By KERI BRENNER | Marin Independent Journal

(NOVATO, CA) The Buck Institute for Education in Novato has received a $2.9 million grant to create a curriculum for science and social studies classes in grades four through 12.

The funding was awarded by the Bezos Family Foundation. The organization is run by Mike and Jackie Bezos, the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

“The support provided by the Bezos Family Foundation offers an opportunity for teachers in schools and districts across the United States and the world to engage all students — especially Black and Brown students — in deeper learning to achieve success in college, career and life,” Bob Lenz, an executive at the institute, said in a statement announcing the grant.

Lenz, the head of PBLWorks, the institute’s “project-based learning” group, said the curriculum will be developed over the next couple of years. Once it has been tested at California and Colorado schools, the program will be posted online as free and open content for teachers.

Marin schools and teachers could be involved in the testing, Lenz said.

“We’re asking students to do their own research and apply it,” he said. The projects could touch on such topics  as anti-racism, environmental activism or social justice, he said.

“We want to be very authentic in that we’re offering an opportunity for students to see themselves in the curriculum,” Lenz added. “There hasn’t been enough of those opportunities. We know they could be controversial, but we’re ready for it.”

Project-based learning, or PBL, is a type of teaching where students are assigned a real-world task and learn to work in teams to get it done. An example might be second-graders going to a local park, seeing what improvements were needed, creating a list of solutions and then presenting their research to local officials, Lenz said.

For high school students in a science class, an example might be teens researching the water quality issues in Flint, Michigan. The students would identify possible chemical additives that might help render the water supply less toxic and present their findings to a recognized scientific journal, Lenz said.

“Offering high-quality and ready-made PBL-based curricula to educators at no charge will increase the likelihood that teachers implement high-quality projects and increase impact for all students,” said Kathleen Schwille, executive director of PBLNow.

PBLNow is a new division of PBLWorks. It is working on the Bezos Family Foundation curriculum as well as a science curriculum project for the Kentucky Department of Education.

“PBLNow curriculum units will work seamlessly with PBLWorks professional learning services to support teachers, schools and districts in enacting high-quality PBL experiences,” Schwille said.

According to Lenz, the project draws on recent studies published and supported by Lucas Education Research, a subdivision of the Marin-based George Lucas Education Foundation.

The studies indicate that PBL, professional development and high-quality instructional materials can have an  impact on student outcomes across all grade levels, racial or ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups.

The Buck Institute for Education has previously worked with teachers and students at the Novato Unified School District and San Rafael City Schools. Lenz said the Bezos Family Foundation “has a lot of confidence in our team” after collaborating on prior project-based learning endeavors.

“This new line of work builds on Buck Institute for Education’s 30 years of success building the capacity of teachers and school and district leaders to implement gold-standard project-based learning through high-quality professional development,” Lenz said.

“This project acknowledges the need for teachers to have ready access to high quality instructional materials to achieve student outcomes,” he said.