A Math Teacher’s Journey through Her First 5 Project Based Learning Units

Several years ago, Jennifer Rust, a math teacher at John Dubiski Career High School in Dallas, Texas, attended the first day of a three-day workshop for Project Based Learning (PBL). She came with an open mind, but had her fair share of reservations about PBL’s applicability to her teaching practice.

During the first few hours, the facilitating consultant asked the workshop participants to share their vision for the “ideal graduate” by generating a list of characteristics the “ideal grad” should possess. Jennifer and her colleagues brainstormed a lengthy list. The descriptors included: “innovative, collaborative, oral communicators, interpersonal communicators, creative, inquisitive, problem-solvers, critical thinkers, ethical, and entrepreneurial.” The group discussed the fact that their list was largely composed of “soft skills” or 21st Century Skills not academic knowledge and skills based on the TEKS (Texas Essentials for Knowledge and Skills) standards, then the facilitator posed the question, “How can we teach both?”

Jennifer considered this idea and reflected on her practice. Certainly, she wasn’t opposed to the idea of teaching 21st Century Skills, but she teaches math courses. She adheres to her scope of mathematical learning outcomes, prescribed by the TEKS. She doesn't teach presentation, collaboration or critical thinking. She teaches math. Jennifer raised her hand, and respectfully shared her doubts. How could she build these skills in her classroom, with so much math to “cover?” What about tests?

Despite her reservations, Jennifer dug into the three-day workshop and planned her first project. The project, “We Built this City,” was for her Geometry class. It would address math concepts including lines, rays, perpendicular lines, parallel lines, intersecting lines, similar figures and irregular polygons. In short, students would be asked to design their own city grid plans that included all of the required content.

Jennifer, who is now a PBL veteran, looks back on this “project” and laughs. She says, “it really wasn’t a “PBL unit,” rather it was a pretty simple applied learning task.” Jennifer is now very familiar with the Buck Institute’s model for Project Based Learning. Now she carefully assesses each of her projects for their integration of the Eight Essential Elements using BIE’s project design rubric.

After the We Built this City project, Jennifer noted that the class performed as well or better than her class in the previous year on the common district assessment for the addressed learning outcomes. These test results reassured her that PBL was an effective delivery for content as well as 21st century skills. With the stakes lowered, Jennifer decided to give PBL another try.

For her second project, she addressed proportions, scale and similar figures in a project called “The Math of Art” Her students were asked to select a famous architectural monument and to build a mathematically similar scale model of it. Then, they explored the question, “Is the model as aesthetically pleasing as the original?” – essentially asking if a mathematically similar model of the Parthenon is as cool as the actual Parthenon, and if not, why not? She also decided to teach and assess the 21st Century Skill of Collaboration. When the project was complete, Jennifer again found that students had performed as well or better than in previous years on the assessed learning outcomes AND she had addressed a 21st Century Skill. A win-win.

By now, Jennifer was well on her way in what we could call a PBL journey. We know that PBL takes practice. It takes time. It takes an evolution for many educators. Why is that? Teachers go to professional development all the time. They learn about Cornell notes and they take that new skill back to the classroom and put it into practice. Simple. Why is PBL so much bigger?

PBL is a journey because it is a set of practices that sit on a foundational paradigm – beliefs and philosophies about how people learn . In PBL, learning is enabled through meaningful inquiry in which student engage with authentic and relevant problems, challenges, controversies, simulations, investigations and scenarios. We know that our beliefs impact practice. So, if our beliefs don’t evolve, our practices won’t evolve. Jennifer began to see the evidence of learning in her new practices; this encouraged her to deepen her PBL practice. As her practice deepened, so did student learning. Jennifer’s practices and paradigm were evolving in tandem.

Now Jennifer is becoming a hotbed of ideas for new projects. When she looks at her standards, she thinks about how to “PBL-ize” their delivery. Her third project, for her Statistics course, was called “Just the Facts Ma'am” The driving question: “How can we implement a statistical survey that is both valid and ethical?” In addition to her Statistics content, Jennifer explicitly taught and assessed the 21st Century Skill of presentation using BIE's presentation rubric.

In the project, one student group decided to investigate the school’s annual fundraiser to the Giving Tree charity, in which students pay $2 to be able to wear jeans to school for the day. The team designed a valid and ethical survey to find out if students were paying the $2 to wear jeans OR because they were genuinely interested in supporting the cause, and used the results to show how the school could be more successful with the fundraiser in subsequent years.

Jennifer’s fourth project, for her Advanced Quantitative Reasoning course, was transformative[JL4] because Jennifer had gone from teaching math for math’s sake to teaching math as a means to enabling real-world impact. This project, “The Math of Giving,” addressed her budgeting unit. In this unit, students develop budget models to show the interrelationship of income, expenditures, assets, debt, interest, etc. Jennifer contextualized this content by looking at two prominent global organizations – Heifer International and Kiva. Both organizations provide aid, through livestock or through micro-loans to underdeveloped nations around the world. How does this aid impact the recipients and their communities, she wondered. Which provides a bigger impact? This led to the driving question, “How can we get the most bang for our philanthropic buck?” Students were asked to investigate the nature of livestock aid and micro-loans in countries with both aid organizations present. They developed budget models for families without aid, with livestock aid and with a micro-loan respectively. Then, they did an analysis report to answer the driving question.

Jennifer did a Critical Friends Protocol prior to implementing this project. I asked her, “so, what is the right answer? Which one gives you the biggest bang for your buck??” Jennifer replied, “Actually, I don’t know. But, I am going to model the process of figuring it out WITH the kids.” I loved this step in Jennifer’s journey. She went from seeing Math as a discipline with one right answer, to contextualizing accurate calculations in the project for an incalculable greater good.

How did they get information on family budgets in underdeveloped nations around the world? Well, they actually got in touch with Kiva and Heifer and found that the staffs were happy to help. The organizations sent the students authentic primary data to support their work. The students used that information to develop their budget models and to answer the driving question. When they finished, they developed presentations to persuade local business owners to pledge monetary contributions in ways that got them “the most bang for their philanthropic buck.” I asked Jennifer what student “took away” from this project. She replied, “I think they have a deeper understanding of the nature of poverty around the world.”

P.S. They still scored well on the test.

Think about where Jennifer began her PBL journey. She took her first step with “We Built this City,” an applied learning task. Why was she able to make such a profound journey in only two years? Jennifer is open-minded, deeply reflective and committed to continuous improvement in her practice. She commits to harnessing the power of collaboration to revise her projects with a Critical Friends Protocol before implementation and to revise her projects post-implementation with a Post-Project Review Protocol, data analyses and student reflections. She wants her students to be engaged and believes she can help cultivate the ideal grad, even in her math classes.

What is Jennifer up to now?? She’s redesigning her first project. Now she’s calling it “Cake Boss.” Students will work with authentic clients – individuals who have upcoming weddings, quinceaneras, retirement parties, engagement parties, baby showers, etc. They will engage in a client intake process to learn what type of cake the client envisions for their party. The students will learn the Design Cycle, as a form of critical thinking, to design a cake for their client. They will produce two deliverables – a blueprint and a scale paper/cardboard model. The clients will be able to have their cakes actually made, at a competitive rate, by the school’s culinary department in conjunction with their pastry unit. Several local pastry chefs will also judge students’ cake designs.

Jennifer took on a leadership role with PBL implementation in her school as the Leader of the Teacher Leaders. She wanted to help her fellow PBL teachers in their PBL journeys, one step at a time. Now she is bringing PBL to her work in higher education of mathematics.

Want to dive deeper? Visit our PBL Consulting Services Page to learn more about our immersive workshop on Project Based Learning.

See additional examples of educator created Project Based Learning Units on our PBL Sample Project Resource Page.

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