The Main Course: Project-based Learning

Seeing something in action is powerful. It’s why classes take field trips, why residencies are an effective model for teacher preparation and why the Kauffman Foundation hosts Great Schools Visits. As a Kauffman associate, I have the privilege of traveling to schools and programs across the country doing exceptional work for students, regardless of their backgrounds, to inform our work and relationships in Kansas City.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit Charles R. Drew Charter School (Drew) in Atlanta. Established in 2000 as part of the Purpose Built Communities work to transform the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta, Drew has closed the achievement gap and become a model for high-quality STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) education and project-based learning. At Drew, “STEAM” and “project-based learning” are far from mere lingo, but rather a solid foundation of the school’s curricular philosophy (the “Drew Model”). It drives everything they do and has been the basis for their outstanding academic results.

From an early age, students at Drew learn through authentic exploration and communication. They engage in practical applications to address open-ended driving questions, participate in peer critiques to revise their work and demonstrate their learning in front of a real audience. Projects are embedded in students’ learning—a must-have, not an add-on. A Drew teacher explained project-based learning as “the main course, not the dessert.”


The STEAM-centered tinker yard designed and built by Drew students.

Here are a few highlights of the project-based learning I observed across various grades at Drew:

  • How do scientists classify animals? Kindergarten students participating in a peer critique, learning to provide feedback to their peers and iterating on their drawings based on this feedback. While to students it was simply a fun art activity, the real value was in the development of critical language skills and the ability to incorporate feedback into their work at an early age.  
  • If we designed a STEAM-based playground, what would it look like and how would it work? Elementary students playing on a student-developed, STEAM-centered “tinker yard.” Last year, second grade students conceived and designed the alternative playground, incorporated simple machines into each aspect of the design, then worked with engineers to actually build it. 
  • Is bling worth it? Third graders displaying their learning about blood diamonds and the related conflicts. It was amazing to see such high-level thinking about a complex issue (that even many adults don’t fully understand) happening at the elementary level.

Through a partnership with Urban Neighborhood Initiative and Kansas City Public Schools, the Drew Model will be replicated, within the local Kansas City context, as Kansas City Neighborhood Academy (KCNA). With support from the Kauffman Foundation and other key funders, KCNA will open in fall 2016, bringing the Drew Model to the students of Kansas City. KCNA will start in 2016-17 with pre-kindergarten through second grades, with plans to expand and serve prekindergarten through sixth grades.

As educators, our goal is to ensure that students leave our classrooms and our schools prepared to take on the “real world.” Drew does this through empowering students to own their learning and engage in authentic learning experiences. What models have you seen that stand out in your mind as truly preparing students for college and careers? 

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Amy Gale

Amy Gale is a program officer in Education for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where she manages projects around quality schools and human capital initiatives and identifies, researches, and builds relationships around emerging education-related projects.