Defining and setting goals is a difficult process. Setting life goals and attempting to answer that big question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is perhaps one of the most challenging of all. Attempting to answer this depends on our stage of life, frame of reference and personal aspirations, all of which shift as we learn, explore and discover the world around us. Is this question too difficult for a 4th or 5th grader? Are the responses to this question going to be overly simplistic?

Nate Manderfeld doesn’t think so. Moreover, Mr. Manderfeld believes that through the process of guided exploration and hands-on experience he can elevate the number of opportunities a student sees before them and help inspire students to answer this question in greater depth. The goal he sets for his students is that when they leave 5th grade they will have a deeper understanding of career opportunities and sense of practical accomplishment. It is learning by doing.

Mr. Manderfeld was teaching 4th grade and was able to loop with the same class into 5th. His school, Monroe Elementary in Bermuda Dunes, CA is located in south central California and has a diverse student population of just under 600 students with over half of the children qualifying for free or reduced lunch. It is here that Mr. Manderfeld has evolved his “iAM” project into a two year effort that by his definition is not just a project, but “…more a way of thinking and teaching.”

manderfeld's classEmbedded in this way of teaching is his acknowledgement that technology will most certainly play a critical role in whatever career his students one day pursue. By incorporating into this exploration a diverse set of technologies he offers the hook that technology often provides. More importantly he gives his students exposure to what that career would be like whether it is an architect or engineer who works with a computer-aided design program, an entrepreneur having to develop and present a business plan in Word or PowerPoint, or simply designing a business card in Publisher. The exploration of these professions goes beyond what a student “knows” about the field, it transforms into them having the experience of what a professional in that field would do.

EmilyThe students create the artifacts of the professionals in that field. They experience what it takes to run a business by creating a hot chocolate company with its own logo, business cards and marketing campaign. They learned how to estimate average sales using Excel, while tracking inventory and finances. One student wanted to be an author and brought together a diverse group of students to illustrate the book, design a web site and market the book. While exploring the ideas around philanthropy students created moving photo stories that explored how they could change the world.

When you take on project-based learning you face many challenges. Today’s standardized, test driven world demands hard data. It wants to know how you are measuring success? What are the students learning? How are they scoring on the ever-present standardized tests? Mr. Manderfeld’s students score well. They often score well above the district’s averages in math and reading, though he seems to shrug this off a bit as a fortunate by-product of his efforts. He believes because these skills are fundamental to the projects they are so engaged in, the students deepen their learning and are able to apply it. He cites one example: “In December and January we ran our hot chocolate business. Early in February we took a district reading test in which one of the passages was about running a business. Because of their real world knowledge of what it takes to run a business they did extremely well on that test.”

In another example when he asked his class to do an average sales problem by hand they responded by saying: “Why should we do it by hand? Couldn’t we just use Excel?” Now of course it is important to understand how to figure out an average, but the learning comes through as the 4th and 5th grade students not only understood what a spreadsheet was, but how and when to use one. It’s a simple example, but it hits on the application of learning.

Ray and IThe digital portfolio produced at the end of the year by the students produces a sense of accomplishment and achievement that is difficult to find in the numbers of a test score. The experiences gained by doing will linger and might possibly influence how they view school and life in the future.

The “iAM” project, with the “i” embodying 21st century skills and the “AM” representing what they are able to do, not just what they know, it about learning by doing. Each student receives a t-shirt at the end of 5th grade, the shirts read simply: iAM an architect - iAM an engineer - iAM an entrepreneur - iAM a graphic designer - iAM an author, iAM a philanthropist - iAM a 21st Century Learner - iAM more than a test score!

Nate Manderfeld has taken the learning from this project and his 12 years of experience as an educator and created a summer institute for 9-13 year-old students called Learning on the Edge. This program has an emphasis on STEM projects and learning through hands-on experiences, whether it is 3D modeling, constructing rockets or building machines. The Learning on the Edge institutes are a direct extension of his experiences gained from the iAM project. You can see examples of student work on the iAM project on his blog as well as other useful “how-to” insights. Nate also has a Wiki that outlines some other practical ways he uses technology in the classroom.

Nate will be one of 11 finalists representing the U.S. at the Microsoft Partners in Learning 2011 Global Forum in Washington. DC. The forum will bring educators from over 70 countries to highlight their innovative work, collaborate and share their learning. You can learn more about the Global Forum on our Facebook page and follow me @TeachTec where I will be dispatching live using #PILGF when the event kicks-off on November 7th.

Please share your ideas of learning by doing in (and out) of the classroom. What projects have you done where students gain exposure to real-world challenges? How do you measure their success?

I look forward to uncovering more examples like this and I am always willing to offer a guest post for inspiring examples like these.

Regards,

Rob