The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Project-Based Learning Transforms Practice at Two Elementary Schools

September 6, 2018

By Jane Baer-Leighton, Karen Diaz, Karen Miele, and Diana Roy

During the 2017-18 school year eight WMWP teacher-consultants worked with two Franklin County elementary schools, Sanderson Academy and Buckland- Shelburne Elementary School (BSE), to implement Project-Based Learning curriculum units. Here are a few of the highlights of their work:

Grades K -1:  The kindergarten and first grade students at BSE participated in project-based learning for six weeks during January and February of 2018. Each of four classroom teachers led a group comprised of kindergarten and first graders to develop big books with information about particular helpers in the community: EMTs, firefighters, police officers, and veterinarians. To introduce the projects, each community helper visited the school, but was behind a screen. The students asked questions in order to determine who was behind the screen. Throughout the weeks, students sang songs about community helpers and learned how to formulate quality interview questions to obtain the information they needed for their big book. First graders worked with kindergarteners to write facts and draw informative details in illustrations. When the community helpers returned, students studied the special tools and vehicles required for each occupation. Students recorded their new learning on the pages of the big book they were writing. In physical education, the students completed modified firefighting exercises and drills. After some big book assembly help from the art teacher, the books were shared with audiences in the school. The community helper big books will be housed in the library.

Grade 2: Teachers Lauren Donovan and Amy Kelly worked together to create a unit based on water erosion. To engage their students with the concept of erosion, students watched videos and participated in many hands on activities about erosion so that they could understand the impact that it has on our environment. Throughout the unit, students read articles and books, learned vocabulary, wrote about what they were learning, and participated in discussions about the topic. For a final project, students were introduced to a scenario in which a turtle (a plastic one!) had built his home near water. Students watched as their teachers simulated what it would look like as water eroded away the land near his home, and they watched his home slowly disappear. They were then tasked with creating a way to save the turtle's home. In groups, students designed ways to stop erosion by drawing what they thought would work and talking with each other about why they thought their creation could save the turtle's home. Then students built a model of what would save the home and tested their creation. Once they were sure that their model was going to work, they built a final product to showcase to the community to show how their creation would stop erosion. Students were excited to save the turtle's home!

Grade 6: Christine Reidy and Kristen Weigand knew their sixth-grade students would be visiting Nature’s Classroom in Maine at the end of May. They wanted students to understand the impact of humans on the environment and feel empowered to advocate for environmental preservation. They began by reading Carl Hiassen book, Scat, and watching the video Hoot, which underscored how students could save endangered wildlife species. First, students examined the global impact of humans on the environment. Next, an officer from the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife helped students zero in on locally endangered species. The research continued. Groups of students focused on a range of endangered species from bee and fish populations to wildlife habitats endangered by community expansion. Students also discovered that the water quality in the area was greatly compromised by contaminants in the local watershed and old pipes were not up to environmental standards. In the final phase of the project, students focused on community awareness and action on these environmental challenges. They constructed informational posters and brochures displayed in the library, several local businesses, and the town hall. They also created websites that provided additional information and links to petitions that advocated for specific changes. Students also wrote articles for the Greenfield Recorder and letters to community and state officials requesting intervention and action. They were amazed that their efforts could generate a positive community response.

A multi-grade group of students at Sanderson Academy used Project-based Learning to delve into the question: Why do we need plants? -  and specifically how the Sanderson School community is dependent on plants. Students investigated the items on campus that were plant-based and shared the results in age-appropriate graphs. A series of hands-on projects ensued, including:

  • A local botanical expert helped students identify the trees on campus. Students later created botanical field guides to the Sanderson school site. These illustrated guides are in the school library. Grant money was used to label the trees with engraved tags. (One child found a potential career as a botanical artist!)
  • Students used indoor grow gardens to plant microgreens, observe their growth, and share the microgreens with their peers in the cafeteria.
  • The children used scraps of newspaper and other natural plant products to make their own recycled paper, which they used to create bookmarks.
  • With each activity, students used their literacy skills to predict, write plans, and develop authentic written products.

Teachers from both schools affirmed the benefits of Project-Based Learning: “Our PBL format enabled us to look at the content and literacy standards and school-wide learning goals. Students constructed inquiry questions, researched, and shared their individual learnings with their working groups. Teachers guided students and provided structures for them take control of their learning.  At the end of the units, students were able to revisit their beginning thoughts and theories and to share their conclusions with their peers and wider audiences. Academic and scientific skills improved for all students, as did the skills of group teamwork, listening, and sharing cooperatively.”

For information about how to bring Project-Based Learning professional development to your school, contact WMWP Professional Development Coordinator Jane Baer-Leighton at