Students build exhibit for museum

Discovery High youth turn 90-mile Gorge canyon into 9-by-9-foot display

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Team Ember, a group of 52 Discovery High School students, recently built a model of the Columbia River Gorge, currently displayed at Two Rivers Heritage Museum. (Contributed photo courtesy of Discovery High School)

The 52 Discovery High School (DHS) Ember Team students learned a lot of things from their recent project, which involved creating an educational exhibit for display at Two Rivers Heritage Museum.

The students constructed a model of the the Columbia River Gorge, scaling a 90-mile wide canyon into a 9-by-9-foot space.

They learned about the history, geology and geography of the Gorge. They learned how to use different artistic mediums such as plaster of Paris and paint to effectively convey their vision. They learned physical construction skills. They learned about the scientific method.

But all of that pales in comparison to the most important lesson of all.

“A lot of our decisions as teachers were made to set them up to experience different levels of collaboration, just because that is an essential skill for having a job now,” said DHS teacher Michael Peloquin, one of three Ember Team advisers. “We’re trying to set up that same paradigm in this project so that students could struggle through and experiment with interacting with each other and collaborating in that way.”

The students were divided into 17 teams, most with three students apiece. Sixteen of the groups worked on a specific section of the Gorge (eight on the Washington side, eight on the Oregon side), and the other group constructed a table for the model to sit on and wired light-emitting diode (LED) lighting into place.

The students know they wouldn’t have had a chance to finish the project successfully if they didn’t effectively communicate with one another.

“I feel like in the beginning I wasn’t collaborating with the other groups at all. I was doing my own thing with my group, and that kind of messed us up and put us behind a lot,” said freshman Rylee Toth. “But near the end we ended up checking in multiple times with the group next to us, and the entire Ember team had to decide if we wanted to use (a certain) color or (a certain) material or whatever. There was a lot of testing and a lot of collaboration, not just with your own group but a lot of different groups.”

The Gorge model was the latest in a series of projects completed by DHS students in their first year at the Project Based Learning (PBL) school, which opened last September with about 115 students, all freshmen.

They are certain that their collaboration skills have improved since the start of the school year.

“I doubt (this model) would look the same if we did it at the beginning of the year. We would’ve caught it on fire,” freshman Isabelle Martinez said. “You can’t just have your own agenda. You have to make sure that your agenda fits with everybody else’s. By the end of the year we got a lot of that communication down pretty good. This project went pretty smoothly.”

The students worked on the project from April 10 to May 17, and brought it to the museum May 20. The model will be on display at the museum for at least the next six months.

“It was so fulfilling (to see it) after all that work,” Martinez said. “We were all stressed out (at the end), but it was so worth it. It turned out so pretty and so much better than I imagined.”

The model has been well received by the museum’s curators and visitors.

“Everybody on the board was enthusiastic about the partnership,” said Richard Johnson, a museum board director. “By and large people have been totally surprised about the quality of the work. We’re excited about how it looks and functions. Museums nowadays have to compete with the internet, and it’s tough to get younger people to come to a museum and appreciate the three-dimensional aspect of an artifact. Having a display made by students that (incorporates) modern techniques is a great (way) to attract younger people.”

PBL challenges students to tackle content and real-world issues using a hands-on approach while developing collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity skills, according to the DHS website.

“It helps you learn to think out of the box,” Martinez said. “If you solve a lot of these situations in a way that everybody else is (solving them), you’re going to end up with a boring project. It’s less eye catching. Going for your best is what is expected, and what you figure out to do. The more cool things you do, the more you’re trusted to do bigger and better things.”

Freshman Gabe Hansen described this school year as “a project-based learning experience.”

“Some of us came in with a traditional mindset, so we kind of had to figure out what works and what doesn’t and roll with it and get better with it,” Hansen said. “When we’re seniors, we’ll collaborate like legends.”