Project Based Learning appeals to students
Michael Nelson is like the young man throwing starfish back into the ocean. It's a familiar story, Skyline Elementary Principal Becca Flowers said, but she related it anyway, just to make sure everyone present to honor Nelson as Teacher of the Year could see the parallel.
A wise old man challenged the younger man — there are miles and miles of beach, you can't possibly make a difference by throwing just a few starfish back. Many will be stranded when the tide goes out, and die in the sun.
The young man tossed another one in and replied, "I made a difference for that one."
"Michael is a very humble man, but he knows he holds in his hands the power to change lives," Flowers said. "Michael never gives up. The kids always have one more chance."
She praised not only his knowledge of subject matter and technical skills, but his ability to build relationships with students, some of them very tough to reach out to.
Nelson began teaching at Skyline School in August 2002. He was a middle school math teacher for seven years, then moved into the technology coordinator position for three years.
Last year he asked to go back to the classroom and work with the fifth and sixth grade Project Based Learning. He teaches as part of a four-person team with Kristin McPherson, Harmony Harts and Shari Gates.
Project Based Learning (PBL) goes beyond the "sit and get" environment, and appeals to students who learn by a more hands-on method. Math classes, his emphasis, closely resemble a traditional lecture and practice class, he said, but students have the opportunity to work on projects that require the skills previously learned and gain more knowledge as needed.
He gave an example:
Science and reading teacher Shari Gates received a South Central Community Foundation grant for the construction of a greenhouse structure. Some of Nelson's math students formed the structural team, using the Skyline Google Apps account to keep everyone organized.
Under the direction of a research coordinator, they began looking for examples, plans and materials lists for the Hoop House greenhouse. Some used SketchUp software to design the house, while Nelson's preconstruction team put together a 3-D tagboard model. Others were involved in the selection of blueprints and materials lists. Two students researched the pricing of kits versus purchasing materials separately.
All students reported results on a shared Google document, which will help Mrs. Gates determine how to proceed with the construction and eventual maintenance of a Hoop House.
"Students today are in a fast-changing world full of devices, stimulus and opportunities that have never been seen," Nelson said. "They aren't as comfortable or accustomed to sitting and letting others fill their brain for them."
He acknowledges that preparation is more time-consuming than for more traditional classes, and acquiring resources, when budgets are tight is challenging. They rely heavily on the donation of materials, volunteers and the generosity of the community.
"It certainly has been a different experience for me," Nelson said. "I was used to being an 'expert' in my content area and now I'm faced with situations where I have to research right along with the students. As a result, I have learned that my answer of 'I don't know' doesn't end a discussion, it begins the next level of learning for the student."