes

Our focus on depth has led us to Project-Based Learning (PBL). Project-Based Learning is “A teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects” (pblworks.org). In PBL-focused classes, students work on a project over an extended period of time, sometimes up to a whole semester. Upon completion, students present their projects to live audiences, thereby honing their public speaking and presentation skills. By focusing intensely on a specific project over the course of many weeks, students develop a comprehensive understanding of the content, learn to collaborate with their classmates, think in creative and unexpected ways, and, finally, showcase their knowledge by teaching their area of expertise. A question we are constantly asking ourselves at New Hampton is: In a rapidly evolving world, how can we prepare our students for careers in industries that do not yet exist? Our shift to Project Based Learning is equipping our students with problem-solving skills and outside-the-box thinking and is foundational in our quest to answer that question.

Experiential empowerment

Jessica MacLeod ’02, our Dean of Faculty, has been instrumental in bringing PBL to our community and training our faculty. A project she led this year in her Honors Biology class was to answer the question: How do we create biologically believable alien animals for sci-fi films? The class was broken into small groups whose mission was to become experts on a specific region of the globe and to understand the complex interconnectedness of that region’s ecosystem. Next, they put on their artist and filmmaker hats to design imaginary yet realistic creatures that could live in their region’s environment and be biologically believable enough to satisfy scientists. MacLeod said of the experience:

PBL allowed my students to take control of their own learning and curiosity. The energy in the classroom was high, and students were focused on the task because they cared about the product they were working towards. PBL brought about skill development like collaboration, communication, presentation, problem-solving, and innovation. The day we presented at the symposium to an audience of about 40 people, they were so excited to share their work, and I was impressed with their growth to speak confidently and share their knowledge and skills.

Only time will tell whether MacLeod’s students will become geneticists, filmmakers, or explore careers that don’t yet exist. What we are certain of is that they will be ready to think deeply, critically, and creatively about the most complex questions the world has to throw at them.

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