A holistic approach to learning

Project Based Learning is a good fit for many families

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Did you know?

• The Project Based Learning Middle School mascot is the Gryphons. This is a mythical creature and a combination of a bird and lion, which blends the mascots of Skyridge and Liberty middle schools.

Take a quick look around the newest middle school in Camas, and you’ll immediately spot some of the key differences that make it unique.

First of all, there are no bells. Secondly, the new Project Based Middle School is located in a building on the Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas campus.

Students are grouped in two large classroom areas with mobile furniture, separated by sixth and seventh grades, and teachers share work areas and a project room. On a recent Friday, students broke into small groups to do coding, while others gave presentations in a “Shark Tank,” format about how to be good digital citizens. Meanwhile, others worked on art projects that included painting rocks and constructing models of the school created using homemade Playdough.

It’s a different format than any in the Camas School District are accustomed to having, but that’s the point. Project based learning involves students gathering into teams and using critical thinking, collaboration and communication to solve problems, as opposed to sitting in a classroom, memorizing facts, and taking tests.

“We already do some of that in our middle schools, but this is more of a hands-on approach,” said Aaron Smith, principal. “We are giving them real world problems and letting them solve it.”

The idea of a project based school has been in the works for several years, but after the district had an opportunity to use bond money to purchase the Sharp building this summer, it became a reality much quicker. Several meetings were held to gauge the level of interest, and administrators found that parents were enthusiastic. There were 198 applicants for 112 open spots.

“We really appreciate the kids and parents that took a leap of faith to join this program and the Camas School District for being willing to try something this forward thinking,” Smith said.

Next year, eighth-grade will be added and student capacity will expand to 200. Any student may apply for the program.

“We wanted this to be an inclusive program for everyone,” Smith said. “We did the same for staff members and opened it up to everyone, then based our selection on qualifications and experiences. We make project work a deeper focus in this program.”

Currently, there are four teachers at the PBMS, with plans to add three more next year. They work in teams and teach all of the Common Core state standards, but in a different format than what would take place in a traditional classroom.

Students begin their day at Liberty and Skyridge middle schools for their elective classes and health/fitness.

Then, they take a shuttle at 9:30 a.m. to the new campus for the remainder of the day.

To prepare for the new program, a summer school project for incoming students and teachers was offered, where students developed a walking tour of downtown Camas.

“We knew there was something good when the students showed a high level of engagement in this project,” Smith said. “They took a real world problem and solved it. We have a wide range of students because project based learning can meet the needs of most kids.

There is a lot of flexibility and connections between subjects.”

He continued, “Skyridge and Liberty are great schools. Our learning here just looks a little bit different. It’s a blend of traditional and direct instruction, and PBL.”

Adrian Soh, a seventh-grader, said she wanted to attend the new school because she is a “hands-on” learner.

“This is the most effective learning system for me,” she said. “Here, you get to collaborate and talk with classmates. You have to learn with other kids and get to know them well.”

Seventh-grader Coleen Kyne attended Skyridge in sixth-grade and decided to apply for the PBL school after perusing the website.

“I thought it would be a great learning environment for me and thought I would totally want to go there,” she said. “I was beyond excited when I got in. It is so different here. You incorporate a song or dance that helps you learn math. It’s a lot more hands on. I have really enjoyed everything so far.”

According to Erika Wood, a sixth-grader, the program is more open ended than a traditional classroom.

“I’ve always loved hands on learning,” she said. “Before in class, I really had to focus. Here, I really understand what they’re doing.”

Alexis Bell teaches sixth-grade math and science. She decided to apply for a job at the new school after working in a typical classroom setting for six years.

“I loved the way this was set up for exploratory learning,” she said. “In a traditional setting, we get so caught up in what is the right and wrong answer, that we are creating robotic thinkers. This school is designed with a more holistic approach. It is less focused on grades and more focused on understanding the material.”

However, exploratory learning is not without its struggles.

“I think the biggest challenge is the transition in sixth-grade,” Bell said. “Not only are they going from elementary to middle school, but we are asking them to do new type of learning. It’s a challenge to get everyone on the same page. We want what we do to be awesome and enriching.”

Michele Monroe’s son, Garrett, is in a sixth-grader in the program.

“We really liked the holistic approach of project based learning,” she said. “It gave the whole process of education purpose. My son is really engaged and connecting with kids in his group. He gets excited to talk about school. The faculty is just amazing.”

Todd Gummer heard about the school in the spring and was very excited about the possibility of his son attending.

“So far, the experience has been tremendous by all accounts,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier for the future focused approach made possible by the school district.”

Aunna Elm’s son, Aran O’Day, is a PBL sixth-grader.

“We are so fortunate to live in a district that is so forward thinking in offering things to families in the district,” she said. “I’m really thankful my son was able to get in. What we love most is the collaborative nature of the school and how students solve real world problems.”