Magnet-school students pick what to learn

Posted January 30, 2011 12:36 p.m. EST

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, visits a Virginia magnet school where the students' interests drive what they learn.

Teachers at Newsome Park, a K-5 magnet school for science in Newport News, Va., decided to try project-based learning, in which tackling real-world problems replaces traditional classroom instruction.

"Project-based learning was really the delivery model that we felt would allow kids to learn and really learn about what they want to learn about," former Newsome Park Principal Pat Bender said.

Each class chooses a topic to study in depth over a semester. They have picked topics as diverse as space flight, homelessness and worms.

One first-grade class decided to explore cystic fibrosis – a disease that one of their classmates has.

"One of our students has CF, and we're trying to learn about CF, to see what it is, how it works," a first-grader named Noah said.

Students plan research, such as field trips to gather information. They share their findings in oral presentations, digital slideshows and display boards. Parents and fellow students view and critique the projects.

"So many years, we've been pumping kids full of stuff that we think is appropriate," Bender said. "But it's more more successful and exhilarating when kids have the input that we allow them to have here at Newsome Park."

Children's interest in their studies makes them learn better, the former principal said.

"Our test scores have improved, mainly I think because of the fact that we've connected the learning to real world problems," Bender said. "The integration of technology has helped the students to actually produce quality projects.

"That's the reward," she added, "and to me, it's probably the most rewarding way of teaching and learning that I've experienced in my 30 years."