Blending subjects breeds student success

Posted February 14, 2010 10:51 a.m. EST

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, shows how blending subjects at a Boston-area school has fostered student success.

Teachers at Ferryway School, a math, science and technology magnet school in Malden, Mass., create interdisciplinary, technology-driven projects. Students are motivated to gain a reward by completing the project.

For example, fifth-graders enjoyed a field trip to Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site. To earn the field trip, though, they had complete a 6-week project to design a working, miniature waterwheel made of Styrofoam.

Students had passports that teachers stamped whenever they completed a task for the project. The tasks involved multiple subjects, including science, art, math, English and history.

"All of those stamps are based on our state standards from writing assignments to design assignments," teacher Margie Briatico said.

The assignments involved hands-on activities such as studying rocks and minerals. That particular task also involved group Internet research to find out such topics as the chemical composition of rocks.

"Working with the computer, working with a partner, going on the field trip – those things are the intangibles that bring this whole project to life and can reach kids that you can may never be able to reach in other ways," Ferryway School Principal Tom DeVito said.

In place of an exam, the fifth-graders' science and math skills were tested in a competition to see which team had built the most efficient waterwheel.

"It gives them ownership. They built it. They'll test it," teacher Earl Fitzpatrick said, adding that such competitions teach children more effectively than grades.

"You put it on the test stand and see how much it lifts, and the kids can know, 'Hey, I made a good waterwheel, and my waterwheel is efficient. I've achieved the goal,'" Fitzpatrick said.

These projects give students the rare chance to see learning in action, DeVito said.

"Often, you don't have the chance to show kids that education is real, that there's value to it," he said. "Once in a while, it happens, and the magic happens."