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PBL in progress in Greene County, NC

Garcia has been on leading edge of authentic learning approach for years

Published December 21, 2020

Additional project-based learning articles:

The greatest resource in our classroomsis not Internet-enabled devices, hands-onproducts, or even our knowledgeable teachers.Rather, it is the students themselves – theirown energy, curiosity, and creativity. Classroomapproaches that can tap into these receive aturbocharge in engagement and effectiveness.

One approach gaining attention, especiallyamong our nation’s STEM-savvy educators,is project-based learning (PBL). PBL requiresstudents to cooperate to create a product oftheir own design as part of a project that isthe core of an activity or unit. For this reason,it is tuned to the human instincts to socialize,explore, and create.

But just because PBL is keenly suited to ourhuman nature doesn’t mean the knowledgeneeded to implement this strategy comesnaturally. To help our readers along the learningcurve, we reached out to José Garcia, STEMdirector of North Carolina’s Greene County School District, for a real look at PBL in action.

Under Garcia’s STEM stewardship, GreeneCounty has become a true hot spot for PBLknowledge and innovation. Greene County usesa framework of Grand Challenges that literallycrosses the curriculum; PBL is an inherent partof these Grand Challenges. Students, in somecases from separate classes in complementarysubject areas, form teams of no more than eightstudents to collaborate on the creation of aprototype product. The prompts, or challenges,relate to real-world problems and includecultural connections that span the globe. Thesummation comes when students present theirproduct to their peers.

“I’ve learned over the years that with PBLyou apply a process,” said Garcia, explainingthat this process could unfold in differentways but that it must end with the creationof a product. Other necessary aspects in theprocess include data collection, collaboration,STEM-connection, and media literacy. “Butthere’s also a deeper component with PBL,”he added, “where you are taking the skillsand the STEM elements and applying it to areal-world situation.”

So, what does a PBL Grand Challenge looklike in Greene County?

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Last fall at the high school, two classesthat would normally work in silos – STEM Artand STEM-Honors Sustainability – combinedat intervals to form student teams. Teamswere challenged with designing a newmonument for a country of their choice. Butthere was a twist: the monument had togenerate and store electricity. Art studentsdove into researching the architecture andculture of the country. The sustainability classconsidered the technical aspects of powergeneration and storage.

After discussion and brainstorming, eachstudent created their own blueprint. Elementsfrom each were used to create the teams’ finalblueprints. Finally, it was time to create theprototype products. From wheels to gears tomotors to solar panels, Greene County makesuse of many Pitsco components as usefulresources for students during the constructionprocess. Such a library of STEM pieces is agreat fit for the open-ended nature of theGrand Challenges. (Garcia stated that he alsouses Pitsco kits to help ease new teachers intothe PBL process.)

The final products were awesome. Oneteam, having discovered the Japaneseculture’s affinity for nature and landscaping,created pinwheels that could blend in withnative trees in a pleasing and harmoniousway. The pinwheels were windmills thatcaptured and stored wind power. Anotherteam found a different way to generateelectricity from wind. Discovering the roledomes play in the architecture of India’spalaces, the team’s prototype palace wascapped with a standard rounded ventilatorthat doubled as a wind turbine.


And, of course, as a capstone, the studentspresent their products to their peers.Presenting is not actually an indispensablepart of the process as Garcia defines it, but itis one he believes is valuable nonetheless.

Not only do students present for theirgrade peers, they also present for studentsin lower grades. High school students presentto middle schoolers and to elementaryclasses. Consequently, before middleschoolers ever began their own GrandChallenges, polished finished products hadalready been modeled for them.

“It really helps speed up the quality of theprojects,” said Garcia. “When I first did this withthe middle school, we didn’t tell the studentsthey had to dress up or that they had to usea trifold. . . . But by bringing the high schoolstudents down, the students started dressingup, being more professional. They implementedsome of the same pieces they saw the highschool students do.”

The hope is that the same effect willhappen when the elementary studentsbegin their project-based learning Junior Challenges, having witnessed presentationsfrom middle schoolers and high schoolers.


Positive changes have also been registeredin the lives and demeanors of many individualstudents as well. Asked if the Grand Challengeshelp bring students out of their shell, Garciawas emphatic. “Definitely! We survey studentsafter each semester. In those surveys, studentstalk about how the projects have helped themwith different skills from presenting to payingattention to self-esteem.” He noted that parentshave echoed these remarks.

A tool that has proven very beneficial forstudent development is the use of rubrics.“Having customized rubrics gives studentsan idea of what to work on to develop overtime.” Garcia noted that he would like toeventually push this down to the kindergartenlevel, reasoning that 12 years of individualizedassessment will yield spectacular results in highschool graduates.

Every STEM director loves to see theirwork bringing student transformations. AndGarcia, being 18 years in the district, is noexception. “For me, it is nice to see this cultureshift happen that is inclusive of all students.Students are innovating and collaborating andare eager to share what they’ve built. Everystudent has a chance to engage and participatein STEM education with the focus on project-basedlearning that we have in the district.”

True PBL pro

José Garcia began his teaching career in Greene CountySchool District in North Carolina 18 years ago. Over thatspan, he has taught science and/or technology in everygrade from 6-12. Now, serving as STEM director for thedistrict, he oversees a multifaceted program that includesa STEM lab with Pitsco Modules at the middle schoollevel, a robotics program featuring TETRIX® (and even amechanized Mr. Robot that students can interact with), aSTEM ambassador program that connects students to thecommunity, and, of course, a far-reaching project-basedlearning emphasis.

Garcia’s PBL exploration began when he was a teacher. Hesaid he believed in the process and soon took note that testscores seemed to benefit as well. Those are important, he said,but added, “I want to make sure that students are not justdoing well on assessments but that they’re also acquiring theknowledge and skills they need to be successful.”

Garcia is also an Apple Distinguished Educator and a facultymember for the Smithsonian Science Education Center.

“You can go in there on any given day and there’ll be a child who has a learning disability or a child who doesn’t speak English – we have just the whole range here – and they’ll be successful in that STEM lab.”

– Jay Parker, principal, Wallace Elementary School, Wallace, North Carolina

We enable young learners to develop the mind-set, skill set, and tool set needed for future success.

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