Project Based Learning (“PBL”) at RUHS: Bringing Students & Community Together to Address and Resolve Common Issues

Project Based Learning (PBL), an inquiry-based, community focused learning initiative introduced at RUHS two years ago, is quickly gaining in popularity, both among students and members of the local community.  And according to PBL Director Caty Sutton, it’s been very gratifying to see it come together.

“Especially,” she said, “as the school moves closer to implementing a Proficiency Based Learning model that allows students to become proficient, and then demonstrate that proficiency, in the courses of study they’ve chosen.”

“Project Based Learning is essentially learning through engagement and challenge,” Sutton said. “And it complements in-class learning by helping students experience first hand what they’re studying in class or reading in a book.”

“Almost anyone can read a book and get a passing grade,” she said. “But they can still be a long way off from actually understanding the material or being able to put it into practice. Proficiency Based Learning is supported and in many ways achieved through the activities involved in our PBL classes.” 

“This year,” Sutton said, “we have six different challenges for students to choose from. Some are repeats from last year that are being offered again to give more students a chance to try them out, while others are being offered for the first time. And just like in the first two years, each project is led by the students and guided by a teacher who serves as a facilitator.”

“Part of what’s unique about having students lead the courses,” she continued, “is that they come to realize that things don’t always go as planned. The outcomes toward which they’re working – just like in real life – can be subject to change. Part of the PBL learning experience is helping students adjust to those changes without losing sight of the intended outcomes, or, like life, learning how to reassess their intended outcomes in light of what’s changed.” 

The six PBLs planned for the 2016-17 academic year are:

The Health Initiative: Is our community healthy?

Led by teacher Mike Gray, the Health Initiative PBL will analyze and assess why people in our local community are falling ill and (sometimes) dying from preventable health conditions.  This challenge will explore preventative measures that can be taken, such as creating an awareness of the ingredients that exist in the popular foods we consume on a daily basis; creating a customized exercise routine; and understanding the differences between many of the health trends that have emerged in the fitness world over the past few years. Students will develop a deep understanding of nutrition and physical fitness and will partner with local leaders and organizations to help people lead healthier lives. This course will appeal to students interested in careers in athletic training, physical therapy, nutrition, and related medical fields. 

The Leak meets Radio Free Randolph (RFR): If youth produce the news, will more youth listen to or read the news?

Led by English teacher Jamie “JK” Connor, The Leak Meets Radio Free Randolph will look at local, national, and international news in a way that is not only relevant and compelling to young people, but that also pushes the envelope to uncover hard-hitting and potentially controversial local and school topics. The idea is that the connection between students and community members will grow stronger if both parties have a stake in the stories being reported. Working with local journalists and professionals, students will learn the tools of radio and print journalism. By the end of the first semester, the class will operate like a real news team with production meetings, deadlines, and a final product ready for print and/or broadcast. This challenge will appeal to students who are interested in careers in journalism, education, editing, radio, and production.

RAND: How can documentary filmmaking help us find solutions to pressing social issues?

Surveys taken across Vermont indicate a troubling perception among young people that they aren’t valued by their communities.  In this PBL challenge led by Health teacher Deb Lary, students will partner with members of the local community to bring many of the issues and concerns faced by today’s youth – including stress, poverty, teen pregnancy, addiction, sexuality, and depression – to light. They will be introduced to the mechanics of documentary filmmaking and will then produce individual films designed to have a positive social impact, both locally and beyond.  This challenge will appeal to students interested in fields such as film production and editing, graphic arts, social work, and education.

Interact: How do we ensure that the most vulnerable of our community members get what they need?

Led by Social Studies teacher Scott Sorrell, the Interact PBL will focus on bringing about positive social change, no matter what an individual’s background or personal situation may be. Students will work in partnership with the RU Interact Club, helping to fulfill the club’s mission of implementing local and international service projects. But they won’t just do the work; they will look below the surface, follow the trail, and investigate the organizations and people they are working with. This PBL will encourage students to take what they know about the world and their passions, and connect that knowledge to their strengths, skills, and future objectives. This challenge will appeal to students interested in career fields such as social work, general management, international affairs, political science, government, and business.

Archeology and Indigenous Peoples: What can the buried past tell us about the present?

Led by Social Studies teacher Ben Weir, this PBL will examine the treatment of indigenous peoples in the United States – an issue that’s been a point of controversy for centuries – and ask the questions:  How do we honor and respect people who have been marginalized and mistreated? What, if anything, do we owe them now? Students in this PBL will consider these questions while learning the fundamentals of archeology, which will help them increase their knowledge and understanding of indigenous peoples, particularly the Pueblo Indians. Later in the course they will apply their knowledge and skills on a trip to the Crow Canyon campus in Cortez, Colorado, where they will participate in a tangible study of archeology near the Mesa Verde National Park. Prior to the trip, students will work with local community experts and professionals, as well as engage in hands-on project work to better understand that “everyone’s history matters.” This PBL will appeal to students who are interested in exploring the fields of archeology, history, sociology, and political science.

Restorative Justice: Do our schools and courts treat people fairly?                     

Do VT schools discipline students fairly?  Do some kinds of students get suspended more often than others?  Does being suspended from school have any connection to the dropout rate?  And what about our legal system: Do our courts treat people fairly?  Does VT have too many prisons - or not enough?  Should people with mental health challenges go to jail if they commit a crime? How should people with opiate addiction be treated when in custody? In this PBL challenge led by Co-principal Elijah Hawkes and social studies teacher Isaiah Pinilla, students will look at Restorative Justice practices and how schools and communities can help people find ways to heal and repair - while still holding them accountable for wrongdoing.  Students will work with local advocacy groups, law enforcement, human rights activists, and legal experts to determine what can be done in our schools and communities to ensure that people are treated fairly - even when they make mistakes and do harm to others. This PBL will appeal to students who are interested in careers in law, criminal justice, public policy, and human rights.



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