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by Aaron Brengard
Principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School

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Topic tags: collaboration, 21st century competencies


November 10, 2014
Collaboration and High-Quality Student Work


by Aaron Brengard
Principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School

In groups of three, student teams pushed their cardboard boats into the murky water and nervously worked together to row out to a deeper part of the lake.  With each shifting movement the uncertainty showed on their faces as the cardboard and packing tape contraptions strained under the weight of the three amateur sailors. Students called out directions to one another to keep these team-designed boats afloat. Hundreds of other students from the school, along with local media, stood on the shore cheering every moment. 

On this cool, winter day, these fifth graders were completing the final exhibition of a project called “Sink or Float” that challenged them to design and sail a cardboard boat that would hold a three-person team.  Students were asked to use concepts of area, perimeter, volume, mass, density, water displacement and buoyancy to engineer a boat, made out of only cardboard and packing tape, that would hold three student crew members. It was Project Based Learning at its finest – a challenging problem, a public product, authentic application of knowledge, and, of course, collaboration.  Regardless of the outcome the shared effort and collective responsibility led to a highly engaging learning experience for these fifth graders.

At Katherine Smith School, a public neighborhood PBL school in San Jose, CA, we have a mission to prepare students to think, learn, work, communicate, collaborate, and contribute.  We call these the K. Smith Habits, and we work everyday to integrate and exemplify these habits to prepare our students for college and careers.  Of those six, collaboration is one that drives our innovation and pushes work to a higher quality.  Here is our definition:

“Collaborate constructively. Take responsibility for yourself and your team. Listen with empathy and understanding with a commitment to shared success. Give and receive feedback.” -K. Smith Habits

Projects like “Sink or Float” organized students to work together to complete the task. They were not working together because it was fun – it was essential to the success that each member participate in the design, prototyping, and real-life test of the life-size cardboard boats.  It began when students worked to calculate the collective weight of their groups.  They then ran a series of tests to predict results and study the principles of buoyancy.  Once the scientific formulas had been calculated, it was time to make the full-scale boat that would hold the group. The final test was going to put them in the boat in a local lake. Group members worked together to build, cut and tape the boats into shape. In each stage of this project, collaboration was authentically needed.   Each student was needed to do his or her part, while being committed to the shared success of the outcome.  Let’s face it, an “A” or “F” did not dictate or motivate a better outcome.  This project had a built in incentive – stay warm and dry and out of the murky water.  Students knew their roles and contributed collectively to meet that natural outcome.

Collaboration is an essential part of our culture at K. Smith School – it raises up the quality of all work. Like the students, it’s just as important that each of us work together.  In the case of the adults, our role is to design high quality PBL.  Teachers take responsibility for the collective team.  Often it’s said that we need to model good practices for students.  The term “modeling” has a hint of inauthenticity, but collaboration is an essential practice.  Without it we would all be lost.  We believe that working together makes us better and without one another we will not reach the level of work that brings us closer to exceeding our expectations.

As one group’s boat began to take on water, the team of fifth graders desperately paddled toward the shore. The students’ tension rose like the water level in their failing cardboard structure.  However, these students weren’t sad or disappointed.  They were smiling ear to ear because through the failure they had found one another.  They were a team.  Standing on the shore, I watched group after group of students in cardboard boats enter the water with a real need for one another. Whether dry or wet when they got out, they were connected.  High quality work comes through collaboration, especially when that work authentically requires the contributions of each member.


  • I’d like to create a similar PBL experience for my high school Geometry classes in the spring.  Could you please put me in contact with the teacher who created this opportunity? 
    Marcel Duhaime
    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    mduhaime on November 10, 2014 
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  • Awesome!

    Joyastarr on November 13, 2014 
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  • I am a coordinator of an after school program in Watauga, Texas and would love to know more about the planning on this great opportunity. Can you share those plans? Thanks!

    Hardeman ASPIRE on December 18, 2014 
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  • Wonderful project! I feel so lame, i did the float and sink with foil boats and pennies with my fifth graders!

    lmeiring on February 11, 2015 
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