Engaging Students in High Quality Project-Based Learning Through the Ames Students Aiding Pollinators (ASAP) Project at Ames High School

by Mike Todd, Ames High School Science Teacher

Milkweed seed harvested from seed production plots at Ames High for distribution in the community

“I think I’m done,” Josh says as he turns a computer to show me his first draft of the ASAP logo that will be used on every other student pollinator project. As our conversation develops and he takes notes about the critiques I offer up, he realizes he isn’t done; not even close. Josh struggles through 8 more revisions, some followed by multiple possibilities that he sends out to 240 students for them to vote on and give feedback. After he submits the final version of the logo, we have a conversation about the process he went through to create it. He sees how much better the end product is compared it to his first draft, and credits the critique and revision process. Project-Based Learning (PBL) can be powerful for students when processes like critique and revision are incorporated into a project that connects content with making a real difference in the community.

Ames High prairie restoration project

In the fall of 2016, all Ames High School biology students engaged in a project to make a positive impact on pollinators in their community. During the first semester, students worked on public outreach projects in order to help educate the community about the issues related to pollinators and encourage them to make a difference. Over 80 small groups worked on unique projects, such as organizing a pollinator fair at the Ames Public Library, hosting a workshop for community members to learn how to grow Iowa native plants and stratify some seed to take with them, writing a newspaper article in the Ames Tribune, designing yard signs to promote pollinators and native plants, and harvesting Butterfly Milkweed seed from our seed production plot and designing seed packets for distribution to the community. The students organized themselves and met regularly outside of class in order to coordinate all 80 projects to make sure they weren’t overlapping with their objectives so that we could maximize our impact. The students also collaborated with experts such as landscape architects, graphic designers, natural resources professionals, and City of Ames staff in order to accomplish their goals.

Ames High School garden

During these efforts the students recruited over 80 clients throughout the Ames area to work with us to have a pollinator garden planted on their land in the spring. The student teams worked with an advisor from the community in order to meet the unique needs of their client. During the process of working on real projects, students not only learn content in a meaningful context but they also come to understand how all real-world projects are interdisciplinary by nature. They have to write emails, speak to people, work as a team member, learn about the content areas relevant to their project, and maybe even use a little math. They will make plans and things won’t go as planned; they’ll have to face adversity and solve these problems in order to accomplish their goals.

The use of high quality PBL is growing and as more teachers learn to embark on these types of meaningful but ambiguous projects, students are connecting with their communities and developing skills that will be useful no matter their path in life.

If you have stories of great projects in your classroom, county, or community, please share them! Email Alicia at execicec@gmail.com to be featured