AMES–Seventh grade students at Ames Middle School are extolling the benefits of project-based learning.

“You feel smarter finding facts on your own,” Kate MacLeod, age 12, said. “Seeing the final project makes me so proud, like, “‘Wow I did that!’”

Social studies teacher Caleb Shaeffer said project-based learning is a lesson-planning strategy that allows instructors to align their planning and teaching with Iowa Core Standards.

“This lesson addressed a behavioral science standard, for students to understand a social issue, learn how people formulate opinions about this issue, and learn how people respond to the issue,” Shaeffer said.  “We chose to focus on the issue of poverty on our planet.”

Breanna Van Dyke, age 13, said Shaeffer encouraged students to choose an aspect of poverty to research, and offered guidelines to help narrow their focus, such as picking a specific place or age group.

“I liked that he said we could choose what we wanted to learn about,” she said.

Kate said the project’s requirements included researching facts and opinions, developing an original and creative display, and creating a call to action— but Shaeffer waited until students had their subject matter in hand before sharing the project evaluation rubric.

“That way, we wouldn’t do just the minimum to meet the rubric, and we would use the rubric as something to strive for,” she said.

The project also required students to hone 21st Century skills such as writing resumes, creative thinking, and collaboration.

“The resumes helped the teachers pick group leaders and helped the group leaders choose their groups,” NIcole Hammen, age 12,  said.

Kate said the group process had built-in leverage to prevent some group members from slacking off while others worked harder to compensate.

“Every person in the group has to be able to demonstrate understanding of the issue and what’s being done to solve it,” she said.

NIcole said project-based learning is helping her retain knowledge.

“When we were just reading and answering questions, you wouldn’t remember the information,” she said.

Kate said she expects the project-based learning to help her develop lasting new skills.

“I think learning like this will help us get better, because our teacher can critique us and not just give us a test that doesn’t make us better than before,” she said.

About the projects

Students’ projects have been on display at North Grand Mall.

Kate’s group, for example, focused on homeless teens in the United States. To help people visualize the issue, Kate’s group created a diorama of an abandoned building inscribed with facts and figures. They placed one pin on a board per 5,000 homeless teens, for a total of 260 pins representing the 1.3 million homeless teens on the streets and in abandoned buildings.

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“Our group wanted to know how and why they become homeless,” she said. “We found out they drop out of school and become too old for services and they can’t get a job. There are a bunch of ways to help but not everything solves the problem.”

Nicole’s  group studied children’s poverty in Ames.

“We learned a third of children in our schools live in poverty,” she said.

Nicole said her group’s call to action was proposing free childcare and job training for parents of children in poverty.

“A lot of jobs take training and a lot of  people don’t have the skills and education,” she said. “They can’t afford the training. Everyone should be able to have the training.”

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Breanna’s group researched a global poverty issue, children in Ethiopia. The group placed bowls of rice and containers of water on a table to show a comparison between the amount of food, specifically rice, and the quality of water available to people in Ethiopia and the people in the United States each week.

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