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updated: 10/4/2013 5:06 PM

Project-based learning taking off in Glen Ellyn schools

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Fixated on the challenge before them, Hailey Small and classmate Noell Pekny worked together Friday toward a solution to a perplexing problem.

How do you design a miniature car out of pasta?

"It's fun making these," said Hailey, a third-grader at Glen Ellyn's Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. "You have to figure out what works and what doesn't."

The project is the culminating event on the study in Jennifer McKeever's science/math class of machines, force and motion. Experiments and simulations are done with the goal of designing a car out of pasta that is durable and can travel a distance -- in this case, down a ramp in the hallway.

"Racing day is Nov. 1," McKeever said.

It's an example of an approach to education called Project-Based Learning that was showcased Friday for roughly 50 superintendents from around the country touring Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41's Franklin and Abraham Lincoln schools.

District 41 has been recognized as a leader in PBL and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning selected Franklin as an Illinois "Exemplar School" for outstanding work in that area.

Project-Based Learning is an approach that challenges students to learn through engagement in a real problem, fostering collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

District 41 launched its program two years ago. Its first project was a marketing campaign for The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn to try to appeal to intermediate students.

A subsequent project centered around the emerald ash borer problem, with kids learning its causes, why it's a problem and raising money they donated to the village to replant trees.

Sharon Ick's daughter, Genevieve, one of her three kids at Franklin, participated in that project.

"I'm finding that the information is sticking with her longer," Ick said. "She feels like she's an expert."

Some PBLs are adapted from years past. Other times teachers gauge students on problems in the community.

"Kids are taking ownership for their learning, they are thinking globally and thinking outside the box," Lincoln Principal Linda Schweikhofer said. "The learning is being generated from them rather than teachers giving information. Kids are retaining information longer."

Suzi Smith, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math at Franklin, pulled a project from a relevant problem. The mother of a 2-year-old, Smith and her class conducted a "diaper challenge" where they tested to determine if brands had evidence behind their boasts of absorbency.

The challenge prepares kids for their own scientific questions as a guide for an upcoming science fair.

"I feel there's more student engagement," Smith said. "Kids are in fact walking away with more knowledge than I could give them if I just did traditional teaching."

It is more than just a science project, though.

In Lisa Moon's Level 2 literacy class, kids like Anne Crum are learning how to solve a problem within the community through persuasive writing. Kids conduct their own research to build their case and each will write their own persuasive letter.

There could be a payoff. Moon has a guinea pig at home, and Anne and her classmates want it for a class pet.

"Learning like this," Moon said, "makes it more real to them."

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