Project Based Learning PBL – Operation Sandbox; a primary school case study

‘Make the call,’ the stage 2 class chanted during the final part of our project as students rang a supplier to order and pay for a truckload of sand to refill the sand box. 

Project Based Learning, Challenge Based Learning, Purpose Based learning; call it what you will. The key is that it challenges both teacher and student to get out of their comfort zone (read boring for all, teach to the middle, not differentiated, textbooks etc.) and develop understandings through collaborative, authentic and real world challenges.

As we move to greater inquiry driven, differentiated and student centred learning opportunities, PBL through inquiry is a key enabler for success.

This term I set a PBL task a little different to my normal key learning area inquiry units and had students investigate, research and complete the task of refilling the school sandbox. Operation Sandbox was born as one student enthusiastically termed it!

With an empty sandbox that Kinder would like to use but couldn’t I had the ideal real world project with a meaningful outcome for the students to work on. Of course I could have asked the school office to ring up, order the sand and have it delivered but that would remove any opportunity for the students to make a meaningful contribution and engage in what turned out to be rewarding and insightful learning experience for all.

The Youtube video showcases the project and I’ll outline the key stages and make some observations.

I had the class form their own teams of 3-5 and took them to the sandbox, an empty box of around two metres by two metres and 45cm deep (of course they did not know this at the time, that was the challenge!). I then made it clear that the learning intention over the next three weeks was that our class, 3/4B had to calculate and order the correct amount of sand and have it delivered.

I then stepped back and had the groups go to work, they talked, debated and set about deciding what they had to do and what equipment they might use. Some students had a concept of area and that it was based on two sides, others knew that the words volume and capacity were involved. Initially none knew the formula to find the required volume.

After the first session each group shared their initial thoughts – use metre rulers, use 30cm class rulers, tape measures, 1000s blocks and one and two litre water containers. It was a real mix of strategies and ideas, and just what I hope to see, a cross pollination of ideas with some ideas stronger and more complete than others. Yet none were weak and all had real merit, even if they were not all practical as we would find out!

Over the next two weeks we had practical sessions and theory sessions. The practical sessions involved measuring, stacking 1000s blocks, running frantically with litre jugs of water. There was excitement, frustration, reflection and ‘gotcha’ or ‘uh ha’ moments when things stuck and concepts and skills were mastered.

Students discovered that volume and capacity are different, that finding the area only gets you so far, that measuring and re-measuring were important for accuracy (this was maths after all!). They went online to find local sand suppliers, asked me for the school credit card and looked at calendars and timetables to see the best times for delivery.

In the last week, three of the five groups achieved a volume calculation for the correct amount of sand, these were the groups using rulers and tape measures. I gave some clarification on the formula of length, width and depth but only when the students had forward the base idea. The group using 1000s blocks achieved area, but stalled at making two layers or doubling their base layer. The water group were wonderful to work with and are well represented in the video; their misconceptions and insights as they worked on the project are a delight to see. They chose water as they saw sand as a liquid, flowing if you like. Their thinking was interesting and they maintained a sense of humour even when things did not pan out as they had predicted. In this sense, their resilience was heartening to see. PBL challenges resilience and mindset.

So yes, eventually we made the call and two students used the credit card to order the sand and have it delivered. Kindergarten were and are happy, though just last week I saw that the sand is already thinning and much is on the ground where the children have built little castles and the like. So soon the opportunity will repeat itself and another class will take its turn. I’m already on the lookout for rooms needing painting, floors needing covering, gardens needing soil and so on. And that’s without looking beyond the school fence to where strong community and local connections can be made and successes celebrated.

PBL requires teamwork, commitment, reflection, a sense of humour and real effort; all things that we need to nurture and encourage in our students. Importantly it can be fun and makes teaching all the more enjoyable for the teacher and learning all the more enjoyable for students when adequate time and support are provided.

Real Science – Citizen Science

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching science to school students is the ability to use citizen science projects and programs to engender real learning and validity to the learning experience.

When students are asked to collect, consider and submit data or utilise a data set to make conclusions, the experience should offer greater opportunities for aspects of learning such as student engagement, deep learning and higher order thinking aspects to suggest a few. Here is a great read from KQED.

I know that when I work with real data or submit data I gain a greater sense of satisfaction through knowing that I am engaged with real science; I am observing and recording, collecting and analyzing, hypothesizing and concluding.

A new an exciting Australian project is TeachWild, monitoring marine debris in our waters and especially focusing on small plastics that are so inviting and fatal to seabirds and marine life. A great ABC Catalyst article can be found here.

I have written about Birds in Backyards in Australia and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Lab in Ithaca, NY previously and the innovative programs they both have on offer.  Having lived on the coast for many years I have always maintained an interest in marine and environmental education.

With data sets available that explore great white shark movements, penguin counts and recently the ability to contribute to whale shark population and movement counts in Western Australia diverse teaching opportunities are available.

The next time you are thinking about teaching science, consider citizen science and how you as an educator can contribute not only to a student’s deep knowledge and learning but also through encouraging them to make a real difference in the world.

USA Study Tour Oct 2009

Note -this blog was updated with new material from Lehigh University, FrostValley YMCA, SUNY Cortland and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on Nov 3 – it follows at the bottom of the page.

This blog was updated on October 26 with new material on Yosemite and Monterey Bay – it follows at the bottom of the page.


This weblog is before you because of the opportunity presented as a recipient of a NSW Premier’s Teacher’s Scholarship in Science sponsored by Macquarie Capital. Thank you Mick Lilley at Macquarie Capital for making this exciting study tour possible, This blog enables a quick and efficient means of keeping family, friends, students, fellow teachers and other interested readers up to date on selected highlights of the trip. A comprehensive study paper and report will follow on my return.

I can be contacted at Sussex Inlet Public School and through email at

Up Up and Away…

Having arrived at LA I transferred to a late afternoon flight to Seattle, Washington. With clear skies and a window seat the panoramic expanse of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite ( ahead in the schedule) teased from below. As we flew over Oregon and Washington the high peaks of Mt Hood, Mount St Helens and finally Mt Rainier were visible below. A spectacular way to start the trip.

Island Wood – The School in the Woods – Bainbridge Island, Seattle

Having picked up the hire car and nervously navigating to the hotel with a non-functioning GPS (technology can fail us all!) an early night was in order. The next morning and with the GPS rebooted and working (phew) I caught the morning ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. A few minutes after arriving I ented the forest (bush?, woods?) that is home to Island Wood School. Island Wood is a residential environmental education centre with a commitment to sustainability demonstrated through efficient waste management and water recycling, a school garden and solar power. My host Dr Clancy Wolfe has played a significant role in the school’s development and I was fortunate enough to have a comprehensive tour of the buildings, gardens, suspension bridge and fire tower. From a technology in environmental education perspective Clancy utilises ICT when it enhances an opportunity for learning. Examples include the microscope lab, weather stations and of interest to myself GPS activities and the use of Ipods as aids in bird watching. When an educator is in the field with a group of students and a bird is sighted the Ipod is produced and used to identify the species (album cover), provide detailed text( lyrics) and with the aid of a small speaker play the birds call (mp3). In this instance the Ipod is functioning as a field guide but with the added advantage of the actual bird call. This example of technology in the field could be incorporated into environmental education centres, sport and recreation centres and schools at a reasonable cost. The content itself could be generated by students through visual art and via sourcing images, mp3s and data as part of a web research project. All up a winner! Thanks Clancy for sharing your knowledge.

Island Wood School Ipods in the field Ipods in the field

North American Association of Environmental Education Conference – Portland, Oregon

A drive down Interstate 5 saw me arrive in Portland, Oregon for the North American Association of Environmental Education Conference. Day one was spent on a field trip with twenty other teachers exploring schoolyard gardens and habitats at local Portland schools. The key to making these gardens work was a combination of factors including;

    • student and class ownerships

    • parent and community partnerships

    • an acceptance of problems (weeds, bugs, pests)as offering learning moments

    • promoting stewardship ( a recurring theme in USA environmental education)

At Mary Woodward School in Tigard it was exciting to see classes designing and planting gardens based on themes such as book titles and colours. Sunflowers and pumpkins were common in all gardens as both offer striking flowers and produce.

Woodward School Garden Colour designed garden bed Narrative focus garden

Three days of workshops, seminars and collegiality!

The next three days were spent attending sessions that ranged from 45 minutes to 90minutes. With over 1400 delegates and up to twenty (yes twenty) concurrent sessions it was an exciting and draining time. Sessions I participated in included Google Maps, Using Technology to get Kids Outdoors, Global Warming Learning using Online Data, Streamwatch/Salmon watch, Measuring ICT use in Teacher Education, Art/Science In Environmental Education, Teaching Partnerships and Nature Journaling. Evenings were spent with fellow attendees at dinners, an open night at the Oregon Museum of Science, and informal social gatherings. I met teachers and educators from Ethiopia, Spain, Canada, New Zealand along with a few other Aussies.

Outcomes in brief!

We have increasing access to global real time data for snapshots and student learning

Local programs are increasing looking to go global – citizen science across the web – web2.0 applications

The power of partnerships that leverage individual group’s strengths should not be underestimated. For a school this means engaging with the community, businesses, councils and agencies that bring expertise and passion in developing and supporting school programs. This in turn strengthens community pride and stewardship of the local school and habitat areas.

Technology – increasing access to web based programs/initiatives and the need to use valid technology that is intuitive and requires minimal teacher/student learning.

On the Road

The Oregon coast was spectacular and sea lions surfed and jumped in the waves below Hecate Lighthouse. On through the redwoods and elk, deer and the majestic “Avenue of Giants”. Then into across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco.

Elk Valley Oregon Coast Avenue of Giants - Redwoods

Headlands Institute, San Francisco

The weather changed and the rains came for the first storm of the season as I crossed the bridge and made my way to meet Bec Dietrich at the Naturebridge Headlands Institute on the Marin Headlands and the former site of the Nike missile project. Headlands runs student day and residential programs and even has a regular kindergarten class that attends an overnight trip each year. Field studies are strong and on this day the children braved the wet and wild weather before returning to the marine laboratory and inquiry based studies using the microscopes. Students sampled freshly collected algae from the lagoon and sought to identify various micro-organisms against a specimen sheet. Students were engaged and curious and detailed their findings in a comprehensive field journal provided to each student. Interesting finds were then broadcast via a data projector link and the entire group were able to share information and discuss the image.

From Australia to California - thanks Bec! The microscope lab at Headlands Institute A budding scientist I visited the Marine Mammal Centre next door which rehabilitates injured marine life; mainly seals and sea lions. Many make it and those that don’t have an autopsy done (necropsy) autopsy

KQED- Quest Science Explorations

Housed in downtown San Francisco KQED is a public broadcaster for the Bay area. As well as providing television and radio content KQED has a strong science education focus incorporating content from tv and radio into learning initiatives as well as working with schools on the Explorations developed using Google Maps. Jessica Neely the Project Supervisor generously hosted a visit and we explored how teachers and students can collaborate on creating community/local maps using Google Maps. These maps can contain photos, video , text or scanned images of students art work that combine to create a multimedia presentation on the topic of choice. A wonderfully flexible, creative and interactive tool for developing individual or class projects. A great example of class work can be seen here.

California Academy of Science

The Academy is housed in a spectacular new building that opened a year ago in Golden Gate Park. The roof is a ‘living garden’ representative of the local flora and is surrounded by solar panels supplying much of the buildings required power. With the highest level of sustainability certification available the Academy is a model of sustainable design. With a focus on education through scientific inquiry I met with Helena Carmena. Helena guided me through the microscope lab and outlined the way in which it offers teachers and students opportunities to undertake investigations. An example being geology and the linking of mineral samples with consumable/manufactured products made of the same mineral.

We also explored the classroom kits that allow teachers to borrow a suitcase containing teaching and learning resources from the Academy’s collection for use in their school. An effective outreach program similar to the Australian Museum’s ‘Museum in a Box‘ initiative which is supported via the DET Connected Classrooms project.

The Academy is also using GPS units to undertake surveys and treasure hunts in the nearby park with a long term view of data collection and analysis.

California Academy of Science -thanks Helena! The Living Roof Rainforest Dome San Francisco

Alcatraz and Fog From Telegraph Hill Haight Ashbury Colour

Naturebridge – Yosemite Institute

Yosemite is everything John Muir believed in and more – extreme rock faces, towering granite, waterfalls and spectacular autumn/fall scenery. It’s also very busy – even in the off season with day visitors, overnighters and numerous rv’s and campers. I joined in with Bryan from the Naturebridge Yosemite Institute as he picked up his group for the week from AE White School near Los Angeles. Being the start of the week Bryan established basic guidelines for the students including communication, hygiene and expectations. We participated in team building initiatives and it was exciting to see students communicating and sharing as they explored the natural environment around them through observation, questioning and group discussion. A black bear seeking out apples in an old orchard proved a highlight.

Adam Burns, Field Scientist with the Institute has been incorporating GPS and Google Earth activities with some groups of late. This interesting initiative is being used to track wildlife on the valley floor via a standard GPS unit. Data is then exported into the open source program GPS Babel via a MS Excel or similar spreadsheet.. GPS Babel interfaces the data with Google Earth via the .csv file. The csv file is simply dragged into Google Earth and the coordinates are placed into the correct positions on the satellite image. By then sharing this data, students can log into Google Earth at home or in the classroom and complete post-field trip activities. Cybertracker is a program with similar capabilities as is MyWorld; both commercial programs.

In terms of cost effectiveness the biggest outlay would be for a GPS unit with many institutions using the basic Garmin Etrex which is available in Australia for around $125.

Bear on the valley floor In the field - thanks Bryan The famous Tunnel View El Capitan - big wall heavenclearing rain Blindfold Walk

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Much praise is lauded on the Monterey Bay Aquarium and from what I have experienced it is well placed. The Aquarium functions on many levels with departments focusing on the aquarium exhibits, animal husbandry, scientific research and education. Many employees and maybe even more enthusiastic volunteers combine to present a dynamic organisation committed to marine conservation. I spent two full days with team members and saw many areas of operation.

After a breakfast meeting with Education staff including Kimberley Swan, Mary Staley and Stacia Fletcher I travelled north to Pajero Valley High near Watsonville to experience the middle school WATCH program in action. WATCH (Watsonville Teens Conserving Habitats) is a great example of an effective partnership and outreach program between the Aquarium and a local school. Educators team with science teachers from the school to deliver an inquiry based science environmental science project for students in the middle years. The program features the embedded use of technology through the use of wikis, blogs and Nokia Xpress 5800 phones. Students use a wiki to take notes, formulate hypotheses and gather data. Once a research question has been approved student teams are assigned a field scientists from the Aquarium and conduct practical field studies. In the field the Nokia phones (without sim) are used as a multifunction data gathering tool able to record still and moving images, audio, web browsing for spontaneous field related research and GPS logging of position.

Back in the classroom data such as still images can be uploaded to a pc, opened in Picassa which has a geotag function and then exported to Google Earth for viewing.

This is certainly an innovative program and students who I interviewed appreciated the ability to capture images, web browse and geotag all with the one device. I understand there are some limitations as to GPS/web ability depending on location and wi-fi but the project is one that demonstrates, as does the Yosemite GPS work what may be possible in terms of creating programs that use technology to enable students to undertake true field based scientific inquiry studies. Again the term citizen (or community) science is evidenced in projects such as these.

I’d like to thank Kim Swan, Teens Program Manager along with Gary Martindale and the students of Pajero Valley High for allowing me to visit.

My second day at the Aquarium was busy and diverse. The morning started with a Behind the Scene tour that included a morning sea otter feeding along with the feeding of bat rays, trout and handfuls of squid, prawns and other yummies to fish in a larger tank. We participated in target and broad feeding and got a feel for the aquarist’s work. This was followed by a visit to the Discovery labs and time with Stacia and Pamela as they worked with elementary and middle schools in a hands-on investigation. Students participate in feeding, touch activities and observations of specimens such as abalone, sea stars, urchins and similar. The use of traditional methods includes the close up observation of specimens using Kenavision microscope cameras connected to flat screen monitors. This is more effective for this type of activity than stand alone microscopes and allows educators to communicate/demonstrate to all students as a group.

In the afternoon I met with Adam Yoshida, Tech Communications and we had a broad ranging chat about web 2.0 applications such as Twitter, Facebook and Wikis as means of facilitating communication and managing information. We also discussed an earlier program that used Ipods as a form of interactive tour platform. In this case the Ipod delivered niche topics for particular users who were comfortable with the personal nature of the device. It was noted that in these types of devices an intuitive nature is desired so that time and energy are not spent in attempting to understand or make the technology work – a recurring theme with virtually every educator I spoke with. Devices need to deliver the content or gather the data in a quick and easily understood manner.

Reference was also made to the Aquarium moving to a wiki as the main form of data and information management and delivery. This resulted in a move away from the standard folders, sub folders structure typical to Windows.

Lastly I’d like to thank Katy Scott, Education Technology for outlining how she has built the WATCH wiki and blogs using Drupal and demonstrating the Nokia/Picassa/GoogleEarth sequence of data management. Katy also had a Year 1 class blogging at her previous school – WOW!

Students preparing research questions Discovery Lab Specimen Discovery Lab Weedy SeadragonAutumn Colour

Lehigh University & Broughal Middle School, Belthlehem, Pennsylvania

After flying east I drove to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to meet Professor Alec Bodzin at Lehigh University. Al, doctoral student Tammie Pfeffer and the team are developing web based inquiry projects and the university has partnered with nearby Broughal Middle School. Al and his team have developed a number of past projects that have utilised GIS software such as ArcView to build online content with an environmental engineering focus. Examples include local watersheds studies to engage students and which make connections to the local environment. Past projects have had students using GPS units to record stormwater drain position data in their local area. The team have now moved to the educationally targeted MyWorld GIS software that offers greater ease of use for students and teachers. It is also a more affordable solution for educational institutions.

A current focus is the Environmental Initiative and Literacy project that centres on land use, energy and climate change. With Year 8 teacher Lori Cirruci running the class sessions, students are using Internet based modules consisting of teacher support material, student activities and custom screen images purpose built by Lehigh University using MyWorld, Google Earth and the open source Google Earth .kml file format. The key to this initiative is the provision of a structured web based learning platform that supports teachers in implementing inquiry based science learning. Students are assisted through the provision of interactive data files and other web resources.

Frost Valley YMCA, Claryville – Catskill Mountains, New York

A few hours north of Bethlehem lie the Catskill Mountains and hidden among the hills and woods is Frost Valley YMCA. The centre operates a number of programs and initiatives including its own forestry and maple syrup house (sugar house). The maple syrup process is fascinating as selected maples are tapped in spring and and the sap runs downhill through hundreds of feet of tubing to the the main tank where it is heated and water boiled off before bottling takes place.

Reid Bauer hosted my visit and we talked about the program structure, clientele, environmental programming and the use of technology. The centre is very much a hands on, experiential environmental centre similar to Island Wood or Yosemite Institute with a strong focus on active outdoor participation. Reid has developed a dedicated GPS program using Garmin 72 units with positive results and a few words of wisdom. Students are taught the elements of GPS navigation and device use before completing a geocache hunt. Geocaching is the practise of using GPS to find specific targets usually a small box or item. This activity incorporates maths, science and physical activity in a structured environment where success lies in navigating to the correct point. An extension at Frost Valley is to consider using GPS in field based science inquiry activities with students contributing to the forestry program through logging the coordinates of trees targeted for preservation, observation and the collection of growth data on an annual basis.

Reid made the point that for GPS activities to be successful in the camp environment instructors need to not only have a basic level of GPS knowledge but have confidence in the equipment’s ability to function reliably and accurately. Again the feedback is consistent with other educators when outlining the pitfalls of technology integration into general programs. Specifically those teachers that follow the early adopters( who will generally expect and accept technical challenges and resultantly plan for some failure along with a backup plan) want the equipment to be easily operated, reliable in operation and suitable for students to operate with minimal instruction. Typical issues include battery charging, access to user manuals and cheat sheets, the need for adequate staff training and developed lesson plans. Garmin 72 are preferred over the the Etrex as the 72 has all buttons on the face of the device and offers easy navigation. The Etrex has side buttons which take longer to become familiar with.

State University of New York – Cortland

The next day I made way to State University New York at Cortland to meet with Dr Beth Shiner Klein, Associate Professor of Science Education to discuss her Environmental Thematic Methods Block subject for undergraduate students. The subject incorporates both environmental themes and technology. We visited the Lime Hollow Centre for Environmental Education and met with Peter Harrity. We talked about students undertaking learning activities and ways in which students can connect to nature in the field. Beth has been having her teaching students build podcasts that are used to connect school students to the activities that they will undertake during field studies at Lime Hollow and similar centres. Later I met with John Pinto who has recently been using web based data such as that found at PowerNaturally to explore concepts of solar power and generation with his students. Live data is available from a number of schools that have solar panels fitted. Web 2.0 applications have allowed for international collaboration between schools with links developed between the USA and Australia. A comprehensive set of lesson plans are also available to support the solar power initiative.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York

A highlight to finish the trip was a visit to the fascinating Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca. Meeting with education staff including Colleen McLinn, Jennifer Fee, Tina Phillips and Karen Purcell we discussed the powers of citizen science to enthuse and engage schools and the community in real science. A keystone program is Birdsleuth which now has over one thousand schools participating and is a complete inquiry based program containing a number of units of work with extensive teacher support focusing on inquiry based research. Project Nestwatch, Project Feederwatch and Nestcam all demonstrate strong educational merit and could be adapted to Australia, ideally building off the solid example of