Students experiment in best way to learn

Posted March 13, 2011 12:32 p.m. EDT

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, visits a Hawaii school where students are undertaking a bold experiment in education.

On the Kona coast of the Big Island, there's a ramshackle collection of fish tanks, pipes and mobile housing units that looks more like a laboratory than a school.

It's home to the West Hawaii Explorations Academy, an alternative public high school for 10th-12th grades.

Students spend their time undertaking long-term, ambitious projects, rather than getting classroom instruction on biology, history and math.

The radical difference from traditional schools reflects the educational philosophy of WHEA Principal Bill Woerner. 

"Education is not a collection of information. Education is being able to function well in society," Woerner said. "These students function really well because they've learned to operate on small teams and to lay out how to solve complicated problems in a reasonable way."

WHEA students conduct projects from restoring ancient fish ponds and surveying reef ecosystems to building electric vehicles and racing them.

The skills they learn by doing the projects are much more important than the facts they pick up along the way, Woerner said.

"The little pieces and snippets of information they might get along the way, that's sort of irrelevant. That's the grist that they work with," he said.

"But the structure of how you go about learning and being a life-learner – those are the things I think this program does very well."

Student Erin Reitow monitored the water quality of a brackish pond over three years. She analyzed the data and presented the findings of her study.

"It's really exciting, and it feels good, compared to being where I was before – sitting in a classroom, four walls, lights, desks," she said.

Reitow indicated the lush nature around the pond where she worked.

"This is my classroom now. This is where I learn," she said.