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Teaching a PBL Unit on Water Transformed Our Students’ Learning

This post is transcribed from an interview with educators Debbie Holman and Nicole Orswell.

Next year we’ll be teaching in a new middle-high school designed to encourage project-based learning (PBL). So, when given the opportunity to run a small PBL cohort this year, we thought: Why not give it a try? Let’s dip our toes in and share what we learn with the rest of the staff.

Our goal is to inspire learners to engage in authentic learning opportunities out in the world and to make the world a better place. In the process, our students have become more excited about school, and the cohort has become like a family.

Since the start of the school year, our 27-student cohort has spent most of their in-school time together. They go to math with Debbie, science with Debbie, social studies with Nicole, and English with Nicole. Then they have an elective. At the end of the day there’s an advisory period, for which Nicole is their teacher again.

The connections they’ve formed with one another are something to behold. We know kids often need to feel connected in order to experience success in school. If they don’t feel connected, why learn? Relationships with their peers and their teachers are critical. This PBL approach has fostered those connections among our huge variety of learners. Plus, the atmosphere is such that if someone walked into the classroom during math time, they wouldn’t be able to tell who’s who. It wouldn’t be obvious that that kid has an individualized education program, for example, because the students are all learning and helping and collaborating and communicating.

“Project-based learning has given some of our students with disabilities a chance to showcase their strengths in engaging in meaningful, hands-on experiences,” Molly Walker told us. Molly is an Integrated Services teacher at our school, Wellington Middle-High School in Wellington, Colorado. She added, “I have had the opportunity to work with these students for a couple of years and the growth and learning they are able to demonstrate through this model of instruction is incredible.”

Because the cohort is like a family, we all know everybody’s personality. Students know how the others learn. There are times when somebody will be trying to learn something and one of their partners will say, “Dude, you learn best when you look at pictures. Why don’t you look at a picture?” They help each other according to the way each of them learns, and they show one another so much support. The other day, a student was tripping over their words as they were speaking, and three kids in the class said, “It’s OK. Slow down.” “It’s OK. We got you.”

This PBL model also provides added flexibility, which is valuable, because learning doesn’t always happen in 80-minute or 55-minute increments of time. If one of us is not finished with something, we can switch kids. One of us can say, “Hey, they’re not done with their portfolios. Can they please finish those up in fourth period?” and the other can say, “Sure, let them finish.”

We focused our first unit on water and were guided by the essential question, “How does water scarcity and availability affect our community and other communities around the world?”

In the first stage of the unit, students carried a large bucket of water to a nearby irrigation ditch, as a way of building empathy for people without easy access to water. This set the students up to read the book A Long Walk to Water. While at the ditch, they also made environmental observations and collected samples to test for indicators of life.

In the second stage of the unit, students used the “Water Inequality” entry from National Geographic’s Resource Library as their anchor article. Then, we held a question-asking session to set students’ focus and ignite their curiosity. Some of the questions relating to water issues that they asked were: How does water get to us so fast? What makes water clean—or not? How do different types of pipes affect water? And, how does climate change affect water quality?

In the third stage, students formed groups to research a water-related topic and present it to their peers. The topics ranged from the water cycle to water-borne diseases to drought. This stage also included a math component, in which students used cell size to study proportions and ratios and applied fractions to understand the amount of water on Earth.

In the fourth stage, students visualized the data they had compiled by creating a piece of art and accompanying artist’s statement. Then, in the fifth and final stage, they exhibited their artwork in the school and in Flipgrid presentations. Here is a selection of their projects, which include, clockwise from top left, a water truck, a plastic sculpture inspired by marine pollution, a colorful representation of biomagnification of DDT, and a handmade water filtration system:

This PBL model encourages a more fluid kind of education. It’s not math class and science class and English class. It’s simply learning. Our water unit was grounded in standards from multiple subjects, but students experienced the learning in a more seamless fashion. As a result, we were able to be more adaptable in how we worked with students. As an example, early in the year in English class some students insisted they couldn’t read, they couldn’t answer these questions, they couldn’t do it. The next day, we did the same exact thing—reading and answering questions—but they were in social studies class, and all of a sudden it was no big deal. Nicole was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. You’re doing the same thing in social studies and English.” So she took away the labels.

With more than half a year of experience under our belts, we’d offer the following tips for other educators interested in introducing project-based learning in their schools:

  1. Trust the process. It’s very overwhelming. You may think I don’t know how to do this. Remember, though, that kids are naturally curious, and they will come through. They will start researching on their own. So you can afford to let go of some control and relax.
  2. Look at what other people are doing. There are lots of resources out there. Whether you use National Geographic’s PBL resources or those from the Buck Institute, which is a great PBL institute, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are examples of great projects out there, so take inspiration from what’s around you.
  3. Ask for help. We needed the art teacher to come in and talk to our students about the art and artist’s statement portions of the water unit, because we didn’t know how.
  4. Start small. You don’t have to run a semester-long project. Students could make inspirational posters for the building, or you could work with a volunteer at the beginning.
  5. Learn to live with mistakes. We all make them, and it’s OK.

Often we find we have an antiquated educational system. Learners are supposed to come into a room, sit down, and do a worksheet. They’re learning skills that often aren’t relevant to their world or to what they’ll do later on. We ask ourselves: How are we preparing our learners? Are we teaching them compliance, or are we giving them opportunities to thrive through authentic learning opportunities? Our position is: Let’s get kids in the world. Let’s get them involved. Let’s get them talking to Explorers. Let’s get them thinking critically, collaborating, and practicing the soft skills that will benefit them in the future, no matter what.


For more inspiration and practical guidance for bolstering your teaching practice, enroll in one of National Geographic’s free, award-winning professional learning courses. For those new to National Geographic’s professional learning offerings for educators, we recommend you begin with our mini-courses on the Explorer Mindset and Geographic Thinking Skills.

Debbie Holman has been in education for 19 years as a middle and high school science and math teacher and leader. She is a passionate, connected educator and advocate of problem-based teaching and learning. Debbie works with and in the community to bring authentic learning opportunities to learners. You can connect with her on Twitter or by email.

Nicole Orswell has been in education for 28 years as a middle school English teacher. She continues to challenge herself every day to try new things in her classroom to meet kids where they are and help them become great humans! She was born to be a teacher and considers it the best profession in the world. When not changing the world through education, Nicole loves to travel, read, and play disc golf.

All photos courtesy of Debbie Holman

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