New high school is latest to focus on project-based learning
At the newest high school in Plano, Texas, a lesson on Hurricane Katrina could look a lot like this: Students would study the science of weather patterns, review the historical impact of the 2005 natural disaster, and read personal stories from those affected. Then, in teams, they would research and develop a plan for federal authorities on how to respond to a similar act of nature.
“This is a very untraditional way of teaching and learning, so … it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before,” principal Renee Godi said.
Instruction focused on a problem-solving team approach rather than subject-by-subject homework assignments will drive the new Project Based Learning Academy set to open in 2013. Such project-based learning methods are quickly taking root in North Texas and around the country as more districts work to incorporate such instruction styles at local campuses.
In 2007, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district opened the Math, Engineering, Technology, and Science Academy on the R.L. Turner High School campus built on that concept. Coppell opened its project-based learning school, New Tech High, the following year. Then Dallas opened its repurposed Maceo Smith New Tech High School last year with a project-based learning model.
Such learning helps students develop a deeper level of critical thinking and cognitive skills, said Mansoureh Tehrani, director of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch program.
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A few years ago at METSA, for example, students in a geometry class researched demographics and traffic patterns to develop options for DART’s Green Line rail expansion that they then presented them to local transportation officials.
“These are problems that have real-world applications,” Tehrani said. “It’s more authentic, and the students see the benefits of their work. It’s not just an assignment that they have to do and not know why.”
If a project-based learning model is done well, it can increase test scores by up to 40 percent, said Robert Capraro, a mathematics professor at Texas A&M University who has studied the impact of project-based learning methods. If implemented poorly, however, test scores can drop by as much as 17 percent, his research found.
“It takes a commitment and time by all involved,” Capraro said. “Some district officials out there want to buy a program and just bring it in and not do any additional work. That’s not a successful model.”
Plano ISD’s commitment is evident. An advisory committee spent months working on developing what would become the vision for the academy.
Superintendent Richard Matkin said no existing program met the district’s desire to incorporate an interdisciplinary focus with science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts—so officials opted to build their own curriculum.