Project Spotlights

Each PBL Fellow documented an issues-based PBL unit throughout their fellowship year. The projects spotlighted below are windows into our work. We’ve given ourselves permission to dispose of carefully crafted, laminated lessons and share with you our works-in-progress as we continually struggle to improve rigor, relevance, and student engagement. We hope you find something here to help you bring these ideas into your classroom!

Jump to 2016-17 Fellows’ Projects

2017-18 Fellows’ Projects

Sarah Knott and Julie Schmidt, Fellows, Ballentine Elementary School, Wake County
3rd Grade Science, ELA, Math
9 weeks, approximately 2 hours per day, 5 days per week

Driving Question: How we can use water efficiently?
Summary: Ballentine 3rd graders are investigating the importance of conserving clean freshwater around the world. In Expeditionary Learning Module 4, students are researching three issues related to water, specifically access to water, demands on water, and water pollution. Then, they will continue the study by writing an opinion essay about the importance of water conservation. Finally, as a culminating activity, they will plan and create a video public service announcement to educate people about their chosen water issue and to encourage them to take action with specific recommendations to solve the problem. Students will have the opportunity to interview and learn from Fuquay Varina Public Works personnel and from PBL mentor Kathy Wall’s fourth grade conservation expert students. By incorporating math measurement standards, students will have an opportunity to measure water usage in the school and home to see just how much of an impact saving a few drops will actually make.
Links: Project Design , Student Work Videos
Krista Brinchek and Sue Cole, Abbotts Creek Elementary School, Wake County Public Schools
5th Grade Science, Social Studies, ELA
This project was completed through a Science Special Class over a several months. Classes were 45 min long.

Driving Question: How Clean is Our Air?
Summary: Through authentic learning, fifth graders learned how air quality can have environmental and health impacts on our school, city, state, and global communities. Students were first introduced to the topic of air quality during the 2017 California wildfires. Utilizing this current event, students discussed how it must feel to live near the wildfires, and how it might impact their health. This introduction was supported by technology with real-time fire, wind speed/direction and chemical concentration maps. We then asked our driving question; How clean is our air? To answer that, students had to first understand the properties of air to build a foundation to expand. Through extensive research, and understanding, students hypothesized that our carpool lanes at school would be impacted due to vehicle idling. Through a partnership with NC Clean Air, our class was able to obtain a purple air real-time air particulate monitor which was set up adjacent to the carpool drive through. Students monitored the air quality index maps daily comparing our site to other sites across the state. For the final culminating project, Abbotts Creek ES partnered with the Abbotts to display student’s presentations. 150 students working in teams completed posters, project boards, and pamphlets to display at the community center. This public product by students created an educational outreach to our larger community about the health impacts of air quality and tangible ways to improve it.
Links: Project Design
Flora Sealey Palmer, Holly Ridge Middle School, Wake County
6th Grade Reading Enrichment Students
6 Weeks, 45 minutes, 5 days per week

Driving Question: How can we, HRMS 6th graders, reduce waste and increase recycling in our cafeteria; in turn, benefiting the life of our town’s landfill, the South Wake Landfill?
Summary: After brainstorming community issues, hearing Holly Springs Town Councilwoman Mrs. Cheri Lee speak, and participating in a Paideia seminar, students decided that they would like to make an impact in our school and community by determining ways we could reduce waste and increase recycling in our school’s cafeteria. Each student chose a focus group to take part in for the duration of this project. Groups researched the following topics: South Wake Landfill, share tables, biodegradable cafeteria supplies, composting, and recycling. They spent weeks researching, interviewing cafeteria personnel, and creating a product to share their findings. Our culminating event was attended by Mrs. Mountford, HRMS principal, as well as our cafeteria manager, Mrs. Barther. Groups shared their recommendations by presenting the information through a game, a brochure, t-shirt messaging, and PowerPoint presentation. Currently, we are awaiting a response from administration of how the students and I can implement their ideas to reduce waste and increase recycling in our school’s cafeteria.
Links: Project Design

Dawnsa Smith and Leah Mahony – Central Park Middle School, Durham
5th Grade Social Studies and ELA
9 weeks – 5-6 times per week for 55 minutes

Driving Question: How does the government structure work to meet the needs of all people? Does government structure evolve to be more equitable?
Summary: Central Park 5th graders will learn about the origins of the US government, considering whose needs were addressed and whose were left out. So far this year, 5th graders have learned about the history of the United States considering how people groups gained power and what they did with with that power. The students also studied ways that people without political or economic power have joined together to powerfully resist oppression. In this context, 5th graders examined how the United States government came to be with the resistance of British rule, the American Revolution, and forming of the Constitution. We launched the project by having students imagine they were part of a group of 100 humans establishing a settlement on Mars. What would they need to be self-sustaining, and how would people organize themselves to have a functioning civilization? Next, students examined what was debated during the Constitutional Convention, and discovered that which people groups participated and which were left out. They are now in the process of preparing for a mock Constitutional Constitution of what it would have looked like if all people groups had been invited to the debate: white women, free African Americans, Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, and white workers/indentured servants. At the same time, they have dug into the meaning of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, deciding through debate and voting which 3 amendments they would take to their Mars Colony. This process has motivated the students to understand the meaning of the rights protected in the Bill of Rights, thinking for themselves which they value most. As this phase wraps up, we will learn about the three branches of US government, how laws are made, and how the Constitution is amended. In ELA classes, the students will use nonfiction reading skills to research a current issue that is important to them (gun control, immigration, bias in government systems, animal rights, climate justice.) The students will use what they learn about these current issues and government structure to take on the role of all three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. This role play will be the culmination of our project. Each of our three Social Studies classes will each take on the role of one branch of government in order to pass a law. Based on student interests, this part of the project could go in three different ways:

  • Create a mock law related to current issues
  • Create a mock law or amendment related to our Mars Colony
  • Create a new school policy, in collaboration with our director and school board

The students will convene at different moments throughout the quarter to report their work and hand off the law to the next branch of government. Family, community members, and other grade-levels will be invited to view our process and pieces of student work. Ultimately, we will reflect on the role of government in and how it has historically protected or ignored rights of different Americans – and how the governmental process allows our government to constantly evolve to become more just for all.

See more details in our evolving project design below. We are adding to it as we go.
Links: Project Design

Jayne F. Young, Fellow; Scurlock Elementary, Hoke County
2nd grade pull-out high performing students
3 weeks, 2-3 times per week, approximately 40 minutes

Driving Question: How can we as 2nd graders make our school safer by reducing stray animals on the Bear Campus?
Summary: Scurlock 2nd graders explored the issue of strays that enter the open campus and how this population could be reduced. They researched types of pets and what proper care should look like. Students brainstormed questions that they still had and would want to ask guest speakers. By inviting community professionals (a vet, County Animal Control manager, and animal rescue volunteers), students learned about the work they did in the name of pets. Students concluded that responsible pet ownership is the permanent solution and decided to educate their neighbors by creating a Public Service Announcement. These 2nd graders were inspired to take their learning to the next level by conducting a service project supporting T.A.R.A, our local animal rescue group.
Links: Project Design, Student Video

Cynthia Blake and Sarah Sprouse, Falls Lake Academy, Charter, Wake County
6th Grade Science and Social Studies
4-6 weeks
Driving Question: How could you survive in a place known for major tectonic events?
Summary: The earth is an ever evolving, ever active body that holds our past, present, and future in its depths. Because of the constant forces within, our pedosphere and the civilizations that have called it home, have been affected over the millenia. Although our location does not directly experience the impact of tectonic activity, our sixth grade students are challenged to understand how and why our planet is morphing. While it’s not difficult to get students excited about earthquakes and volcanoes, the challenge is getting them to to question how earth’s inhabitants can predict, prepare, survive, and rebuild after the destruction of such terrifying wonders.Social Studies class begins the discussion by detailing the events of Pompeii. A dramatic, time-lapse animated video shows the landscape on that fateful day in 75AD. The class discusses the experience of people in that area would have experienced using all five senses. We evaluate what helped people survive and what killed them. We examine daily life in ancient Pompeii through a video about the excavation of the ruins. Students choose characters, including Roman names and work identities, and begin developing a narrative of that person’s experience and escape.In science, students must ultimately understand the mechanisms of the three boundary types and how they yield a host of recognizable effects. Thus, students begin by creating an interactive research booklet about these to use during the PBL process. Groups are then given a random list of the world’s most geologically active locations. Each city is explored. Students must then select one of those places to thoroughly research and defend their choice. They design and build a detailed model to show the prevalent tectonics at their chosen location. However, the real learning comes when students have to generate their own line of questioning, to ferret out in depth information beyond ‘how big?’ or ‘how many?’ Safety measures, evacuation plans, technological warning systems, effects on the economy or ecosystems, wildlife, building designs, the effects on drinking water or cash crops. These can be the roads in which they find themselves, if guided. If you can entice them to think beyond, they’ll go father than any volcano can send them. That is the journey that is most rewarding.
Links: Project Design
Erica Wilmer and Jennifer Carson, Grady Brown Elementary School, Orange County
2nd Grade Social Studies, Science, and ELA
5 weeks, 40 minutes per day

Driving Question: How can we celebrate diversity through music?
Summary:Students learned about world cultures through music exploration and online and in-house resources including: This is Home – Google Earth, Putumayo music, and videos and books that built understanding of diverse cultural experiences. Specific regions and people of the world included: the Andes in South America; India, China, and Japan; and the Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania. Students rotated each week, making instruments and playing music from the highlighted regions. After students completed rotations, they chose an instrument to engineer with donated materials as well as using supplies from the school’s makerspace. Students worked with a partner to design and build their instrument, which was on display during the school’s annual science night. Students wrote descriptions of the instrument and included the country or continent of origin and how it is played.
Links: Project Design
Kathy Wall, Mentor, Ballentine Elementary, Wake County Public Schools
4th Grade Science, Social Studies, ELA
3 weeks, approximately 60 minutes per day, 5 days per week integrated across curriculum

Driving Question: Can birds help our community?
Summary:Fourth grade students go on a journey to learn how birds currently and historically have played a role in human lives. Students explored human relationships to earth and how humans impact the earth both positively and negatively. Through research, writing, teaching, and a hands on project students learned how scientist study birds to benefit the earth’s ecosystems. Students learned that birds connect to earth’s history in fossils, and that birds are bioindicators of healthy environments. Birds and nature are also used by past and current scientist and engineers when developing and designing innovative ideas. In addition students learned that the environment plays a role in their personal health. By building a Bluebird Trail at our school we hope to provide a healthy place for birds and encourage teachers and students to get outside and build student curiosity and participate in nature. If all goes as planned this Bird Trail can positively add to our school community with lifelong conservation implications.
Links: Project Design
Shannon Hardy, Jessie Francese, Cori Greer Banks, Remi Wingo; The Exploris School, Charter, Wake County
8th Grade
12 weeks
Driving Question: How does diversity make us stronger?
Essential Questions:

  • How does diversity contribute to biological and social systems?
  • What are the factors that contribute to the spread of disease, events, and ideas?
  • What is the evidence that societies are striving toward social justice?
  • How can technology contribute to a global morality?

In the 1780’s the U.S. forged ahead with a new identity, but early leaders were struggling with inclusivity and freedom for all of America’s inhabitants. After the Civil War, the United States kept the country together, but were now wrestling with Jim Crow Laws. Has this changed in 2017? Students will imagine the possibilities through reading a variety of literature, simulating a zombie pandemic, and learning about microbes.

Sociologist Malcolm Gladwell poses a bold theory, social thought does not change over time. Instead, Gladwell suggests that while individuals might change, societies will sustain current beliefs long after laws and leaders pursue change. Regardless of morality, the new idea may incubate in small circles, but it takes a spark to propel society to spread that idea like a virus until it reaches critical mass, causing a tipping point for a new moral code. In order to test Gladwell’s Theory, this expedition digs deeply into the microbial world’s function and impact on society. What is the impact of disease and how does it spread? Are there good microbes and bad ones? What causes the change? How can we relate this process to the United States’ long struggle with social justice? What are the specific tipping points when long-held ideas suddenly go viral and finally, how does divergence contribute to a healthier environment for the planet and its inhabitants?
Links: Project Design

Danielle Cunningham, Falls Lake Academy, Granville County
8th Grade Science
4 weeks, approximately 45 minutes one day a week, 4 class periods

Driving Question: How can you provide environmental stewardship to our community? Students will scientific investigate the air, water and soil quality to understand the importance of these raw materials and identify ways to improve the misuse of these resources.
Summary:Falls Lake Academy students will analyze renewable resources in Granville County. Students will research the current environmental problems and brainstorm sustainable goals that can change the local county’s current pollution problems. Through this simulation students will go on a field trip to the water treatment plant, have guest speakers, design models, and investigate ways to enhance their community. During this PBL students will make connections about the way science intersects with society and ways to reduce risk that impact life on Earth.
Links: Project Design
Erin Linn, Central Park School for Children, Charter, Durham County
3rd Grade
12+ weeks
Driving Question: What can we as third graders build to bring people together?
Summary:My students have a natural curiosity and inclination to build things, using whatever materials are available. This year they’ve built things using Legos, magnetic tiles, paper, cardboard, tape, and random supplies like egg cartons and plastic containers. Most of what they’ve made has been interesting for a moment, but the enthusiasm for and quality of the product hasn’t lasted. I wanted to create a project where my class could build something that would last. Knowing that I had to teach the science of motion and energy, I coupled that learning with an exploration of structures in our nearby community and a series of guest expert discussions so my students could learn the value of building things that are made to last. We also discussed some needs for new structures in our school community and settled on the need for a place kids can come to when they’re feeling lonely, want to make new friends, or are experiencing conflict. We settled on the idea of a bench or sitting area, much like the “Buddy Bench” system. We learned how to design and build models using cardboard and clay framing, with poured plaster as our medium. The kids put together scenes with the bench, ground, and even some trees and bird baths.We plan to post pictures and descriptions of each model so that the rest of the school community can give feedback in order to help us refine and choose what elements of bench design we should keep for our final build. After that, we have “hired” a landscape architect to create a construction detail drawing of the bench which we will pass off to our “hired” sculptor. The sculptor will build the frame and reinforcements here at school in our art studio so that the kids can observe the process. Then we will pour the concrete, let it set, and remove the frame. Until we get approval from Durham City Parks and Recreation, we will keep the bench on our school property. When we have approval, we will install the bench in Old North Durham Park, where we play each day at recess. We will teach the rest of the school how the buddy bench works, and will hopefully have created a space where students will find companionship for years to come. Stay tuned!
Links: Project Design
Morgan Carney, Central Park Middle School, Charter, Durham County
6th Grade Science, Social Studies, ELA, Math
20 weeks, amount of time varies in different classes

Driving Question: Can we change the world by changing what we eat?
Summary:During the first semester of sixth grade, students explored the question, “Can we change the world by changing what we eat?” Students examined the impact food production and consumption has on our community and our world, dove into topics about ecology and the environment, explored social concerns including food scarcity/deserts and migrant farmworkers’ rights, learned about the history of ancient agricultural technology, and applied the many ways that ratios, decimals, and other mathematical concepts fit into the way we eat. In science, students explored ecosystems and biomes, botany and flowering plants, soil and land stewardship, and concepts of heat transfer through cooking. Social studies classes looked at the rise of civilizations in the Middle East and northern Africa based on their access to food and animal sources, as well as tools that geographers use to examine population growth and timelines. In language arts, students read Esperanza Rising and participated in literature circles, reading books such as Omnivores Dilemma, World Without Fish, and Seedfolks. At our culminating event at the Durham Armory, students created displays featuring their knowledge on food-related expert topics from sustainable seafood to farmworkers rights, community partners involved in food set up informational tables, and students discussed the knowledge they had developed to share sustainable food practices with Durham and beyond.
Links: Project DesignProject Calendar


2016-17 Fellows’ Projects


Shannon Russell Hardy, Mentor, The Exploris School, Charter, Wake County
8th Grade Science, Social Studies, ELA
4 weeks, approximately 45 minutes per day, 4 days per week
Driving Question: How we can secure the right to safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all humans?
Summary: Exploris 8th graders investigated how our democratic ideals have impacted local, NC, and federal water policy.  They dug deep on issues including stormwater runoff, urban wetlands, the deregulation of Falls Lake, and the impact of flooding from Hurricane Matthew.  Students used the process created by Design for Change to explore how scarcity and the unequal distribution of water impact us. They sought to answer the question, “How can we secure the right to safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all humans?” They carefully documented research, transcribed content, and filmed video. Through interactions with industry leaders, politicians, and environmentalists, students analyzed the monetary, environmental, and social cost of water. They imagined possible futures, developed solutions, and executed a change of their own design.
Links: Project Design , Expedition Overview
Lauren Boop, Fellow, Hilburn Academy, Wake County
6th Grade Social Studies
2 weeks, approximately 90 minutes per day, 5 days per week, 10 class periods
Driving Question: How can we, as historians and scientists/potamologists, create exhibits that showcase the detrimental effects of life without rivers and/or clean rivers?
Summary: Hilburn Sixth Grade Social Studies students will do a comparative analysis case study between Ancient Civilizations and North Carolina today on the reliance on rivers to support a society. Through hands-on inquiry, design models, public service announcements and investigations, students will make connections about what life would be like without rivers in both ancient societies and today’s world through a pop-up museum display. Through their analysis, students will determine what next steps need to be taken to help protect NC rivers and why these next steps are necessary for a thriving community.
Link: Project Design
Jennifer Browndorf, Fellow, Hilburn Academy, Wake County
6th Grade Science & 6th-8th Grade Animal Science
4 weeks, approximately 90 minutes every other day, 2-3 days per week
Driving Question: How can we, as environmental citizens, create a product  to educate our community about issues and solutions to improve the status of wildlife listed as NC species of special concern?
Summary: “In nature, nothing exists alone.” ~Rachel Carson
Hilburn 6th-8th graders investigated how wildlife resource management decisions have impacted local animal species.  They dug deep on issues of wildlife policy in NC, on urban & suburban fragmentation, on status of species of special concern in our local natural communities, and on the impact of the Wildlife Action Plan for NC.  Students used the processes of PBL to explore how threats to natural communities  impact animals. They sought to answer the question, “How can we, as environmental citizens, create a product  to educate our community about issues and solutions to improve the status of wildlife listed as NC species of special concern?” They carefully documented research, designed augmented reality auras, transcribed content, and created artifacts. Through interactions with the Wildlife Action Plan, NC Wildlife Resource Commission, and Piedmont Wildlife Center, students analyzed the environmental impact of human decisions. They became hopeful for better futures, advocated for solutions, and educated the community through their own museum product design.
Link: Project Design
Meg Millard, Fellow, Central Park School for Children, Durham County
4th Grade Science, Social Studies, ELA
8 weeks, 3-5 times a week for 1 hour, additional field work and guest speakers
Driving Question: How can we, as 4th graders, convince our friends and families to reduce their environmental impact on our watershed?
Summary: Central Park 4th graders will explore and learn about the watershed in which we live. They will have first hand experiences  along the streams and rivers of the Neuse River watershed. These experiences will include Ellerbe Creek,  a 2 day trip to the Eno River, paddle canoes around Falls Lake, and explore the Cliffs of the Neuse State Park (where they will release shad fry).  Students will have opportunities to talk with biologists, both at school and at their places of work, to learn more about our watershed and some of the threats to the water and wildlife.  Organizations such as the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, The Eno River Association, and the Ellerbe Creek Association, as well as state parks within the watershed will be utilized for expert assistance, advice, information and for field work.  Additionally, we will raise American Shad and learn about their life cycle and historical population changes, and how changes to the watershed have affected this species.   Environmental impacts affecting the Neuse River watershed will be explored and considered as we investigate the historical changes to shad populations.  Students will consider ways they can help shad (and other wildlife) and how they might influence others to help protect and preserve our watershed and wildlife in our area. We will explore ways that human impacts on the watershed can be reduced. Students will then work in small groups to design ways to encourage their friends and families to work at reducing their impact on our watershed  (some of which could include leaving a buffer between tilled areas and streams, using biodegradable soaps, volunteering with local organizations such as the Ellerbe Creek Association to help with clean ups, not using herbicides and pesticides around their yards, planting native plants,…)
Link: Project Design
Kathy Wall, Fellow, Ballentine Elementary , Wake County
4th Grade Science, Social Studies, ELA
8 weeks, 3-5 times a week for 1 hour, additional field work and guest speakers
Driving Question: How can we, as 4th graders, convince our friends, families, and the community of Fuquay-Varina to reduce their environmental impact on water?
Summary: Ballentine 4th graders will explore and learn where their water comes from and discover that it is a limited resource. They will learn that our population is increasing, and as our population increases the need for clean water will increase. Students will learn that community members need to preserve and conserve the water in our water supply. Learners will have first-hand experiences from volunteers from the Climate Reality Project, The Center for Human and Earth Restoration, and the City of Fuquay’s Public Works Director. These experiences will include taking information from the Climate Reality Project and making solar fans, solar ovens and a solar car. Students completed research on how climate change is effecting wildlife and weather. Students will also have an opportunity to make biospheres in jars and observe and create investigations on the organisms in the biosphere. Students will test how every day products we put in the water effects the water quality. Soaps, toothpaste and detergents will contaminate the water leading students to be conscientious of what we put in our water. Students also had an opportunity to interview and learn from the Public Works Director of Fuquay-Varina. Students learned that Fuquay-Varina purchases water from the City of Raleigh and Harnett County. They learned that the school and students living in the city purchase water collected from the Neuse River Basin and the Cape Fear River Basin. They learned water has to be treated and distributed to their homes. Students made models of the distribution and learned how our water quality has changed over time. The students learned that water has to be treated with chemicals so it is drinkable. This raised a lot concerns. During this time Chapel Hill had a water crisis and our town was changing the process of how our water was treated so there was a noticeable smell in the water. The Public Works Director emphasized that one of the best ways students could help the distribution of water was to not pollute the water and reduce the amount of water that we use. Students considered ways in which they could reduce the amount of water they use, and save money. Students then worked in small groups to design ways to encourage friends, family, and the community to reduce the amount of water we use and preserve our water resources. Together students are coming up slogans and advertisements to encourage citizens to use less plastics by using reusable water bottles and straws, reducing the amount of water used by either efficient toilets or getting water displacement objects in the back of toilets, and by taking shorter showers and turning off the water when brushing our teeth. Collectively we are making Fuquay-Varina Conservation Baskets with stickers, shower timers, reusable straws, and toilet tanks. Students will possibly present their presentation and gift baskets to other students in our school, a local service club, and representatives from the town of Fuquay. Possible slogans for the gift baskets are welcome to Fuquay-Varina, “a community that uses a dash less water and makes a dash less trash.”
Link: Project Design, Elementary School Science Students Tackle Conservation
Rose Syroid, Fellow, Horton Middle School, Chatham County
6th Grade Science
3 weeks, approximately 45 minutes per day, 5 days per week
Driving Question: How can we as 6th graders decrease the amount of sediments that negatively affect our drinking water supply and beautify our campus at the same time?
Summary: Students create water gardens and reroute water from impermeable surfaces into rain barrels. Students learn the consequences of erosion, deposition and how to  be stewards of clean water.  Students work in teams to research and develop sustainable improved run-off solutions on campus. The end result is keeping sedimentation out of storm drains and ultimately drinking water. Also, Students work to beautify the campus as well as correct erosion issues that are compromising a walkway.
Link: Project Design