Students Make a Difference: Community Collaboration in Action

Project Based Learning that takes advantage of student voice, choice, and creativity

What would middle schoolers call a “Shark Tank” style competition about the national parks? “Park Tank” of course! Last spring, seventh grade students from Hudson Middle School in northeastern Ohio presented their solutions to the invasive species problem at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) at “Park Tank.” Their audience? Teachers and peers … and park rangers, too!

It was an authentic, real-world problem with an opportunity for student voice, choice, and creativity, and a chance for our students to make a difference in their community! This was the focus of the teachers from 7 Respect, one of our seventh grade teams, as they embarked on Project Based Learning (PBL) with their team of 110 students.

PBL, according to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) “is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” Energized after participating in training through BIE, one 7 Respect teacher shared her new insights with colleagues. Others on her team had attended professional development related to PBL and growth mindset, and the ideas resonated with the group. They immediately began brainstorming with their students and community in mind.

What occurred, through partnering with the neighboring national park, was a sustained inquiry for students that included

  • Engagement with experts: CVNP rangers visited our school to provide background and context, presenting several authentic problems faced by the park
  • Student choice in selecting their PBL problem: Students chose invasive species and determined their challenging question, “How do we educate the community about invasive species?”, and students researched and planned a unique solution
  • In-the-field research: Students explored the park and identified and removed invasive species (generously funded by our PTO)
  • Reflection opportunities: Student groups reviewed their research and creatively solved their challenge
  • A presentation: The students presented their solution to an authentic audience at “Park Tank”

Recognized by AMLE through the Collaboration Mini-Grant program, this teaching team inspired students, colleagues, and the community with their innovation and collaboration. The connection with the community is a true strength of this project: interacting with local organizations and resources, learning from and with them, and helping our students become positive, contributing citizens.

Academically, each content area was represented in the project design, so students mastered standards in an interdisciplinary approach when they needed to and because they needed to. Students had a why for learning. Through this connected and real-life project, the team sought to, as George Couros urged in Innovator’s Mindset, “spark a curiosity that empowers students to learn on their own. To wonder. To explore. To become leaders.”

Because PBL encourages students to be “active, not passive” in “a project that engages their hearts and minds, and provides real-world relevance for learning,” (Buck Institute), we are grateful that our school district values training for teachers, not only in PBL, but in creating learning environments that foster perseverance, grit, and hope. Throughout our district, teachers have moved beyond closed-ended questioning to more open-ended challenges that promote collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking. As our students participated in this partnership with the CVNP, they learned these crucial life skills while deeply furthering their understanding of academic concepts such as invasive species, survival of organisms, life cycles, statistics, communication, migration and invasion, and the environment.

In the end, we found what we already knew to be true: Our students are amazing! They are creative, critical thinkers who have a passion to make a difference in the world. Their ideas ranged from organizing a 5k run, to designing t-shirts, to establishing a fundraiser with a local restaurant, to designing hiking stick badges to be earned by volunteering to remove privet (an invasive species), all the way to creating a virtual hike through the park so all people, even those with physical challenges, could enjoy the beauty of the park.

The CVNP has been a wonderful resource for the local community for more than 100 years. Through the AMLE grant and other grant funding, the team’s partnership with the CVNP has continued this year and will continue in the future. As the park looks to remain a relevant environmental space in the future, the types and manner of partnerships are abundant for our students in the coming years, and we look forward to new opportunities for our students to make a difference.

If you are considering PBL or supporting others who are, John Larmer, editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education, suggested, “If you’re not quite ready to launch your first project, begin laying the groundwork—for your students and to get used to it yourself—by using driving questions to frame a unit; giving up some control and encouraging more student voice and choice; asking students to conduct inquiry; focusing on real-world applications of content. Many PBL practices are just plain good teaching.”

We have found that the beauty of PBL at the middle school level is that teachers have the support and encouragement of their teaching team, and classes filled with young adolescents who have the desire—and ability—to make a difference in the world!

Middle school educators share a belief that students “deserve for us to bring our best, to be crazy about them, to believe in them, and to inspire them in new ways” (from Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes, J. Casas, 2017). It’s comforting to know that we are all working toward this goal together. When we are learning and trying new things for our students, we especially need a team of people who support one another, share with one another, challenge one another, and build one another up so our students can have our very best every single day.

We are appreciative of AMLE for supporting this group of middle school teachers, and middle school teachers around the world, in their commitment to empower students, and to connect students and the community through real-world learning!


Applications for the AMLE Collaboration Mini-Grant, sponsored by the AMLE Foundation Fund, are accepted each year through April 15.