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This spring, as part of their science course at School District 65, 900 sixth-graders were asked to use a “design thinking model” to explore how to best mitigate the impact of climate change. Students used the City’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan to help identify an environmental issue – or the problem – they wanted to focus on. CARP,  which was unanimously approved by City Council on Dec. 10, 2018,  covers a broad range of topics, including waste (food, water, electronics, packaging, etc.), excessive heat, storm water runoff and invasive species and pests.

After identifying a problem, students were asked to investigate and determine the root causes of the problem, develop an innovative solution to the problem, create a prototype – or model – to address the problem, and test the prototype or model before settling on a final design.

 Under the design-thinking model, students may make – and are expected to make – changes or revisions as they continue to investigate, research and test their solution.

Students were given great leeway in deciding how to present their solution: They could design a three-dimensional model, a new product or invention or a technology tool. They could also prepare a memo, write a play or a skit or prepare a policy or campaign or an artistic expression.

This is perhaps the first comprehensive project-based curriculum being piloted in the District. This project-based part of the curriculum lasts a little more than two months and comprises about one-fourth of the overall sixth-grade science curriculum. It is being offered by the District in partnership with EvanSTEM, which is a collaboration of 10 organizations in Evanston that provide STEM programs.

Supports Are Critical

Providing supports for all students is a key part of this project-based learning model. Science teachers oversee the project-based learning in their classrooms, and District 65 Innovation Coaches and Tech Innovation Specialists were also available to answer questions and be resources to the students.

In addition, staff of a number of organizations who are part of EvanSTEM, together with a number of environmental experts, provided support for the sixth-graders. More than 25 people with expertise on various topics were available to provide supports in the classroom, during lunch or after school.

Kirby Callam, Director of EvanSTEM, told the RoundTable that staff of the Evanston Public Library and McGaw Y Metamedia came into the classrooms to work with teachers and students and help students take their ideas and prepare a final design for their project.

In addition, Mr. Callam said, “We brought the environmental community into the schools during lunch periods,  and kids could interview them. Students weren’t just relying on Google. They were asking a live person who has a passionate commitment on this.”

As an example, Carla Stone, a sixth-grade science teacher at Nichols Middle School, told the RoundTable one of her students wants to make hydro-panels for the roofs of homes. The concept is that the panels will collect the kinetic energy of the rain hitting the panels and convert that energy to generate electricity to power a home. Ms. Stone said Clare Tallon Ruen, one of the support team members, is coming to meet with and be a thought-partner with the student. Mr. Callam said he would see if an engineer who works in this field could provide further help on the project. 

Ms. Stone added that a lot of kids in one of her classes are making apps for smart phones and tablets with the assistance of the District’s technology specialist. “All of them are really amazing. I could see some of them being marketed,” she said of the apps.

“By creating a project like this, we’re able to create a hands-on project-based learning environment in the schools, and the out-of-school folks with their skills and expertise actually come in and help,” said Mr. Callam.

In addition, the sixth-graders were given a schedule that listed days and times they could visit and receive help in designing their model at the Library,  Metamedia at Foster, Metamedia at McGaw Y, Evanston Art Center, and Youth & Opportunity United’s makerspace. Some of the resources available at these maker-labs included a 3D printer, laser cutting, cardboard engineering, circuit board robotics and sensors, motorized/LEGO Robotics, video/digital graphic designing and plastics- molding.

 “What I love is that kids can go to Metamedia.  Kids are going there to get help in designing their model and free material. They can go to the library to get free material. Just seeing how they’ve taken to this is amazing. They don’t want to do anything else in class,” said Ms. Stone.

Mr. Callam said, “The inspiration of bringing in these organizations into the schools and also opening up their centers to actually help kids complete their projects in the out-of-school space …”

“That’s awesome. That’s what you want,” interjected Ms. Stone.

Under the referendum approved by voters in April 2017, an iPad was provided to all sixth-graders this year. Students are using their iPads to document project outcomes, reflect on their learning, track progress and showcase their work to share with fellow students and teachers, said Mr. Callam.

The approach promotes equity, because every student has a chance to participate in doing a project and getting the supports they need, he added.

A Sampling of Student Projects

The RoundTable had the opportunity to attend one of Ms. Stone’s science classes, observe the learning model in process and ask students about their projects.

Delcy Garfield said she is preparing a compost tray garden in her back yard. People can bring to her their compostable waste, such as orange rinds and banana peels. When it decomposes, Delcy plans to grow plants in the soil. When the plants grow, she plans to give one or more to the people who brought her their compostable waste.

“There’s 10.5 billion tons of trash in the ocean, and more than half of it could be composted,” said Delcy, adding she wants “to inspire people, especially in Evanston, to start composting more.” By giving people a plant,” she says, “they will see the benefit of composting.”

Delcy said at first she thought the project would be “boring,” but when she presented it at the innovation convention on April 24, “it was really fun. In a lot of my other classes, I’m usually writing stuff down to memorize, but here we did a lot of thinking on our own and the teachers weren’t as much in control of the project.”

Nelson Heck said he plans to take thermal energy from the ground using metal conductors and transfer the energy to batteries. He also said smoke from a fire can turn a fan and that can generate electricity that can also be stored in batteries. He said the batteries he has in mind would be very large, and “my idea is for them to be on the back of a truck and distributed to people throughout Evanston.”

Nelson said working on the projects “makes learning a lot more fun – you can learn new things along the way. I think schools should have a lot more of these projects.”

Penny Cohn said her project is to create a video infomercial about how to reduce waste by doing things such as starting to use reusable straws or just stop using disposable straws, and using reusable plastic containers instead of disposable plastic lunch bags or freezer bags. She wants to give a “dramatic” message in her infomercial so “people would be scared of wasting straws and throwing out plastic waste,” she said.

Penny said, “I like learning by working

on a project, because just listening in class is kind of boring.”

Ari Sushinski said she is working on a cell phone case that will be able to charge the phone using solar power. She said there are some out there, “but they’re not the best-looking ones.” She said she has watched videos on how to make a phone case and has gone to McGaw Y Metamedia for help on how to make a case using a 3D printer and how to use solar power to charge the batteries.

Ari said she liked to learn by working on this project. “It’s more interesting than just listening to a teacher teach,” she said.

Rachel Durango-Cohen said she is using waste to make colorful thumbtacks. She said when a person uses a 3-D printer, there is some leftover material from the base. She said she obtained some leftover material, heated it with a heat gun and molded the material into a cylinder to form the top part of the thumb tack. Next she cut the top off a screw, drilled a hole in the remaining top part of the screw to absorb some glue and then glued on the material she shaped from the 3-D process. She said staff at Metamedia helped her and a friend in this process.

Rachel said, “I prefer hands-on learning. I remember things easier.” She added, “This was more fun than learning with textbooks, because in textbooks you are just reading and writing and it’s not as interactive.”

Initial Judging and the Showcase at ETHS

On April 24, students presented their projects at an invention convention held at Nichols Middle School, and the judges provided students feedback and suggestions for their projects, said Ms. Stone. “The kids have a lot of enthusiasm. It boosted their confidence to come back and keep working on their projects.”

The day after the convention, Ms. Stone said, she received a letter from a student saying, “it changed her life.” She added that two low-motivated students who had been saying they thought the convention would be “lame,” later said, “It was actually fun. ”

The students are also scheduled to present their models at Evanston Township High School on May 16 between 6 and 8 p.m. Ms. Stone said the judges at the high school will provide students more feedback, and the kids will “keep growing as they keep redesigning.”

Project-Based Learning

 Ms. Stone received a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in May 2011. As a winner, she was able to take a one-year sabbatical from School District 65, and she studied how to redesign schools for the future at Northwestern University. She told the RoundTable she was struck that Finland was using a much more hands-on approach to teach engineering and design than schools in the United States. 

She became convinced that project-based learning was much more effective in engaging students, and that is essential to close the achievement gap.

Ms. Stone said, “We often don’t give kids a voice to express their thinking or how to collaborate. It’s often teacher driven – top-down, ‘Do as I say.’ That’s still persisting. Project-based learning is a beautiful way we can undue this old archaic model.

“No matter what color your skin is, no matter where you’re from, or how much English you speak or what your gender is, you can design something. Kids are creators,” said Ms. Stone.

Ms. Stone added that Zaretta Hammond’s research shows that inquiry-based learning can help to close the achievement gap. “This is where you’re going to see all kids shine and develop their skills, grow them where they feel empowered. Otherwise, it’s going to be the same old punitive system. … We really need this type of learning in all schools.”

In February, District 65 administrators said they planned to use a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy proposed by Ms.  Hammond, which says schools should implement instructional strategies “to help dependent learners do complex thinking. … We have to create school environments that welcome their natural ways of learning and shape content so that they see its connection to their lives and funds of knowledge.”  

 Mr. Callam likewise said, “Providing students with a local problem to address and giving them the choice on how to solve it, and giving them the supports to be successful, that’s what Zaretta Hammond talks about. That’s how you change the nature of their learning trajectory. You engage them and they want more.”

“And they feel good about themselves,” added Ms. Stone. “And often in the school system, they don’t feel good about themselves.”



Ari SushinskNelson HeckPenny CohnDelcy GarfieldRachel Durango-Cohen

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...