Connecting the Dots: From Carbon Footprint to Content Assessment

Sarah Fowler is a sixth grade math and science teacher whose middle school offers annual project based learning workshops to all teachers. This year she decided to participate in the training in order to develop a project for her unit on sustainable energy. Sustainable energy is a topic with which she feels her students should be able to connect, but in the past she has used textbook- based units, and her students seemed to her very disengaged. She hopes that by designing a hands-on, project based unit she can engage her students more deeply in what is a very important topic.

As one of the first steps in designing her project based learning unit, Sarah identifies the three content standards required by her district within the topic of sustainable energy. She knows that, at the end of her unit, her students must be able to:

  1. Describe how science and technology can help address societal challenges including population, natural hazards, sustainability, personal health and safety, and environmental quality.

  2. Identify personal choices that can either positively or negatively impact society including population, ecosystem sustainability, personal health, and environmental quality.

  3. Describe significant Earth resources and how their limited supply affects how they are used.

Throughout the rest of the training, Sarah designed a unit based on the driving question “How can we help the students in our school recognize the importance of and participate in a plan to reduce the carbon footprint of the school?” The unit’s final products were a presentation to district administrators and school board members and a plan to reduce the school’s carbon footprint.

As the unit progressed, Sarah was encouraged by how engaged her students were. They excitedly gathered data on the school’s energy usage and put together a plan for how the school might lower its energy consumption. For example, one student group put together a proposal for leaving only half the hallway lights on during the day. A piece of their proposal was a consultation with the director of maintenance to be sure the lighting level with only half the lights on was within safety regulations.

After two weeks of work, the class was ready to develop and practice their presentations. Using a rubric to self assess, students rehearsed presentations in preparation for their big day in front of a public audience. When the big day arrived, students enthusiastically shared their data and plans with district administrators, including the superintendent of schools, and members of the school board. All panel members had their own presentation rubrics with which to assess each team’s presentation skills.

At the end of the day, Sarah collected stacked up all the presentation rubrics and sat down to begin grading her students. As she sat with her grade book open on her computer, she started to feel a bit stumped. Although her students had done great work, and she knew in her heart they had connected with and learned the material, the only evidence she had was the stack of presentation rubrics. With a sinking feeling, she knew that she had only assessed their growth as presenters, not as scientists. Without any evidence of her student’s growth toward mastery of the required science standards, she would need to spend more time in this topic. She sighed, “back to the books,” she thought as she reached for the class science textbook.

Angela is a passionate and talented PBL and STEM coordinator for South Portland Maine Public Schools.

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