Taft faculty stepped away from their traditional teaching roles for one hour last week to engage in a bit of “homegrown professional development,” says Dean of Faculty Edie Traina, “developed for the community, by the community.”
The Winter Workshop program was conceptualized by Taft’s Professional Education and Growth (PEG) Committee seven years ago, and invites faculty members to develop and lead educational seminars, or to attend sessions delivered by their peers. This year, 13 workshops were offered across a variety of disciplines, and included contemporary topics like social media and student learning, gender inclusivity, and culturally responsive lesson design; practical skill training on things like recommendation writing and using Google Suite apps; and prep school essentials, from teaching leadership to understanding team dynamics.
For Science Teacher Dan Calore, the PEG Winter Workshops were an opportunity to share some of the research, findings, and classroom strategies that not only shape his teaching, but drive his personal passion for teaching and learning. With support from the PEG Grant program, Calore earned a Master of Science in Science Education last summer, and was awarded the outstanding research prize for his work on project-based learning in the science classroom. He used Taft’s Performance Engineering class as the model for his research; Calore also collected data from students enrolled in Taft’s Forensics and Scientific Ethics course. All three classes, he says, are largely project-based.
“Sixty-two percent of the students I interviewed indicated that they did not truly enjoy science before taking these courses,” notes Calore. “After taking science classes that approach learning in a bit of a different way, they actually liked science again. That seems to say that we’re really on to something with project-based learning.”
And after years of multifaceted study, researchers in the Physics Department at the University of Washington agree: Inquiry- and project-based learning not only improve students’ understanding of content and concepts, they improve long-term retention, as well.
“What we actually do is what really sticks,” says Calore.
Calore’s own research also shows that students respond to the key components of project-based learning.
“They like that it is hands-on, they like that it is based in real-world applications, and they like that they are having fun while they’re learning,” says Calore. “In more traditional settings, students often feel like they are sitting back absorbing material. Project-based learning allows for more active learning—it is largely student-driven, and allows for frequent and open collaboration and discussion. Those are the things our students like, and that get them going.”
Project-based learning allows students to work on a project over an extended period of time—some for as little as a week, others through a thematic unit, occasionally even for a full semester—that engages them in solving a real-world problem or complex inquiry. Project-based learning always culminates with students presenting their findings in some public format.
“There still may be some lecture component,” notes Calore. “Teachers still provide scaffolding. They may talk about concepts, talk about expected results, and talk about the materials. Students then have to dive in and figure out steps and procedure. It allows them to be creative, and to take ownership of the process. It also allows them to make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes without penalty.”
And while some classes lend themselves better to project-based learning than others, Calore believes the benefits far outweigh the additional planning that introducing and incorporating projects might require. He encouraged PEG Workshop attendees to start small, developing simple projects around simple curricular elements. Science Teacher and workshop attendee Alison Frye intends to do just that.
“I am always trying to incorporate more hands-on activities into the curriculum, and attended this workshop hoping to come away with some ideas on how I could make my classes more interactive and student-centered,” says Frye. “I appreciated Dan's advice on getting started—that you don't need to completely redesign your classes all at once, that you can start with one concept and grow from there. Next week I'll be taking an existing lab activity and flipping it so it presents as more of an exploratory activity. I hope this allows the students to ‘discover’ the concept along the way rather than me simply telling them the concept. Although this takes more class time to achieve, the hope is that they have a deeper understanding of the concept when they're done.”
And while science courses seem to inherently and effectively support project-based learning, Calore hopes his colleagues will adapt the approach across disciplines. English Fellow Sierra Berkel sees value in trying; she hopes to bring the concept into her lower mid English classroom during the Spring Semester.
“I am really interested in how alternative modes of learning can impact student engagement in the classroom,” says Berkel. “When done right, project-based learning can create flow experiences for students, handing them agency and the ability to focus on what's going on in the moment. As Dan noted, this would require a collaborative working relationship between colleagues, scaffolding, and a significant amount of time; however, the impact would be monumental.”
The Professional Education and Growth Committee is one of Taft's 17 standing committees, comprised of both faculty and staff, which meet regularly to enhance and expand all aspects of our school community. Other committees include Academic Technology, Global Leadership and Service, Gender, and Spiritual Life. The charge of the PEG Committee is, "to assist in the development of the faculty through programming for professional growth and providing oversight for the Professional Education Grant (PEG) program. " The PEG charge is realized through programming such as the Winter Workshops, sponsoring outside speakers like Dr. Michael Thompson and the Stanley King Institute, as well as reviewing the 80+ summer grant applications that are submitted each spring.