FORT MILL — Connor Cleeland, a second grader at Pleasant Knoll Elementary School, is hard at work on a PowerPoint presentation. He’s intensely focused on getting his transitions between slides just right.
“It’s for the Mayor,” Cleeland said. “So we have to make sure we do a really good job.”
Cleeland and his classmates have been working for several months in their technology class on PowerPoint and Movie Maker projects that depict their idea of an ideal park for Fort Mill.
Later this month they’ll present their projects to Fort Mill Mayor Danny Funderburk.
The project is part of an emerging concept in education that technology teachers Megan Mongelli and Jeanette Evans are pioneering at the school, Project Based Learning. It starts with a question, in this case, “How might we, as citizens in Fort Mill, design a park to be enjoyed by all community members?” and guides students through a project that gives them real-world learning experiences and encourages creativity and collaboration among the students.
For their park project, the second graders began by visiting four Fort Mill parks and studying the elements each park offered. Back in the classroom, they looked up parks around the world on Google Maps and compared them to local parks.
They determined what elements they thought were important for a good park and used those ideas for their own park projects.
Students broke into teams with each student getting a specific aspect of his or her ideal park to report on. Student Anna Crawford served as her team’s Family Service Advisor. She found pictures of barbecue grills and benches to include in her movie because she thought those would draw families to her team’s park, which they named “Light High Park.”
“It’s fun to make new things like a park,” Crawford said.
Crawford admitted to being a little nervous about presenting the project to the Mayor. Mongelli said presenting the project is part of what makes Project Based Learning such a great concept.
“It shows students what people in the real world are doing,” Mongelli said. “They wouldn’t make a diorama or just keep the project in their classroom; they’d share it and present it to an authentic audience.”
Mongelli and Evans are using Project Based Learning concepts in all of their classes. In Kindergarten, the students are focused on learning cooperation and communication while sharing computers, to prepare them for projects in older grades. First graders are making books about the school’s lifelong guidelines, to be presented to new students, as well as movies about the guidelines. Third graders are creating documentaries about Fort Mill and South Carolina history that will culminate in a documentary film festival at the Anne Springs Close Greenway.
Fourth graders are preparing survival guides that can be used in the wake of natural disasters that will be reviewed by a local meteorologist. Fifth graders are learning about immigration by creating websites that market the Fort Mill area to people in other countries.
Part of what makes Project Based Learning so appealing is the real-world application, Mongelli said. Students learn marketable skills such as public speaking, team building and goal setting. They begin their projects by meeting as a team and creating a plan that sets out goals – just like many of them will be asked to do as adults in a business meeting.
At the end of the project, students are evaluated using a rubric that takes into account their work, but also skills like cooperation and communication. Did they work well with their teammates and give and receive feedback well? Did they listen to teammates ideas?
“These are 21st century skills they are learning,” Mongelli said. “I feel like this is where education is heading.”
Most important, she said, students are learning and they’re having fun.
“We’ve been working on this for months and they’re showing no signs of project fatigue. It has them really engaged,” Mongelli said.