Project-based learning finding way into Sonoma County schools

Teachers Ryan Callen and David Meirik believe one of the best ways to get students engaged in the classroom is by making lessons real and relevant.

They’re working together to bring that hands-on experience to their classrooms at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma by launching an e-commerce site that will allow their students to create and design products to sell online.

Meirik, who teaches fine arts and entrepreneurship classes, said students will help manage the site called CasaCollective, providing them with business and marketing lessons teaching them to think critically and collaborate with other students.

This teaching approach, known as project-based learning, empowers students, Callen said.

“You are not just talking about and envisioning things. You’re making them happen,” said Callen, who teaches English and advises the yearbook. “Their ideas can be implemented in concrete ways.”

Interest in project-based learning is expanding in public schools across the state. A handful of school districts, including San Jose and Garden Grove, have already adopted the method.

While not new, this hands-on teaching method has been gaining steam in the state in part from Common Core standards, which emphasize collaboration, critical thinking and real-world problem solving, according to the Novato-based Buck Institute for Education, which specializes in project-based learning. The method encourages students to be more active in class, while exposing them to new technology, careers and industry experts.

“It’s a growing movement,” said Bob Lenz, executive director of Buck Institute. “People realized the world has changed dramatically. It’s more connected, not only through technology but through our trade and commerce.”

His organization will hold PBL World, an international conference on project-based learning, this summer in Napa. The conference drew 800 educators from 15 countries last year, he said.

“It’s the best way to prepare kids, so they get the knowledge and skills they need,” Lenz said about project-based learning, adding that it’s far from the traditional California mission models students are asked to build in grade school because it requires them to tackle more complex questions and focus on them for an extended period of time.

In Sonoma County, teachers across various grade levels and subjects are learning more about the method and how to best implement it in their classes and campuses.

Callen and Meirik took part in the Sonoma County Office of Education’s C^3: Integrated Project-Based Learning Institute, which allowed them to learn more about project-based learning and hash out ideas for their project.

Now in its sixth year, the C^3 Institute started out as a partnership between SCOE and the California Mathematics Project, aimed at giving teachers a chance to develop projects that made math more relevant to students, said Chuck Wade, program coordinator for SCOE’s Career Technical Education. SCOE no longer hears only from high school math and science teachers. Over the past few years, it has seen more interest in its institute from teachers in English, history, performing arts and special education.

“Now elementary and middle schools want in,” said Jessica Progulske, SCOE’s work-based learning coordinator.

While the method isn’t being adopted throughout most campuses in the county - an exception is Geyserville New Tech Academy - Progulske said there are pockets where educators already are applying this pedagogy. Her office is looking for ways to expand those pockets, including providing teachers with on-site training.

Thirty-two teachers from eight schools, including Santa Rosa’s Oak Grove Elementary School and Technology Middle School in Rohnert Park, took part in SCOE’s C^3 Institute this year, Progulske said. Teachers met twice in January to learn about the method and develop a project. They then met this past week at 180 Studios, south of Santa Rosa, to get input on their projects from a select group of students and industry experts.

The teachers teamed up to develop a dozen project-based learning activities they hope will energize students and boost classroom engagement. Projects include building a political campaign, writing a children’s book and designing kid-friendly environmental education materials for Laguna de Santa Rosa.

“They gave us the framework on how to create a project, which is pretty daunting,” said Andrew Harper, a Technology Middle School science teacher.

“They did it piece by piece and gave us a lot resources.”

He teamed up with science teacher Katie Rondeau for the project, which will require students to find a way to model the impact an asteroid strike would have on the solar system.

Callen, who participated in the SCOE institute for the first time, said the payoff can be great. The projects can “get students excited about learning.” However, they’re not easy to roll out. He said teachers face numerous challenges, including finding time in their already busy schedules to create a project that will be successful.

“We have so much we’re already working on,” Callen said. “It’s not an easy leap to make.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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