students giving a presentation

Navigating our distance-learning world has given me a better perspective on what our students really need.

It’s this: authentic and purposeful learning experiences that empower and inspire students to make a difference. 

I’m a former elementary teacher and a creator of Blue Apple Projects. After I attended the PBL101 workshop through PBLWorks in August 2019, it was clear that our vision was closely aligned—that Project Based Learning can empower students by providing them with opportunities to have an authentic real-world impact. This is purposeful learning. 

Students need to feel like their contributions matter. Our projects do just that. For example, one of our projects, Prevent the Spread, has students creating public service announcements on ways to make their school and their world a safer and healthier place. They learn about germs and how they spread, collect germs from common surfaces, test the effectiveness of a variety of disinfectants, and create a PSA that they share with an authentic audience. By putting students in the driver’s seat, they navigate through the work with excitement and purpose—recognizing that their contributions really can make a difference. 

One teacher who facilitated this project in his classroom prior to the pandemic was 4th & 5th grade teacher, Graham Schultze.

He chose this particular project in part because he had a new baby at home, and was determined to try to keep his family healthy. When he brought this project idea to his students, they were thrilled to jump into a unit that would help him accomplish his goal. And the engagement and excitement took off from there.

“Right from the get go, my fourth and fifth graders were hooked.” Graham explains. “The unit launches with an amazing activity that demonstrates the ease with which germs travel around the room. The game involved different colored glitters and we were able to stalk around the room afterwards screaming, "EW, GERMS!" whenever we found them. And, boy, did we find them...on the couch, on the door handle, and even on my face.” 

“From there, they were continually engaged with deep experiments involving petri dishes and a great summative product as well. Groups were tasked to make a public service announcement with the real-life application of presenting their PSAs to the rest of the school.”

From Mr. Schultze’s perspective, one of the things that made this project stand out was his ability to act as facilitator to his students’ learning and allow them to take the lead through a hands-on inquiry approach. “My time directly in front of the students was very limited. My time among the students, digging deep into research or swabbing high-contact services with them far outweighed my direct instruction.” You can see this project in action with 4th and 5th graders here.

Now, fast forward to the world we are in today.

During these unprecedented times, how do we create learning experiences that are authentic and purposeful in the virtual world? One of our approaches has been to create a free distance-learning edition of Prevent the Spread. (We're creating distance-learning versions of all our projects.) During the pandemic, this PBL experience holds great relevance and purpose, because preventing the spread of germs can literally save lives.

How does this project play out? Students first learn timely, well-sourced information about what coronavirus is and how it spreads. They explore how we know the crisis is real and significant, as well as what steps they can take to help. Next, they discover how to use the science of persuasion to help people around the world to change behaviors and save lives.

The project provides students with support and scaffolds to help them create a powerful public service announcement, then guides them to think iteratively as they seek feedback from peers to refine their work. Finally, the project helps classes explore ways to share their learning and monitor the impact of their PSAs.

Trying times create opportunities for even our youngest citizens to step up and do great things.

Let’s continue to inspire our students through our work, because even though we may not be in the educational space we are accustomed to, the learning must continue. Their curiosity is ever-present. And this gives all of us an opportunity to motivate our students to make a difference during a time when inspiration and action are needed most.

Check out all Blue Apple projects here.

Jamie MacPherson, Blue Apple Projects