by Angela Marzilli
I love my work as the STEM and PBL Coordinator Pre-K - 12 in South Portland, Maine’s public school department. I get the chance to work with teachers in all content areas and grade levels, helping them to integrate content areas and 21st century competencies into projects for their students. I have such eclectic taste in my own learning (I’m just as likely to be reading a book on the Revolutionary War as one on the geometry of pasta) that I feel like the perfect person to help my teachers see connections between and among their disciplines.
As a young adult, I had a difficult time choosing a career path to follow. I was so curious about everything, I couldn’t decide on one subject I wanted to focus on. I became a teacher as a way to give myself the chance to learn about anything and everything my curiosity drove me to investigate. I always did projects with my students that were inquiry based and integrated, but when I found BIE’s Project Based Learning model, I knew I had found a way to be more organized in my planning as well as to be sure my projects were rigorous enough in developing content understanding and 21st century competencies.
I have so many favorite projects, but the first one that comes to mind is a STEM project I co-facilitated with another fifth grade teacher. We asked our students to develop sustainable groundfishing nets for use in the Gulf of Maine; we were studying fish, life cycles, and food webs. At one point our students said it would help them to create life-sized papier mache models of the fish they were studying. We ended up with a five-foot long papier mache halibut! It wouldn’t fit in my car in order for me to take it to our exhibition at our local shopping mall’s Sea Week, so I had to tie it to the top and drive very slowly all the way. The students enjoyed making their net prototypes—some were very high tech—and learned a lot about the fish in the Gulf of Maine at the same time.
Another project I loved was a kindergarten project about trees. I brought a letter into a kindergarten classroom which I told the students was from a cousin of mine who lived in Antarctica and had never seen a tree before. This started an investigation about how to tell that something is a tree; the students were learning about living and non-living things, as well as the differences between and among animals and plants. The culmination was the students developing products to send to this cousin demonstrating how to tell whether or not something is a tree. The project was a huge success, and when we were debriefing it with the students, one of them said “I just don’t understand how your cousin doesn’t know what a tree looks like, though. I mean, doesn’t he watch tv?”
I’m working on a project right now with my high school geometry students. It’s the first time I’ve done it, so I’m not sure how successful it will be. I’ve planned for students to investigate whether or not geometry can create the perfect plate of pasta. By determining the surface area of different forms of pasta, we can determine the best consistency of sauce to serve with that pasta. We have a partnership with a local fresh pasta company, and we’ve visited them to see how they compose their dishes. They have also agreed to be judges at our exhibition. The students are very engaged in the project idea. We’ve just started investigating different pasta shapes, and I’m excited to see where the project goes.
Lesson Learned About Too Much Choice
Last year I tried a new project I thought would be incredible, but I ended up having to take it back to the drawing board. Reflecting on it, I was giving students too much choice in their product and process, and they didn’t know where to begin. As eighth grade students, I thought they would be able to jump in and start, but there were very confused. I learned to be more careful with the way I scaffold projects for my students. Sometimes giving too much choice can be stifling just as much as giving too little, and asking my students to integrate too many content areas as well as asking them to organize the entire process on their own was too much.
My Work with BIE
Out of all the work I do for BIE, I think my favorite is coaching teachers in developing their projects. I love the feeling of sitting next to a teacher or group of teachers, rolling up my sleeves, and getting down to the work of thinking of ideas and planning wonderful learning experiences for students.
Sometimes teachers I work with have a hard time coming up with project ideas. My advice to them is always to stay inquisitive themselves. If you are curious about the world around you, you can’t help but come up with project ideas you and your students will be excited about doing.
For information about BIE’s professional development services, click here.
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