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+ JASON and the New Student Argonauts: Project-Based Learning

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From Edutopia.org, an article by Diane Curtis tells about sixth graders in Beverly Battle’s Washington DC class.  They will travel across town to participate in the latest JASON Project [2] expedition.  The project is the brainchild of Robert Ballard, who is most famous for his discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985.

The students are armed with well-researched questions.  They are treated to a satellite visit with Ballard and fellow JASON explorers — students and adults known as “Argonauts.”

The Argonauts may be excavating an ancient rainforest site in Colorado, studying the underwater population of puffins in Iceland, or examining tubeworms in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

Live: From a Volcano

On this day, Ballard is 5,000 miles and what seems like a million climate zones away from Washington DC, on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The main attraction is volcanoes, but the explorers are also tracing the migration paths of the state’s diverse population; cultivating native plant species on a wildlife refuge; and capturing albatross for the purpose  of banding them with ID bracelets.

Battle’s class has an hour to watch a live satellite feed and hear if one or more of their questions is asked of Ballard and his colleagues.  “Kids listen to kids, so we like to integrate them into the program,” says Ballard.

Beverly Battle’s students are well-prepared.  They began research on Hawaii the first week of school.  They studied volcanoes and Hawaiian culture; they read novels with Hawaiian themes.  They studied the flora and fauna of some Hawaiian islands, and they conducted classroom variations of experiments that the Argonauts will be conducting in the field.  Earlier, they had chatted with a Hawaiian ethnologist via the Internet.

The JASON Project

Ballard got the idea for the JASON Project (named after the heroic sailor-adventurer of Greek mythology) after he received 16,000 letters from students who were fascinated by the Titanic discovery and wanted to know how they could follow in the adventurous scientist’s footsteps.

“Kids are born scientists.  They have that flame of curiosity,” he says.  “Unfortunately, our system has had the ability to turn that curiosity off.”

He wanted to capitalize on children’s innate curiosity, and at the same time challenge them to become sophisticated researchers and learners.

“The idea is this: they will study a pretty tough curriculum — interlocking curriculum — science and chemistry, math and physics and biology, engineering sciences, social sciences as well… And then at the culmination of their studies, near the end of the year, we’ll do an expedition live for them.”

By taking huge numbers of students to remote parts of the world through technology and involving them in real explorations, Ballard estimates he has turned on 5 million kids to science since the program began.

Hands-on Progress

Gwendolyn Faulkner, former technology coordinator at Battle’s Harriet Tubman Elementary School, says they have witnessed profound, positive changes in the school’s inner city students.  Near;y all the students are low income and nearly half are English language learners.

“I’ve seen test scores of students rise because of the engagement in project-based learning,” she says. 

Project-based learning, she believes, creates an interest and excitement that inspires students to delve deeply and learn more.  The school’s commitment to using technology, and the children’s endless fascination with that technology, contribute to the success of this endeavor.  Each classroom has five to six computers.

The JASON Web site is hugely inviting and offers such interesting challenges that kids aren’t tempted to seek out games or other nonacademic pursuits.

“I saw my students mainstream out of the ESL (English as a Second Language) program into the mainstream classroom,” says Faulkner.  “I saw my mainstream students scoring three and four grades above their grade level on standardized tests.”

Says Faulker, “I’m a convert.”

Students Blossom

Beverly Battle says JASON brings the world into a classroom.  But it also helps close the digital divide and improve students’ academic, cooperative learning and social skills.  All this leads to fewer discipline problems.

Working on projects associated with JASON brought one student — who spoke no English at all when he arrived at the school — so out of his shell that he is now proficient in English and an eager participant.  Before, he wouldn’t want to talk if he was called on.  “Now,” says Battle, “he’s eager to answer… all the time.”

Part of the fun, says assistant principal Sharon Bovell, has to do with having a say in the direction of a project.  Project-based learning gives students choices, and they see learning as something adventurous as well as fun. 

When kids start a project, their job is to develop it.  They don’t know where it’s going.  “Then all of a sudden new and interesting facts come out,” says Bovell.  “That kind of excitement stimulates kids — gives them an opportunity to say, ‘I can do this.’  ”

Beverly Battle says she moved to projects when she found that she was tiring of the lecture format.  “And I said, ‘I know if I’m tired, my children are tired of it.’  ”

JASON makes it easy because it comes with projessional development and a complete curriculum attuned to state standards.  “Everything is there for you.  Multidisciplinary.  Multimedia.  It’s got assessment.  It’s got hands-on.  Everything a teacher would want is in JASON.”

Battle herself was even more prepared for the Hawaiian project, because she was among a group of teachers who did field studies in Hawaii for ten days in the summer prior to beginning the project with her students.  The teachers investigated botanical gardens, hiked on lava, and walked into a caldera — a volcanic crater.

The Technology Benefits

In this school, technology plays a major part in every project, not just JASON.   The Jason project employs not just the satellite but a range of technologies, from videos and fully interactive Internet programming to broadcast footage and online tools.  Technology has even allowed students to operate an underwater robot from thousands of miles away.

Battle’s students use digital cameras, scanners, PowerPoint, slides, art software, and spreadsheets to help build a portfolio.  They keep an online journal of their work.

There is also a benefit that doesn’t show up in portfolios, Faulkner feels.

“We are always hearing that companies want workers who are team players, who are able to go out and be problems solvers.”  She feels the JASON Project and other such efforts, which use technology as a tool, produce just such citizens.

“The students learn to be lifelong friends, to respect one another’s cultures… There’s so much that grows out of project-based learning.  It’s just as important as the content.”

But Ballard, the father of it all, points to the interest in science as the prime benefit of the JASON Project.  Even  with the Titanic discovery, “students weren’t making the connection between scientific adventure I was having and the dues I had to pay to live  that adventure.”

JASON has opened many students’ eyes to the need to stretch themselves, to take more and challenging science classes, to not be afraid of failure, and, above all, to find a passion.

sole source: Diane Curtis’s article at www.edutopia.org.  Curtis is an education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation, which  hosts Edutopia.org.

See also: http://www.jason.org/public/home.aspx; and http://www.edutopia.org/jason-project

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