Students Aren’t Just Kids! My Push For Project-Based Learning

What do you do these days? I get this question a lot. My answer: I’m trying to bring project-based learning to schools. In case you wonder what exactly project-based learning is, and why I’m invested in it, read on. This imaginary conversation – inspired by real discussions I’ve had – will make some light.

  • What is project-based learning? As the name says…It’s a kind of learning you gain from project work – but not the usual school project. In project-based learning, or PBL, projects are not assigned by teachers, and they don’t stop with a school score or a prize. Instead, these projects are chosen by students, and aim to produce something that matters to the world outside of school. Something that carries true value. You can say they’re real projects.
  • But how can we expect students to work on real projects? They’re just kids, after all. It’s true, they’re kids, but not “just kids”. And that’s exactly it! Our view of them as “just kids” causes many problems in today’s mainstream education. We don’t take them seriously enough. We don’t trust students to work on things that really matter. Project-based learning tries to change that.
  • How is that done? What does project-based learning actually look like? The reality is, it varies depending on whether the PBL philosophy is embraced school-wide or only by isolated teachers. I know there are whole schools out there – usually charter schools – founded on the idea of PBL. Like Avalon School (Minnesota), which has been around since 2001. Or the newer Da Vinci Schools (California). I didn’t experience this first-hand but, from what I read, such schools are run very differently than regular schools. Everything, including schedule, budget, staffing, and curricula are designed to support PBL. Regular classes are offered too, but most of the time is spent working on individual- or group-projects. And each student is watched over and guided by an advisor – the same one throughout the years the student spends at the school. But, as far as I’m aware, no such PBL schools exist in Alberta, where I live.
  • Then what are you doing, just dreaming of project-based learning? I hope not! Alberta may not yet have any PBL schools, but it has some teachers who’re brave enough to explore PBL more or less on their own. And it also has a program, called geekStarter, that provides teachers with support and help. I am a mentor in this program.
  • How’s geekStarter helping these teachers? We’re helping them and their teams of students do research projects in synthetic biology. At their own schools. And to compete in iGEM – a top-notch synthetic biology competition, which brings together teams from all over the world.
  • Synthetic biology?? I don’t even know what that means! It’s a more streamlined form of genetic engineering. A faster and more predictable way of tweaking with genes. Insiders call it syn bio. It’s a new biotech field that’s growing really fast and that may help fix many of the world’s problems, like food shortages or pollution.
  • Are you saying that students can do real syn bio projects? You’d be surprised! The key is finding a good problem, a real one, which is important to the students and can be tackled with syn bio tools. And so, that’s where they start: What problems are out there that we want fixed? The initial list of ideas is usually long, but it gradually gets narrowed down to a few and, in the end, to just one. geekStarter mentors help them pick something relevant, new and doable. And then they get to work!
  • But they have no syn bio knowledge whatsoever! How do they even know where to start and what to do? It’s true, they don’t, but they are very motivated to find out. Having a project of their choice, a real problem to solve, makes students genuinely interested in learning. And the geekStarter mentors help them learn. We organize periodic workshops tailored to the teams’ self-identified needs. We give ongoing guidance and answer their questions. We even wrote a comprehensive syn bio guidebook for them.
  • How about the lab part of the project? Can they do real genetic engineering in a regular school lab? It’s not easy but, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way. And again, the teams are not alone in this. geekStarter is here to help. The program gives teams funds to buy equipment and other stuff they need, which they learn how to set up and use from the mentors. Some of the machinery can even be self-built, and that not only saves money but also makes for fun do-it-yourself mini-projects. And we make sure to teach them how to be safe and responsible in the lab. I must admit, the actual syn bio experiments are happening slowly while the teams build their resources and skills. But we’re definitely off to a good start!
  • All of this must take quite a bit of time. Is there any time put aside for this in the schools’ schedule? Unfortunately, there isn’t. Currently the teams must do it all in their spare time, which makes it all the harder. They spend lunch hours and weekends on this, and give away a lot of their free time. For both students and teachers, this real project that they love working on comes on top of a full course load. If they were in PBL schools they’d get not only class time for it but a budget too, and they wouldn’t feel as pressed either for time or funds. But they aren’t. And so, until this kind of learning gains enough recognition to bring about school-wide change, I’ve put together an elective syn bio course for them.
  • How would an elective course help? If approved by Alberta Ed, this course becomes available for credit. Which means that schools can start offering it. It can become part of schools schedules and budgets. This, I hope, will make the project work more achievable for teams. It will ease the struggle. And then more teams will be able to join.
  • This is exciting! And, at the end, teams get to take their projects to a competition, you said? Yes, geekStarter encourages and helps the teams to go to the Jamboree – an annual international competition organized by iGEM at MIT in Cambridge (Massachusetts). iGEM is, in a sense, the place where synthetic biology was born, and it gives students a very rich experience. The kind of persistence and skill it takes to bring a project to the Jamboree is exactly the kind we say we want to instil in our students. Only if we could give more of them the opportunity!
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