The Wheaton High School classrooms buzzed. Teams of biomedical students searched for documents on the Internet to learn the causes of myopia. Groups huddled in civil engineering class, crafting model homes with wooden dowels, cardboard and hot glue. Aerospace engineering students sailed cars down a hallway, powering the vehicles with plastic bags and a box fan.
Instead of quiet classrooms with teachers lecturing rows of students, at Wheaton the students ran the show and the teachers stood aside.
This is project-based learning, where educational instruction moves away from a traditional academic setting to an active classroom that encourages collaboration and communication among students.
As the Montgomery County Public Schools system plans to replace the Wheaton High School building in Silver Spring, officials aren’t just aiming for physical classroom overhauls. They’re also planning to redesign the curriculum, expanding a project-based learning environment that will resemble adult work settings and real-life situations.
It is part of a larger quest to “redefine the school” and prepare students for “21st century education,” Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said.
“Critical competencies for workers now include skills and knowledge acquired beyond a high school education as well as the ability to apply learning, think critically about information, solve novel problems, collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change,” Starr said.
While project-based learning has been successful in other parts of the country, Wheaton’s transformation would be a major programmatic change for Montgomery County. If it’s successful, Starr believes it could eventually ripple to several other county high schools in some form.
The new Wheaton building is slated to open in August 2015.
Classrooms would look different, with fewer rows of desks or lecture-style settings and more group meeting spaces where students can converse and coordinate projects. There could be fewer quizzes. And the role of the teacher would be redefined.
Marcus Lee teaches civil engineering through project-based learning at Wheaton. Lee said he thinks less like a traditional teacher and more like a project leader or facilitator. He supplies materials and supervises students on projects, such as building model homes to teach architectural styles.
And if students have questions, Lee isn’t the first one to the rescue. He asks students to teach each other or learn through “trial and error.”
Students sometimes call him out for being too hands-off.
Lee’s response: “You have to do this for your own good. This is real life. If you want to be more adult, this is it.”
School projects aren’t new. Students have long dissected frogs or built castles out of sugar cubes. But the style of project-based learning toward which Montgomery County is heading emphasizes cooperation.
Beazwit Yalewayker, an 18-year-old senior, said group-based lessons have helped her overcome some of her shyness.
“It’s much different, more interactive,” Yalewayker said during her biomedical innovation class. “It forces you to communicate because you have to work in groups.”
As Montgomery redesigns its programming for Wheaton and the rest of the system, officials will look to programs at schools such as High Tech High, which operates 11 schools in the San Diego area and has garnered national attention for its innovation. Since its inception in 2000, all of its graduates have been admitted to college. More than 30 percent of the school’s alumni choose math- or science-related jobs, according to High Tech High officials, greater than the national average of about 17 percent.
High Tech High began as a charter school developed through a partnership between business and education leaders. Struggling to fill high-tech jobs, the business community wanted to create a school where students could “acquire the basic skills of work and citizenship.”
School projects aren’t limited to science, technology, engineering or math. Along with building robots, students have published bilingual cookbooks and designed mock peaceful and sustainable societies in the Middle East after studying the region’s economy and politics.
As students produce such final projects, they’re observing, investigating, reflecting and documenting what they’ve learned, said Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High’s chief executive.
“You have to have great standardized test scores, but you want kids who aren’t afraid to get outside the bubble and invent things,” Rosenstock said.
More than 3,000 people visit High Tech High annually — some from China, New Zealand, Mexico and Brazil — to observe and perhaps replicate High Tech High’s model, Rosenstock said.
At High Tech High and Wheaton, there are still some traditional forms of teaching and assessment, with tests, lectures and homework. But the emphasis shifts to ensure students learn from the projects they design and deliver.
“It’s important to hold students accountable for the knowledge and learning that they’ve done,” said Heather Carias, coordinator for the academy programs at Wheaton that employ project-based learning.
Hands-on learning through meaningful activities and projects helps students retain information longer with a deeper understanding of skills, said Vanessa Vega, a research analyst at the George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.
The nonprofit organization advocates project-based learning, saying students should leave school knowing how to find information, assess the credibility of information and use that information to achieve a goal.
“Project-based learning is more real than a textbook,” Vega said. “It makes the connection to real life more transparent.”
Vega said students from schools that have moved to project-based learning curricula do just as well on standardized tests as other students. Some of the project-based schools boast lower dropout rates than schools with traditional classrooms.
Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford University whose research focuses on school reform, curriculum and instruction, said that project-based learning can be a good addition to a teacher’s repertoire but that using it across the board can be problematic.
“It clearly benefits some students who like independence and like the cooperation, but a steady diet of project-based learning probably is not wise because there are so many differences in students’ motivations and abilities,” Cuban said.
Project-based learning doesn’t always work perfectly in real classroom situations, where teachers feel the pressure of meeting state standards and producing strong standardized test scores, he said.
“The practical realities in a climate of test-based accountability make it very difficult for teachers to spend time helping students work through a lot of these projects,” Cuban said.
Wheaton has adopted project-based learning in many of its math, science and engineering classes. As the new high school is built, the teaching approach would expand to most courses, including English, reading and social studies.
A group of parents and business and community leaders working with school officials will develop a vision for the new Wheaton by the end of the school year.
Wheaton Principal Kevin Lowndes said students are still learning material they need to know to prepare them for college and meet state instructional standards. They’re just doing it in a different way.
“They’re talking through problems and really trying to figure things out to better their understanding of the material,” Lowndes said.
Sol Leon, 18, said the lessons she learned from her biomedical and innovation class have already given her a taste of real life. Leon, a senior, got an internship in a physics lab at George Washington University and discovered the materials, technology and software she used at work were all tools she first used in her high school class.
“It helps me in ways to actually get the general idea of things I might face in the future,” she said.