In Term 4 of 2019, Melbourne Girls’ College introduced a multidisciplinary project-based learning unit for Year 7 students. We have always had a focus on collaborative and cross-disciplinary learning in the Year 7 program. Students study English & Humanities in an integrated program, and Science & Health in a second integrated program. This led the school to investigate more ways to allow students to collaborate on important issues. The challenge for us was how to plan the unit, structure it, and timetable it so that it would flow and integrate seamlessly across multiple faculties and different topic areas.
How we chose a focus issue and the subjects to be involved
The initial challenges for us were to choose a project theme and a real-world problem to build the project around, and then to identify which faculties would be incorporated into the unit.
We knew that our theme should be focused around sustainability. This is something that the students are all very passionate about at our school, so we wanted to feed off this passion to create a unit which would be emotionally resonant with them. Our school has also just launched the National Parks Scheme, where students are required to take any rubbish they bring into the school back home again. The initiative is aimed at educating families about how they can reduce their own waste and think more about what was brought to school. A unit which tied into this seemed like a good place to start.
We also approached this from the point of view of the curriculum. We looked at the units which students were covering across different subjects and realised that students were studying classifications and food chains/food webs in Science. Based on this strong tie-in to sustainability, we quickly established Science as the ‘lead’ subject whose content would provide the strong link and context for the real-world unit. By combining the content with the school’s existing focus on waste management, we arrived at the project theme and real-world problem of ocean plastic waste.
If Science was the anchor, we then started thinking about which other subjects could introduce ‘general’ content – which could be adapted and applied to any focus issue – to be built into the project. We knew that the Science content would help students understand the implications of ocean plastics on marine ecosystems, so we wanted the content contributed by other subjects to help provide students with an arsenal of ideas for how to solve the problem. We identified English (informative and persuasive writing) as being something which would give students the tools to raise awareness about the problem and argue persuasively for their solution; we thought Technology would help students in the design of their solutions; and Visual Art could allow students to both raise awareness of the problem and of their solution through a different medium.
Finally, we decided that the unit would be built around the Design Thinking process. We have been looking at ways to incorporate the concept of design thinking more widely in our STEAM program, as well as identifying it as a way of encouraging entrepreneurship amongst students. We wanted to encourage students to extend themselves and take risks with their learning. The Design Thinking process gave us an easy way to conceptualise how the unit would play out and where each subject would contribute content to the unit.
How we implemented the project
We planned the project to run for ten 75-minute sessions across seven weeks in Term 4. Our next challenge was to work out how we timetabled it!
Class time for the project was taken from across the timetable. We carefully mapped out the project and the expected tasks that would occur in each session, then tried to match them up as best we could with the learning area which would have content to contribute directly to that task. We also tried to spread the periods across learning areas so that we did not take time away from one subject in excess of what we took from another.
This approach did present us with a further challenge – the fact that students would be seeing different teachers in each session, who would not be aware of where students were up to, what they had been working on, or how each team were planning on integrating content into the project in the design of their unique solution. This can be the downfall of many interdisciplinary PBL units, especially if faculties are not used to consistently working together in this way.
To get around this and ensure each teacher knew exactly what should happen, lesson by lesson, we did the following:
Before the unit started, we ran Professional Development for staff to help build out how staff could ensure students developed the soft skills (collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking) which they would need to navigate the unit
We mapped out an expected sequence for each lesson so that teachers knew at the outset what should (ideally) be occurring lesson by lesson. This gave them time to plan how they would integrate content into the project context and the specific task students were to complete
We created a document where, after each class, the teacher would add quick notes on what had happened in that lesson. We made especially sure that notes were added on where each class was up to, what the groups had been working on, and any relevant notes about each specific group. This meant that the teacher who took that same class in the next lesson had an overview of where they should pick up from, and (b) knew which teacher to speak to if they needed any additional information. This step was vital as groups worked at different rates
We also circulated a PBL report and update each week on a Monday morning. In this report, we provided an overview of each class’s progress, how we were tracking against the plan we had set out at the start of the unit, and any macro changes to the project sequence which we needed to make based on our actual vs expected progress. This ensured that we had a consistent approach across all teachers and all classes. It also provided a channel for staff to centralise and feedback ideas or suggested changes.
Ultimately, using the systems we put in place, the unit was very successful. The approach students took to solving the problem of ocean plastic waste varied widely. Some students decided to take on an education approach and teach the community about the size of the problem and the ramifications of doing nothing. Others went down the political path, writing to state and federal representatives about their concerns. Others built things like a soft plastics bin that lit up when you added your rubbish, incentivising people to dispose of waste correctly. You can see a photo of this particular solution below.
The activity concluded with a very successful expo of the student prototypes and displays. Parents and community members were invited and were very enthusiastic about what was accomplished. It was a great way to cap off the project and to make students feel like their work had an impact beyond the classroom. This is just one of the reasons that I would highly recommend PBL as a way to engage, extend, and enthuse students.
Wendy Keen is the STEAM Learning Specialist at Melbourne Girls’ College.