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Aug. 7, 2020

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Project-based learning takes off at Camas middle school

School district starts down path of new, evolving approach to education

By , Columbian Staff Writer
Published:
4 Photos
Tiffany Morrisey leads her seventh-grade class in a lesson at the Camas Project-Based Learning Middle School.
Tiffany Morrisey leads her seventh-grade class in a lesson at the Camas Project-Based Learning Middle School. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — When starting a new school, there are going to be missteps, some more painful than others.

Weeks into the first year at the Camas Project-Based Learning Middle School, Riley Carlston, 13, and his seventh-grade classmates were walking around the school property when he stepped on a hornets’ nest by accident. Riley jumped up and down, smacked his calf and ran away, but was stung once. Some of his classmates were stung as many as five times, but, if anything, it was a class bonding experience.

“Most of us stayed together in a group and tried to be calm,” said Alex Dufner, 12. “We handled it well.”

While surviving an angry swarm of hornets probably wasn’t on the curriculum that day, students working together to overcome a real world problem is exactly the kind of thing they’re learning to do on a daily basis at the new middle school.

The school, at 5750 N.W. Pacific Rim Blvd., is the start of the district’s project-based learning program, which will grow to include eighth-graders next year and an entire high school in 2018.

The definition of project-based learning is a bit broad, because it’s a constantly changing method that incorporates collaboration, current events and preparing students for life outside of the classroom.

“We’re taking real-world problems and teaching standards, and bringing them together,” said Aaron Smith, principal of the whole project-based learning campus. “The students are going to learn how to solve problems in the real world through collaboration and communication.”

Students in the program had their own way of defining it, too.

“What’s PBL?” one seventh-grader said in class on Thursday. “Dancing and building pyramids.”

He’s right. One project students worked on so far this year was choreographing a dance to represent the water cycle.

There’s also the Digital Citizenship Campaign, in which students were tasked with creating a marketing campaign to instruct middle and high school students on managing their lives in the present digital landscape.

Riley especially liked the water cycle dance, and said that so far, he’s enjoying the new learning experience.

“There’s more room for exploration,” he said. “When something’s happening, we discuss it.”

On Thursday, Tiffany Morrisey talked to her seventh-graders about the impending rainstorm, tying it into their work on the water cycle, and explained how it might affect students’ weekend plans and sports games.

Alex said she was interested in attending the middle school because she likes trying new things.

“I like that we’re doing projects and collaborating more than just sitting in a chair,” she said. “We’re doing more teamwork, and learning how to work with each other.”

Those were some of the reasons Smith was interested in bringing this learning model to Camas. Before moving to the project-based learning campus, he was principal at Skyridge Middle School.

He started talking to district officials about trying project-based learning about four years ago.

“I was interested in starting a middle school program that is hands-on with more real-world application,” he said. “I was always an outside-the-box thinker. As a learner, I didn’t always do so well moving from class to class, hour to hour every day.”

Smith said there is a wide range of students in the program, some interested in trying something new and some who maybe had trouble in a more traditional class setting. Some parents put their kids in the program because the student was shy or not great in group settings, and they wanted them to get more experience interacting with peers.

There are plenty of chances for that. The students are separated by grade, and throughout the day, work in a traditional class setting in different-sized groups. Sometimes, all students in a given grade learn together, and other times, the grade is split in half, with each side learning different subjects. The students also split up in smaller groups to work on projects most afternoons.

The students start their day at the district’s other middle schools, with sixth-graders at Skyridge and seventh-graders at Liberty Middle School, where the students take physical education and electives. Within three years, the project-based learning campus is expected to be self-contained, Smith said. When the students get to the new school, the entire student body meets with the teachers and Smith in a conference room briefly. They do some callisthenics and meditate for a minute.

District officials were in a bit of a rush to set things up for the school this year. Originally, Camas wasn’t going to have a project-based learning middle school. Voters passed a $120 million bond in February, with plans for that bond calling for a project-based learning high school adjacent to Camas High School, as well as for purchasing land for future schools.

The district then had the opportunity to purchase the former 55,000-square-foot Sharp Laboratories of America building and 31.57 acres of surrounding property, which it did for $12.5 million in July. The new middle school now operates in that building, and the school board also voted to build the project-based learning high school nearby on the property.

The new middle school serves 112 students, 56 in each grade. The school is expected to reach its full capacity of 400 students within three years, Smith said. The high school will have a capacity of around 600 students.

When it gets to that point, Smith isn’t sure how the program might look. And while he’s excited for it to grow, he said, it’s a special time at the school now, as his staff and the students lay the groundwork for what will become the district’s project-based learning program.

Smith said the students already are trying to make the campus their own, and have suggested adding walking trails around the property, gardens and libraries.

“I’m really impressed with how engaged they are and how much buy-in we’ve gotten from our kids,” Smith said. “Our PBL program is a big project itself. They see the adults involved, building the airplane while flying. They’re invested in what we’re doing.”

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